Luzerne County solicitor releases opinion on ethics meeting

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - jandes@timesleader.com
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Luzerne County Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo issued a ruling Monday standing by her decision that the county ethics commission had a required quorum when three of five members hired outside attorneys last week.

County Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck and two citizens have questioned the legality of the meeting because two citizen commission seats are vacant.

The county’s home rule charter says any three commission members shall constitute a quorum and have the power to perform the functions of the commission.

But the council-adopted ethics code — officially called the Accountability, Conduct, and Ethics Code, nicknamed ACE — enhances the requirement, saying one of the three constituting a quorum must be a citizen member.

The three county officials who met last week — Manager C. David Pedri, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis and Controller Michelle Bednar — are required to serve on the commission under the charter.

Crocamo said the county law office’s position is based on specific charter language and the principles of statutory interpretation.

She cited a charter clause outlining the scope of the ethics code. It says the county ethics code shall incorporate the state Ethics Act, and “more stringent regulations and penalties shall control” when the county code differs from the state act or other applicable laws.

“The hiring of an ACE Commission attorney is neither a regulation nor a penalty. Rather, such action is ministerial or procedural in nature,” Crocamo wrote.

Regulations refer to conduct, standards and behaviors that must be followed by county employees, she said.

“The drafters of the charter had the foresight and vision to specify when the ACE Code applies. Had the drafters intended the ‘more stringent’ requirement to apply to all conflicts between the charter and the code the relevant language would simply read ‘… the more stringent laws shall control,’” Crocamo wrote.

McClosky Houck had sent an email asking Pedri, Salavantis and Bednar to reconsider and nullify last week’s meeting decisions.

Council had added the citizen member stipulation to avoid an “‘insider’ quorum that is possible without citizen participation in a meeting,” McClosky Houck had said. She believes the “more stringent” clause applies to all commission decisions.

McClosky Houck said Monday she disagrees with the interpretation.

“I’m not surprised she is defending her ruling, but it still doesn’t make it correct,” McClosky Houck said. “We have to abide by the code because it is a law that is binding on everyone, just as the charter is.”

McClosky Houck said she is considering contacting the state ethics commission about the matter.

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By Jennifer Learn-Andes

jandes@timesleader.com

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

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