Luzerne County voters approve study commission

A majority of Luzerne County voters said yes to activating a seven-citizen commission that will study the county’s government structure and possibly recommend changes, according to Tuesday’s unofficial primary election results.

Voters selected the following candidates to serve on this panel, including three prior county council members:

• Cindy Malkemes, Dallas Township, an academic counselor and associate professor at Luzerne County Community College.

• Vito Malacari, Hanover Township, a high school government teacher.

• Mark Shaffer, Wilkes-Barre, a research analyst at The Institute.

• Stephen J. Urban, Kingston, an IT support coordinator for a major food distributor and prior county council member.

• Ted Ritsick, Forty Fort, a professional planner, a current member of the county’s Wyoming Valley Airport Advisory Board and a prior Forty Fort Borough councilman.

• Timothy McGinley, Kingston, a Wyoming Valley West School Board member, prior 12-year county council member and retired nonprofit administration director.

• Matt Mitchell, Plains Township, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Coordinator at the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority and prior county council member.

The commission will have nine months to report findings and recommendations and another nine months if it is opting to prepare and submit government changes. An extra two months is allowable if the commission is recommending electing council by district instead of at large.

Voters must ultimately approve any commission recommendation for it to take effect.

The commission would be free to recommend alterations to the existing charter, an entirely new charter or a return to the prior three-commissioner/row officer structure that was replaced by home rule’s 2012 implementation.

However, all 17 study commission candidates had stated they were not advocating a return to the old commissioner system.

Vote results

With all 186 precincts reporting, the vote tally was 31,705 for the study commission referendum and 14,914 against, which means it passed with approximately 68% of the votes.

The unofficial vote tally for the seven who secured commission seats: Malkemes, 22,522; Malacari, 20,251; Shaffer, 19,663; Urban, 19,559; Ritsick, 18,172; McGinley, 15,073; and Mitchell, 13,939.

The unofficial results for the 10 remaining candidates: Alisha Hoffman-Mirilovich, Fairview Township, 12,208; Charles Sciandra, Duryea, 11,933; Andy Wilczak, Wright Township, 11,374; Claudia Glennan, Salem Township, 10,660; Mark Rabo, Hazleton, 10,539; Dave Chaump, West Pittston, 10,509; Tom Bassett, Pittston, 10,336; Sandra DeBias, Hazle Township, 9,246; Vivian Kreidler-Licina, Nescopeck Township, 8,095; and Fermin Diaz, West Hazleton, 6,414.

At least two groups of candidates had campaigned together as a team.

One was a seven-citizen “Unity for Our Community” slate consisting of three who secured seats — Malkemes, Malacari and Shaffer — along with Hoffman-Mirilovich, Wilczak, Diaz and Glennan.

The other five candidate group: DeBias, Sciandra, Ritsick, Mitchell and McGinley, with the latter three chosen by voters. This slate’s supporters included county District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce. The DA’s campaign committee recently sent out a text message urging voters to support the study commission question and the “bipartisan team of experienced, common-sense candidates.”

Echoing comments Sanguedolce made at public meetings, his campaign committee’s message said the charter, in many places, contradicts the Pennsylvania Constitution and conflicts with state law, “leading to chaos in our government.”

Sanguedolce had publicly encouraged council to authorize the referendum last summer. He applauded charter drafters for creating a new form of government from scratch but said some charter provisions conflict with state law, creating confusion and “fodder for litigation.”

The charter contains a key disclaimer that is at the root of many interpretation questions that have surfaced, saying its provisions apply “except where applicable law prevents a home rule charter from superseding state law.” The county law office is regularly tasked with issuing an opinion on how to proceed.

Sanguedolce said Tuesday he was pleased with the referendum’s passage.

“I think it has been established over the course of the last 12 years the charter has some flaws that need improvement, and I’m confident a government study commission — along with help from county management that has been experiencing these problems — would be able to correct them,” the DA said.

A council majority authorized the study commission ballot question in October, with several council members saying they are powerless to make significant changes due to the law’s requirement to form a study commission.

Cautious optimism

Council Chairman John Lombardo has identified language ambiguity as a priority he wants addressed by the commission.

“Obviously I’m happy the referendum passed because we desperately need to revise our charter, and this is the only way we can do this in an effective manner,” Lombardo said.

Lombardo said the commission’s success will hinge on those elected.

“I’m glad to see there are several people on the commission who have the experience and knowledge of the charter to be able to actively fix the flaws rather than push an ideology that has nothing to do with county government,” Lombardo said.

County Controller Walter Griffith supported a commission activation but said its success hinged on the mix of citizens elected to serve.

“Hopefully voters picked the right people to correct it,” he said.

Griffith agreed “vagueness in the charter” should be eliminated to reduce reliance on county law office guidance, and he wants the commission to address persistent conflicts over the county election board’s powers.

“I certainly hope we have seven people interested in correcting the government currently in place and not changing it radically,” Griffith said. “Some parts of the current charter works, and some doesn’t.”

Griffith noted the county will have to spend money for them to do their work.

The county’s last 11-citizen study commission held weekly meetings — broadcast online with public input solicited at each — between June and December 2009, when it decided to take the next step and draft a proposed charter.

It released a final report and recommended charter in August 2010 that was approved by voters in the November 2010 general election.

The commission retained a solicitor and the Pennsylvania Economy League as a consultant to assist.

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


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