Inside Your Town

County commissioners set to pick Lehigh County Exec soon

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - It will be up to eight Lehigh County commissioners to decide who will be the new county executive when they meet next Wednesday โ€“ Aug. 8.

The commissioners' intergovernmental & appointments committee interviewed four men for the job Wednesday evening, but did not recommend any one candidate to the full board of commissioners.

Instead, it recommended the board pick one of the four: Matthew Croslis, William Hansell, John Ingram and Daniel McCarthy.

Seven of the nine commissioners sat in on the four 20-minute interviews.

Commissioners Michael Schware was absent, but will watch a video recording of the interviews before voting next week. McCarthy is the ninth commissioner, but not voting because he is a candidate.

Only the three committee members could vote after interviewing the candidates.

They eventually and unanimously recommended all four candidates should be considered.

Referring to his colleagues on the board, committee chairman Scott Ott wondered what will happen in just one week that will turn "a bunch of what appears to be confused and non-commital people" into decisive decision-makers who will make an appointment.

"This is a more difficult decision than I anticipated," said committee member Vic Mazziotti after all four candidates were interviewed. "I thought I would feel very comfortable being able to vote for a particular candidate. I'm not feeling that comfortable at the moment. We had four people say things that were pretty impressive for the most part."

"I wish I could grab the best parts from each candidate and make a new person," said committee member Thomas Creighton. That led Ott to say "legal already has informed us we can't do that" and Commissioner David Jones jokingly called Creighton "Dr. Frankenstein."

Creighton initially recommended the full board consider only Hansell and McCarthy and Mazziotti seconded Creighton's motion.

Creighton said Hansell has a lot of good government experience. He expressed a similar opinion about McCarthy.

But a few minutes later both men withdrew that motion.

Mazziotti said he's known Hansell for 40 years and would vote for him "if we were looking to hire a county manager." He explained a county manager would report to the board but a county executive is independent. He said Hansell's "political positions are probably further from the positions of some of us on the board than any of the other candidates. It's not the direction I want to see the county go."

While seven of the nine commissioners are Republicans, Jones reminded Mazziotti that "we are selecting a Democrat" as required to complete the term of Democrat Don Cunningham, who resigned last month.

The new executive will serve about 17 months, at an annual salary of $75,000. That appointee will head a county government with nearly 2,000 employees and a $389 million budget.

Commissioner Percy Dougherty asked the candidates how they would manage all those workers. Hansell said he would not manage 2,000 people on a day-to-day business, only 20 or 30 department heads.

Dougherty was the first to suggest that Ott's committee consider recommending all four candidates to the full board, giving commissioners more time to learn about them and make a better decision.

Said Mazziotti: "I'm not often in a position where I'm not ready to form a position, but I'm struggling with this one and I think more time might help me." Creighton also said he could use more time.

Before the three committee members unanimously approved that recommendation, Commissioner Lisa Scheller suggested the committee recommend Croslis for the job, saying "he would bring a fresh set of eyes to the county" and has concrete ideas about where spending could be cut. No one on the committee made a motion reflecting her opinion.

Jones did not name names but indicated he is leaning toward hiring someone with the experience to run the county, which he called a large and complex organization.

He prefers someone who can "come in and not have to come up to speed."

David Barilla, clerk to the commissioners, explained that next week the full board first will have to vote to accept the committee's recommendation of all four candidates. Then Barilla will take a roll call vote. When each commissioner's name is called, he or she will name one candidate. A candidate needs at least five votes to become the new executive.

Ott predicted commissioners may go through a series of votes. He said if none of the four candidates can win five votes, nominations for other candidates could be made.

Brad Osborne, chairman of the commissioners, said even if the board cannot make a decision on Aug. 8, it still has time to do so at its Aug. 22 meeting.

After the meeting, Barilla said commissioners must make a decision by Aug. 23.

The candidates individually were called into the commissioners'
meeting room to sit at a table before them. All were asked the same seven questions, with a couple of additional questions at the end.

Commissioners not on the committee also could ask questions near the end of each 20-minute session, but no questions were taken directly from the public. Each candidate left the room after their interview.

McCarthy was questioned by both Ott and Scheller about the increased pension he would receive as county executive. Scheller asked if he would be willing to give up that pension increase.

McCarthy said he could see a lifetime pension increase of up to $120,000, depending on how long he lives. He said if he can not prove to commissioners that he has saved the county that much or more during his term as executive, "I'm not going to take that pension."

McCarthy, a lawyer, has been a county commissioner for more than
10 years. If appointed county executive, he said he will not seek election to that position in 2013 nor will he again run for commissioner.

Ingram is president and CEO of Ingram Real Estate Group. He said he would work full-time for the county, turning over the management of his company to someone else.

Ingram said all county department heads would report directly to him and meet with him weekly, including Emergency Services. He said some "beneficial" organizational changes need to be made in the administration. He said the title of the Department of General Services should be changed, there should be a Department of Buildings and Public Works, and the administration does not need a chief of staff because "I would be the chief of staff."

Hansell is a former county commissioner, former Allentown business administrator and former manager of Catasauqua and South Whitehall. He said his biggest concern about applying for the position is his age.

He is 75. He said he feels fine and his health is okay. "I know I can fulfill this obligation. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think that.

Hansell said having a county police department probably would save huge amounts of money compared to individual municipal police departments.

Croslis is a lawyer with his own law firm who also owns a real estate company and a title company. He ran for county executive in 2001. His goal would be to focus on the essential functions of county government and eliminate or at least examine what it is not required to do.

Croslis said the county is running a zoo, which is not an essential function and suggested that funding could be eliminated or reduced.

"It was meant to be a game preserve."

Denying anonymous rumors, Croslis said he has made some bad choices in the past, but has not had multiple DUI arrests, is not secretly running for district attorney and does not perm his hair. "They're my curls," he said.

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