Luzerne County Council tables a proposed residency requirement

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | March 8th, 2016 11:11 pm

The Luzerne County Council tabled a proposed residency requirement for managers Tuesday.

The ordinance would require the next top manager and department and division heads to live in the county within three months of their hiring. Employees hired before the ordinance takes effect would not be subject to the requirement.

Ray Whalen, who serves on the county’s Children and Youth Advisory Board, asked the council Tuesday to omit human service departments from the residency requirement to prevent delays filling management positions.

Whalen said seven out of 100 applicants for the vacant Children and Youth executive director position were deemed qualified for interviews according to state welfare parameters, and only one resides in the county.

“If these positions are hard to fill, why would you want to make it harder?” Whalen asked.

He pointed out the driving distance from the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre to center city Hazleton, which is in the county, is greater than the distance between the Luzerne County Courthouse and Lackawanna County Courthouse in Scranton.

Councilman Tim McGinley said the ordinance introduced by a council majority last month is missing a definition of residency and maintained the three-month relocation deadline is a “very short time frame.”

Assistant Solicitor Shannon Crake said policies in some governments define residence as a primary abode where an employee eats and sleeps, while others define it as the place a worker is registered to vote.

McGinley also asked his colleagues if they are prepared to leave vacant management positions unfilled indefinitely if there are no qualified applicants within the county or willing to move to the county.

Acting county Manager C. David Pedri, who applied for the permanent manager position, said he was born and raised in the county, is proud to be a county resident and has hired county residents in his position as chief county solicitor.

However, Pedri said he has several concerns with the ordinance as drafted.

While he supports requiring county residency for the higher-paid manager and eight division heads, he does not believe the ordinance should apply to department heads.

Several high-performing department heads, including some current ones, have lived over the county line and likely would not have accepted county employment if they had been forced to sell their homes and relocate their families for positions paying $40,000 to $50,000, he said.

Pedri said he would support a residency requirement for the heads of departments involved in emergency response, such as the 911, emergency management, the sheriff’s office, prison and engineering.

Temporary or interim managers also should not be required to relocate, and he agreed with McGinley’s argument that the three-month relocation deadline should be extended, saying the county has a 45-day probation period for all new management hirings. Pedri proposed 12 months to relocate but stressed he would comply with the council’s decision.

Crake has said a residency requirement imposed on a single or small number of employees likely would be deemed unconstitutional if challenged, which is why all department heads were added. She said Tuesday she does not foresee a problem with legality if the ordinance covers only emergency-related department heads in addition to the top manager and division heads.

Several council members reiterated their support for the concept. Eileen Sorokas said she is a lifelong county resident and believes the county has residents “intelligent enough to run a department correctly.”

“I’d like to see our own people get chosen for the job,” she said.

Jane Walsh Waitkus said she’s a “big supporter” of the proposal.

Council members Harry Haas and Rick Williams voted against the tabling and opposed the ordinance. Haas said it “handicaps” the county from obtaining the “best candidate possible.” Williams said the council and administration should retain the freedom to make a judgment call on whether a top contender should be ruled out due to an unwillingness to relocate to the county.

In other business, the citizen search committee that will recommend three county manager finalists to the council must provide the names in alphabetical order with no ranking, the council unanimously agreed Tuesday.

Councilman Eugene Kelleher made the suggestion to ensure he and his colleagues have full power to reach their own conclusion on which one of the three will be offered the position.

A ranked finalist list could bias the council’s own independent review and open up the county to liability if the council does not select the committee’s top choice.

The five-member committee, which is required by the home rule charter, has received 14 applications for the position, although one dropped out. The deadline for mailed or emailed submissions was midnight Friday.

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash questioned if the council should consider extending the application deadline attempting to increase the number of applicants. Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck said the council has no authority under the charter to force the committee to delay its review.

The council also appointed Republican Anne N. Davies to the county election board, which will address concerns about board vacancies leading up to the April 26 primary election.

Council delays vote on making managers live in county

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.