Luzerne County manager search off to a rocky start

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | April 16th, 2016 4:07 pm

The selection of Luzerne County’s next top manager is now in the county council’s hands, and some battle lines already have been drawn.

The resumes and applications of three manager finalists submitted by a citizen search committee were emailed to 10 of the 11 county council members Friday.

Councilman Edward Brominski did not receive this email because he informed council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck Thursday that he is not participating in the process, saying it is a “charade” because the selection of acting county Manager C. David Pedri is a done deal.

“I cannot in good conscience participate in this debacle,” Brominski wrote.

He said he is so confident in his prediction, he will publicly apologize and donate four of his council paychecks to charity at a public meeting if he is wrong. Brominski said he was basing his assertion on information supplied from two confidants.

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash also said she received information alleging Pedri had a lock on the post if his name was among the three finalists submitted by the committee.

A source confirmed Pedri was one of the finalists, but the identity of the other two could not be obtained. The council has not decided if or when the names of the finalists will be publicly released.

“The fix is in, so what’s the point of having interviews?” Dobash said.

Seven council votes — a “super majority” — are required to hire the manager under the county’s home rule charter.

Different take

Several council members said they have no preconceived plans to pick anyone.

“All candidates will be evaluated fairly and with an open mind based on their qualifications for the position,” McClosky Houck said.

Councilman Rick Williams said he briefly reviewed the email Friday and believes they are “all interesting candidates.”

“I look forward to meeting with the candidates and hearing their thoughts,” Williams said.

Eugene Kelleher said he believes Pedri is “doing a fantastic job” as interim manager but would not pledge advance support to any applicant.

“If I’d already made up my mind, I should resign,” Kelleher said. “I would not be doing my job if I didn’t look at all finalists.”

Kelleher said pledging to oppose an applicant before the review process is also inappropriate.

“I heard a rumor that a council member and one of the members of the manager search committee already made their mind up that they didn’t want Pedri to be hired. Is that true?” Kelleher said.

Haas said the council will thoroughly interview all finalists and uniformly rate them using protocol deployed when Robert Lawton was hired as the first manager shortly after the home rule government’s January 2012 implementation. Lawton resigned the end of 2015.

“We must do our due diligence. The next manager will be taking the county to the next level, and I’m envisioning this person being here for a long time,” Haas said.

McClosky Houck said interviews will be scheduled soon, and the council will ask all finalists the same questions to be fair. She plans to use the ranking module from the first search but will ask her council colleagues if they want to propose any revisions.

Background checks, personality assessments and other screening of the finalists completed by the search committee will be available for all council members to review, McClosky Houck said.

Manager search

Some members of the citizen search committee, which is required by home rule, voiced concerns during their final meeting last week.

Committee Chairman Michael Giamber abstained from the vote to forward the names to the council, saying he believes the committee should continue trying to recruit more applicants. The committee as a group had ranked the three finalists as qualified, but none made it to the “highly” or “superior” qualification level using the committee’s detailed evaluation matrix, he said. Giamber said the charter requires the committee to “recommend” finalists.

Several committee members said the committee fulfilled the council’s directive to furnish the three most qualified applicants from among the 14 who applied, although they did not understand why the council didn’t want to hear their feedback and expertise on how the finalists were evaluated and ranked.

Council issued this directive to the committee in March due to a concern a ranked list and other input from the committee could bias the council’s own independent review and open up the county to liability if the council did not select the committee’s top choice.

Kingston Mayor Jim Haggerty, a home-rule charter drafter, said Friday the citizen search committee was free to submit the information in the format it wanted after listening to input and suggestions from the council.

“It’s up to the committee to determine how it wants to make its recommendations. The committee doesn’t work for the council,” said Haggerty, who volunteered for the search committee but was not selected by a council majority.

Charter drafters opted to involve a committee of experienced citizens in the recommendation process with a goal of reducing the potential for political intervention, Haggerty said.

Haggerty had envisioned the search committee presenting a menu of finalist options to the council based on their strengths and weaknesses.

The search committee, which spent more than 100 hours on the recruitment and selection process since the end of December, used a numbered scale categorizing the applicants ’ qualification level in several areas, including leading change, business acumen and achieving results.

Haggerty acknowledged the applicant pool may be limited based on the salary or willingness to work in the county.

“Someone with skills and motivation can turn out to be a great manager with seasoning,” he said.

Some have expressed skepticism re-advertising the position would yield additional applicants.

The county received 72 applications when the manager position was last advertised in 2011.

Observers have attributed the reduction in applications to the county’s continued financial struggles, a possible future change in home rule that could impact the manager position, additional requirements for applicants to provide narratives illustrating their experience, a new manager county residency requirement and the manager ’s potential challenges dealing with a sometimes contentious county council.

The position also was advertised at an unusually broad salary range — $96,565 to $175,572 — because the council decided to stick with the charter compensation wording.

The citizen manager search committee had proposed advertising the position at $140,000 to $160,000, which was the amount budgeted in 2016 based on a compensation comparison. Lawton had received $110,000.

Pedri support

Pedri has gained widespread support from the county workforce since temporarily switching from chief solicitor to acting manager in January. Many glowing reviews stem from his high-energy efforts to promote the work performed by employees, speed up decision-making, fill vacant positions and establish clear goals.

The introduction of a newcomer who will need time to become acclimated and may not bring as much to the table as Pedri could be counterproductive, according to five managers interviewed for this story.

Still, some workers say navigation of the county’s budget crisis will be the real test of the next manager.

“It’s good to focus on staff and morale, but the issue always boils down to budget, budget, budget,” one said.

The county’s deficit was $16.9 million the end of 2014, and the 2015 audit now in the works will show if there’s been any progress whittling it down.

The $130 million operating budget adopted by a council majority for 2016 relied on $7 million in one-time revenue, including $4.7 million from a suspended county homestead tax break on primary residences.

A council majority had planned to use the homestead money in 2016 and 2017 to help clear the deficit so the county could start building a reserve.

The county also faces rising employee pension fund subsidies but achieved gains in recent union contracts requiring more workers to contribute at least 10 percent toward health insurance coverage.

Fight shaping up over county’s top administrative post

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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