The differing perceptions of Luzerne County controller candidates Michelle Bednar and Walter Griffith are highlighted in letters two county council members released in recent days passionately endorsing their picks for the office.
Councilman Eugene Kelleher said his choice, Bednar, is a “credible, competent, and experienced public official” who has saved taxpayers approximately $250,000 and significantly increased morale, efficiency and professional integrity since she took office in January 2014.
”Michelle Bednar is an unassuming, quiet, competent public servant. She is not egocentric, boastful or media driven. She respects her staff and has total confidence in their abilities,” he wrote.
In contrast, Councilwoman Kathy Dobash urged voters to select Griffith in Tuesday’s general election, describing Bednar as a “do nothing” controller who fails to publicly question or examine fiscal matters of interest to county taxpayers.
“Bednar’s campaign promised to be the eyes and ears for the taxpayers,” Dobash wrote. “No more silence from the controller’s office.”
The controller is paid $64,999 annually through a four-year term and is the “independent watchdog over county fiscal and management activities,” according to the county’s home rule charter, which took effect in January 2012.
Griffith, a 63-year-old auto repair business owner and Republican from Kingston Township, wants to return to the controller seat he held from 2010 until 2013, when he resigned as part of a plea agreement for allegedly recording two phone calls related to office matters and a closed-door executive session without permission of the parties involved.
“I understand I made a mistake with recording, but I was fighting for the people, and I will never apologize for representing the people,” Griffith said this week.
While home rule took away the controller’s power to hold up questionable payments before money goes out the door, the charter gave the controller authority to conduct audits of any county department, authority, board or commission. The controller has latitude to conduct a wide range of reviews, including fiscal, performance, management, contract and compliance audits.
Griffith maintains his willingness to speak out publicly and turn over many rocks to see if anything is there is important.
“The controller has unfettered access. The controller is the only independent voice we have in the county,” he said.
Bednar, 51, a Democrat from Conyngham Township, said her decision to stay in her seat at council meetings and rarely seek out media coverage should not be interpreted as inaction.
“I’m doing my job, but I don’t report every five cents I find,” Bednar said, noting many of her counterparts in other government entities are still effective without being in the limelight.
Bednar said she and her staff of four methodically complete audits, all posted on the county website, www.luzernecounty.org, and she regularly offers recommendations on procedure and protocol improvements behind the scenes.
The county received $250,000 through her office’s audit findings, she said.
Her office also initiated the county’s contract to obtain hotel tax receipts from Airbnb — an online platform that connects people with available residential lodging — that has resulted in approximately $4,000 in revenue since July, said Bednar, who worked as an office manager for Newbridge Securities Corp. in Wilkes-Barre and a township tax collector before taking office.
Bednar also said she prioritizes focus areas to avoid adding staff or hiring consulting auditors at a cost to taxpayers.
“When I first came into office, I saw one of the outside audits that had been done before I got there was $25,000. There’s no way I’m going to do outside audits because we don’t have the money,” she said.
But Griffith said the controller’s office currently focuses on “low-hanging fruit” while missing opportunities to flag more questionable spending or lost revenue — scrutiny that should be welcomed by council and the administration.
He said he would conduct in-house examinations of many contracts, revenue-generating offices and budget transfers. The controller also can seek legal representation if potential charter violations are not addressed by council or the administration, he said.
“The controller is critical to be able to talk to people to point out concerns — not in a punitive way, but in an informative way,” he said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.