Luzerne County Council member interaction with workers and manager debated

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | September 24th, 2016 7:39 pm

Luzerne County Councilman Edward Brominski wants to set boundaries on council interactions with the appointed manager and county employees.

The push is part of an ongoing debate about the powers and duties of the council and the manager under the customized home rule government, which will mark its fifth anniversary in January. In an attempt to reduce politics, home rule charter drafters included a ban on council member interference in day-to-day operations.

The council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the introduction of Brominski’s proposed ordinance to restrict council members’ presence in county offices.

During a recent work session, Brominski accused some unidentified council colleagues of regularly spending hours at the courthouse.

He suggested forbidding council members from:

• Meeting with the county manager unless the meeting and purpose are sanctioned by the council or specifically authorized in the charter

• Meeting with the manager’s staff to discuss, obtain information or conduct investigations without the county manager’s prior approval or direct authorization by council

• Conducting meetings with the public in county facilities to discuss county business unless the council is notified in advance and briefed on the topics discussed in a follow-up report within two business days.

Brominski said some council members are overstepping their bounds with a “continued presence in the courthouse.” He compared the situation to elected school board members repeatedly sitting in on teachers’ classes and walking school halls.

“If it’s county business, we should be informed about it. If it’s not county business, you shouldn’t be there because it’s interference,” Brominski said.

Councilman Rick Williams said it’s clear council members supervise the council clerk but can’t provide directives to other county employees.

“I do think that we should have the ability to communicate, particularly with the manager and the staff, to hear ideas and ask questions. But at no point should we direct them,” Williams said.

Brominski said such information should be shared with the entire legislative body.

“It’s like saying a member of the U.S. Congress should not speak to the president or his staff,” Williams replied.

Councilman Eugene Kelleher asked county Manager C. David Pedri if he was aware of any complaints from workers about council members interfering with them performing their work.

Pedri said he hasn’t received complaints and is fully aware of the charter restrictions. He said he doesn’t have hours to meet with someone because his days are “insane” with work.

Brominski said a county employee had complained to a superior several years ago about Brominski’s several-minute visit with a sheriff worker when Brominski was at the courthouse conducting personal business. Pedri said he would not characterize Brominski’s visit as interference and said the council members are free to stop by offices to greet workers.

County Councilman Stephen A. Urban said there’s always been a “double standard” on which council members are viewed as positive or negative presences in the building.

Outside public meetings, Urban said he only visits the building to pay his taxes and research deeds or maps. In comparison, he worked in the building as county commissioner before home rule, which replaced the three elected county commissioners with an appointed manager and 11-member, part-time council.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with this building because I know I’m not welcome in this building. I haven’t been welcomed in this building for a long time since home rule came in place,” Urban said.

He said all council business should be conducted in the council meeting room so it is “transparent to everyone.”

Councilman Harry Haas said he “can’t imagine” spending hours a day at the courthouse but believes his occasional random visits have value so he can “have a pulse on the operations.” The council must approve major contracts, the annual county budget and a capital plan under home rule.

“I generally find people are grateful that a council member took time to take a look and see what’s actually going on. As we make decisions that impact on the operations, I think it’s important that we get around and get to talk to some people once in a while,” Haas, a public school teacher, said, noting he has no problem with school board members sitting in on his classrooms.

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash said she’s “in and out” and “does not bother anyone” when she’s in county offices for personal business. She said she welcomed classroom visits when she previously worked as a public school art educator but supports Brominski’s proposal to ensure all council members are informed when county business is discussed at private meetings.

Brominski wants to limit time council members can spend in courthouse

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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