Luzerne County Council set to vote tonight on study commission ordinance introduction

Luzerne County Council set to vote tonight on study commission ordinance introduction

Instead of waiting two weeks, Luzerne County Council will vote tonight on the introduction of an ordinance asking voters if they want to reexamine the home rule government structure.

If the ordinance is introduced by at least four of 11 council members tonight, it would require a public hearing and majority council approval at a subsequent meeting to be placed on the ballot.

Council was originally only scheduled to discuss the ordinance at tonight’s work session, but the introduction was moved to the voting session at the urging of Councilman Brian Thornton.

Thornton said Monday he supports the ballot question suggested by Councilman Stephen J. Urban and argued the introduction vote should not be delayed because the home rule charter indicates any council member is free to propose an ordinance.

Time also is a factor, said county Controller Walter Griffith, who has publicly called for formation of a new elected government study commission.

For the study commission question to be placed on the May 16 primary ballot, state law says a council-adopted ordinance must be presented to the county election board before at least 13 Tuesdays preceding the election, or Feb. 14, Griffith said. Council has only one more regular voting meeting scheduled before Feb. 14, which is on Jan. 24. That means the final vote on the ordinance must occur on Jan. 24 unless a special meeting is scheduled.

The other option — a petition signed by voters — would be a daunting mission due to the number of signatures required in a short circulation window, Griffith said. The law says a referendum petition must be circulated between the 20th Tuesday preceding the election — in this case Dec. 27 — and 13th Tuesday, or Feb. 14. A total 5,808 voters would have to sign the petition, or 5% of the votes cast in the last governor’s race.

“That’s not doable. That’s why it’s imperative for council to let the people decide,” Griffith said.

Urban is proposing a seven-citizen commission. Citizens interested in serving would run in the primary, with the top seven vote-getters taking office if the ballot question passed. These commission members would then have up to 18 months to study the current structure and decide if they want to keep it intact as is, make changes, switch to a different structure or revert back to the three-commissioner system, officials have said.

Any commission-recommended change would have to be approved by future voters to take effect, which is what occurred before the county’s 2012 switch to home rule.

Seven of the 11 council members recently said they advocate proposing changes in-house instead of forming an outside commission, with some emphasizing they don’t want to risk a commission recommendation to throw out home rule, largely due to its success in fiscal stability.

Based on past legal input, Griffith said he does not believe council has authority to propose charter amendments that would significantly alter the home rule charter, such as reducing the size of council, electing some or all council members by district instead of at large or making the manager an elected post.

Council members were previously advised over the years that major home rule charter changes cannot be enacted unless a new elected government study commission is formed, Griffith said.

He also is skeptical council will carve out sufficient time to identify and come up with solutions to correct charter deficiencies.

Due to past massive debt and other problems, Griffith is doubtful a study commission would recommend returning to the prior structure in which three elected commissioners and row officers made decisions now split between council and its appointed manager. If that is the recommendation, voters would have the ultimate say on whether to make the change or keep the current system, he said.

“I don’t think there’s a person in the county who thinks the commissioner form was better, but I think the public sees problems with home rule and wants corrections,” Griffith said.

Thornton also believes it’s highly likely the commission would end up recommending improvements to the existing charter.

“I’m not under the belief they’re just going to scrap home rule and suggest we go back to the three-commissioner system,” he said. “I hope it goes through and the commission comes up with good ideas. Maybe we’ll eliminate a lot of bickering and discussions about conflicts in the charter.”

Tonight’s meeting starts at 6 p.m. at the county courthouse on River Street in Wilkes-Barre, with instructions for remote attendance posted under council’s online meeting link at luzernecounty.org.

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

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texasstandard.news contributed to this report.

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