Luzerne County’s ethics commission hired two outside attorneys last week to help process complaints that are piling up, including one still sealed in its envelope since July.
However, a county councilwoman and two citizens are questioning the approval process for those lawyers, arguing the commission did not fulfill requirements for a meeting quorum.
As required by the county’s home rule charter, the five-member commission is composed of the county manager, the elected district attorney and controller and two council-appointed citizens — one Democrat and one Republican. Both citizen seats are currently vacant.
The three county officials — Manager C. David Pedri, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis and Controller Michelle Bednar — met last week to approve the hiring of outside attorneys Nanda Palissery and Michael Sharkey at $140 per hour.
The commission had been trying for months to attract three outside attorneys as required by the council-adopted ethics code to handle initial investigations on a rotating basis and recommend whether cases should be dismissed or upgraded to formal matters heard by the commission. An applicant for the third lawyer slot has not surfaced.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck and two citizens — Brian Shiner and Walter Griffith — are challenging the legality of the vote because no citizen commission member participated in the attorney hiring decision.
The charter says any three ethics 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.
McClosky Houck sent an email asking Pedri, Salavantis and Bednar to reconsider and nullify last week’s meeting decisions. Her email also went to Chief County Solicitor Romilda Crocamo, who had concluded the attorney hiring by the three county officials was permissible.
“For anyone to declare that the ACE Code does not prevail in the definition of what constitutes a quorum is a slap in the face of home rule government, and particularly negates the role of citizens in the oversight of ethical government operations,” McClosky Houck wrote.
Council had added the citizen member stipulation to avoid an “‘insider’ quorum that is possible without citizen participation in a meeting,” she wrote.
McClosky Houck also pointed to a section of the charter that says “more stringent regulations and penalties shall control” when applicable laws differ from the county ethics code.
Respect for county codes is a “grave concern,” she wrote, noting she currently serves on a council committee reviewing updates to all county codes, including the ethics one.
Crocamo said Friday she will soon release a written opinion on the matter, but she stressed she is not asserting the ethics code quorum requirement should be ignored.
Crocamo said she interpreted the “more stringent regulations and penalties” clause as applying to the commission’s involvement in determining the outcome of ethics complaints. She agreed a citizen must be part of a quorum in deciding complaints but not for the procedural hiring of outside attorneys needed so the commission can deal with actual complaints.
“My position at the meeting was that the appointment of an attorney is not a regulation or sanction,” she said.
Pedri told council there are currently 34 pending complaints, and the outside attorneys will each handle 17 once their contracts are signed.
It’s unclear when the two unpaid citizen seats will be filled.
Griffith, a prior county controller, publicly interviewed for the Republican seat and was listed on the eligibility list for consideration at last week’s council meeting.
Council Vice Chairman Eugene Kelleher described Griffith’s interview as “excellent,” but he said a legal opinion was needed.
Griffith had pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of obstructing the administration of law for illegally recording three conversations in 2010 and 2011 when he previously served as county controller. The county law office said it would be seeking an outside legal opinion to prevent a conflict.
Council members Edward Brominski and Stephen A. Urban criticized the handling of Griffith’s prospective appointment, and both nominated him for the seat.
“We’ve got to get this ACE Commission moving, and no one is interested in doing it. We only have one person with the fortitude to stand up and do it, and that is Walter Griffith,” Brominski said.
A council majority tabled the appointment.
Griffith withdrew his name from consideration during public comment later in the meeting. He said he submitted his application to help out because there were none, but he does not want taxpayers to pay for an outside attorney.
He said outside legal reviews of many other aspects of county government are warranted.
“Shame on you all. You should be all as pure as snow, every one of you,” Griffith said. “I bet if I look in your closets, I’ll find lots of stuff.”
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.