Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Haggerty Elected Chairman of Home Rule Commission

Mayor Jim Haggerty of Kingston (pictured to the left) has been elected chairman of the Luzerne County Home Rule Commission at the commission's inaugural meeting held Wednesday evening at Wyoming Seminary.
Veronica Ciaruffoli was elected Vice Chairperson, and Rick Morelli was elected Treasurer.

Haggerty is the three term mayor of the Municipality of Kingston and a practicing attorney. Kingston has operated under a home rule charter since 1976.

The commission is charged with the following:

"The government study commission shall study the form of government of the municipality to compare it with other available forms under the laws of this Commonwealth and determine whether or not in its judgment the government could be strengthened or made more clearly responsible or accountable to the people or whether its operation could become more economical or efficient under a changed form of government."


"The government study commission shall report its findings and recommendations to the citizens of the municipality within nine months from the date of its election except that it shall be permitted an additional nine months if it elects to prepare and submit a proposed home rule charter and an additional two months if it chooses to elect its municipal council by districts."

The commission also appointed a budget committee comprised of the elected officers to approach the county for money to fulfill its mandate of studying the county government.

The commission plans to meet every Wednesday at 7:00 pm at the Stettler Learning Resources Center, Sprague Avenue, Kingston.

Public or Private

We want a comprehensive study done of Luzerne County government, and that will not happen if every meeting, every hearing, and every proceeding is open to the public. The study commission needs to meet in private (at certain times) in order to find out what works and what doesn't work in county government.

The debate on whether to have private meetings became very public when commission member Walter Griffith released e-mail correspondence between other commission members and him. Mark Guydish of the Times Leader got into the fray and fell down on the side of "all public, all the time."

Griffith, Guydish, and others are just plain wrong on this issue on political and legal terms.

We had OVC legal correspondent, Bruce Haller research the issue for us. Here are some of his findings.

"Home Rule" is governed by Pennsylvania Statutes, particularly Title 53, Chapter 29. With regards to meetings, Section 2920 states:

"The government study commission shall hold one or more public hearings, may hold private hearings and sponsor public forums and generally shall provide for the widest possible public information and discussion respecting the purposes and progress of its work."

The reason for private hearings is quite obvious, and we believe is why the commonwealth allows a commission to meet in private. It is analogous to the concept behind whistle blower statutes.

How can we expect to get an honest and unbiased account of the workings of county government if every interview of current county employees is subject to the scrutiny of the witness's fellow employees, the general public, and his or her boss?

Let's take the following example. The commission is looking into the inner workings of the clerk of courts office. Does anyone truly believe that a current employee is going to tell the commission at a public hearing that many of his fellow employees' jobs are unnecessary or that the office of prothonotary and clerk of courts should be combined, resulting in the layoff of half the staffs? It aint gonna happen.

If the commission decides to hold all public hearings, they will not get the honest look at county government, which the public wants and so desperately needs.

Griffith, Guydish, and others believe the Pennsylvania "Sunshine Act" applies to the home rule commission. Bruce also looked into this issue.

The Sunshine Act only applies to "agencies." The agency definition in the Sunshine Act does not include home rule commissions. Bruce also reviewed the dozen or so "home rule" cases which have made it to the courts of the commonwealth. None provided any guidance, either way, on whether home rule commissions are governed by the Sunshine Act.

When we look further into the Sunshine Act, we see that agencies may meet in private to discuss certain issues. Personnel matters, collective bargaining matters, the purchase or lease of property, ongoing litigation, and matters involving lawful privilege are the exceptions to the public meeting standard.

It is not conceivable that the commission would ever fall into one of these exceptions. If is also nonsensical to believe that the home rule laws written by the commonwealth would provide a private meeting option if the Sunshine Act prohibited such meetings.

Face it, the Sunshine Act does not apply and thankfully so.

We would end our discussion with that, but Guydish and Griffith make us continue.

After pontificating about the need of a "no exceptions" rule to public meetings of the home rule commission, Guydish wrote:

"Commission members can call each other outside of meetings, they can exchange documents, thoughts and ideas when they are not together. "

This raises another issue, besides the fact that Guydish believes closed door meetings among a few members to hammer out the details and make the real decisions is fine, as long as they meet as a "committee of the whole" at a later date and run through the motions.

The issue is that committee member Griffith has already decided that everything the commission does is public, including e-mail messages between commission members. He has already provided e-mails concerning the "public/private meetings" debate to the Times Leader and other media outlets.

We strongly believe that most of the meetings of the commission should be held in the public, but we also strongly believe that the commission should and must, within its own discretion, meeting in private when necessary.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Another Day, Another Federal Subpoena

OVC has confirmed that Judge Mike Toole's tip staff, Thomas Marino has been served with a federal subpoena with regards to the ongoing corruption scandal in Luzerne County. An independent source familiar with the Wilkes-Barre jurist has corroborated the Times Leader story which appeared online today.

OVC wrote a few months ago that rumors were abound that Toole had come under suspicion from his days as a solicitor to the Wilkes-Barre Area School District. Two members of the Wilkes-Barre school board have resigned, including board president Jim Height. Brian Dunn has also resigned.

Height pled guilty last month to federal corruption charges, and Dunn has been charged federally, also.

More to come in the future.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Paperwork Prevents People From Seeking Public Office

Every so often we read a letter to the editor which strikes our fancy. Today was such a day when we read Democratic Kingston Council candidate Curt Piazza's letter to the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader.

Piazza ran unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination to face incumbent Mayor Jim Haggerty (pictured to the left) in November. Piazza was defeated by Stephen Radzinski 494 to 402 in the May 19th primary.

Piazza wrote a letter to the editor, which appeared today in the Times Leader. He wrote it in response to the Times Leader's assertion that Piazza secured his council nomination the "easy way." The Times Leader was referring to the fact that Piazza was only one of two candidates on the ballot for four open council seats. Incumbents Republican council members Mike Jacobs and Sandy Kase won write-in nods on the Democratic side as well as winning Republican nominations.

Piazza took issue with this. He wrote:

"First there’s the paperwork: You have to follow the directions to the letter to fill out your nominating petitions. Then you have to trek out into the bitter cold to ask your fellow citizens and party members to sign your petitions. (This requires exactness too). Sometimes you have to put up with disgruntled residents slamming the door in your face.

Then you have to get your paperwork notarized and pay those fees. Then you submit your paperwork to the Election Bureau, hoping it will be approved. Then you have to submit a copy of the Statement of Financial Interests to your municipality.

All this takes a lot of time, patience and legwork; it’s not for the faint-hearted."

There are some interesting points to Piazza's writing. Piazza's biggest hurdle seems to be the "paperwork." In any borough in Pennsylvania such as Kingston, in order to appear on the primary ballot, one must get ten signatures from registered voters in his or her political party (actually nine, because you can sign your own petition.)

We are also curious why Piazza would have to "trek out into the bitter cold," since according to voter registration records, Piazza is residence is in a public housing building which encompasses at least fifty units. Records also show that many more than nine registered Democrats reside in that same building.

Be that as it may, if you have trouble finding nine registered voters of your party to sign a nomination petition (Jeddo Borough may be the exception,) you probably shouldn't be running for office.

Piazza's second bone of contention is the "statement of financial interest." The statement is a one page form which must be submitted by all candidates with your nomination petition. The form requires one to list their name, address, the office sought, occupation, real estate interests, direct sources of income, creditors, and interests in any business entities. The dollar amounts are not required.

Hardly a arduous task, ... or is it. Maybe Piazza has a point.

Piazza's opponent, and Democratic nominee Radzinski for mayor seemed to have a little trouble with this simple requirement. In a mistake which could have taken him off the ballot, if timely challenged by a Kingston Democrat such as Piazza , Radzinski filed his Statement of Financial Interest one week after the deadline. This is a fatal error which requires removal from the primary ballot. No such challenge was filed against Radzinski.

Being mayor of a town of 13,000 residents requires the preparation, reviewing, and filing of a lot of "paperwork." We wonder how overwhelmed Piazza would have been if he had won in May and then in the Fall. We also hope that candidate Radzinski is a little more careful and attentive if he ever becomes Mayor Radzinski.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Final Post Mortem

Buzz had his annual post Memorial Day computer geek retreat in upstate New York, so we've fallen a little behind, but let's take one final look at the May primary in Luzerne County.

For the first time in a long time, the Luzerne County GOP decided to endorse candidates in a primary election. We covered the GOP endorsement in a prior blog. They endorsed in two uncontested contests --- Register of Wills and Jury commissioner --- along with two judicial endorsements and an endorsement in both the Prothonotary and and Controller races. They went 2 and 2.

When Terry Casey became the head of the Luzerne County GOP last year, he promised a new revitalized GOP. Things looked promising at the beginning of this year with the opening of a county headquarters, the hiring of a full time executive director, and getting Karl Rove to speak to a large crowd at its annual dinner. The endorsement of primary candidates also seemed like a good start.

With the GOP hurting badly on a national level, the myriad of Democratic scandals in Luzerne County gives promise to the county GOP. Since the county is so predominately Democratic, even to the point that such former GOP strongholds like Kingston and Forty Fort have switched from red to blue in the registration department, it is no wonder that all of the tainted public officials so far are Democrats. What a time for a county GOP resurgence.

The county GOP endorsed the only 2 registered Republicans out of seventeen who sought the judge seats. Attorney Richard Hughes won the top spot, just barely, on the GOP side. Attorney Mike Pendolphi, the other GOPer finished a dismal 14 out of 17. On the Democratic side, Hughes finished 14 and Pendolphi finished dead last. It doesn't look the the county Democrats are willing to put their full faith and support behind a Republican. Hughes is going to have trouble this fall, but that's the subject of another posting in the future.

In the controller and prothonotary races, the county GOP endorsed Carolee Medico Olenginski for proth and Attorney Nanda Palissery for controller. Olenginski won, but Palissery finished fourth in a five person race.

OVC knows that both Walter Mitchell and Nanda Palissery were recruited by the county GOP leadership to run for the respective offices. This recruitment was accompanied with promises of endorsements, limiting opposition, organizational support, and mostly importantly, money. The leadership failed to secure the endorsement for Mitchell, and failed to provide financial or any other support for the endorsed candidates. In the proth's race it was mostly due to lackluster enthusiasm for the endorsed candidate, but in the controller's race it just seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm in general.

The Protyhonotary race was an uphill battle for Mitchell. Olenginski had a great edge in name recognition throughout the county, having been the elected prothonotary for four years from 1998 to 2002. She also was able to portray herself as a victim of the corrupt Democratic machine. Without financial or organizational backing, Mitchell's campaign was doomed from the start.

Olenginski faces political newcomer Nancy McGinley Bellas in the fall, and we believe this may be the race to watch. Eventhough Olenginski's tenure at the prothonotary's office was filled with what we may term "erratic" and "eccentric" behavior, her public image is that of someone who was victimized by the good ol' boy network. Olenginski has a good chance of become Luzerne County's last "elected" prothonotary. We say "elected," because home rule will almost certainly eliminate this as an elected position.

The controller's race is a different story. Bob Morgan faced no opposition in the primary and appears to be a strong candidate. Walter Griffith, on the other hand, is a poor candidate whose only appeal is his misleading pledge to be a "full time" controller, and the fact that he has read the county code from cover to cover. We hate to break this to him, but there's a big difference between reading and understanding. Where we have no doubt that Griffith read the code from cover to cover, his actions throughout the past few years have shown, also with no doubt that he does not comprehend or understand what he read.

Morgan will outspend Griifth by a considerable margin. He has the ability to raise a lot of money, whereas Griffith does not. Griffith is thought of as something of a parlor joke within the GOP money circle in Luzerne County, so don't expect the big checks to flow into the Griifth war chest.

Griffith won the primary on name recognition alone. His name has been on the ballot and in the news for the past few years. The name reconition factor is obvious by the fact that former Democratic county commissioner Edd Brominski finished a strong second on the GOP side. Voters knew the name.

Voters focused primarily and almost exclusively on the judicial races, and we'd be willing to wager the UNIVAC 3000 on the fact that most voters didn't even realize there was a race for controller or prothonotary on the ballot until the screen appeared on the ES&S iVotronic touch screen voting system. In these types of races, name recognition always triumphs.

Griffith will be outmatched by organization and money come November, and Bob Morgan will cruise to victory. The GOP missed an opportunity here to take over the controller seat, which in all likelihood will remain an elected position when the county final turns to home rule.