In a 5-4 vote Wednesday night, Lehigh County commissioners narrowly rejected the appointment of Thomas A. Walker to become the county's next human services director.

Walker, who has been human services director at the Lehigh County Conference of Churches for 13 years, was nominated for the position by county Executive Thomas Muller.

Commissioners did not offer any opinions on the merits of Walker's qualifications for the position before their Wednesday night vote.

After the meeting, Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the nine commissioners, said she can't speak for the other four commissioners who joined her in voting against Walker, "but it really came down to his experiences and the qualifications he came to the job with. It's a very, very significant department."

After the meeting, Muller responded to the rejection of his candidate.

"I'm disappointed that certain commissioners with little management experience or human services knowledge chose to vote against such a well-qualified individual as Tom Walker," said Muller. "It's another example of partisan politics at its worst.

"That said, I will present them with another candidate in the near future."

Joining Scheller in voting against Walker were Thomas Creighton, Vic Mazziotti, Scott Ott and Michael Schware. All are Republicans and most frequently are at odds with Muller, who is a Democrat.

The four commissioners voting for Walker were Geoff Brace, Percy Dougherty, David Jones and Brad Osborne. Brace and Jones are the only Democrats among the nine commissioners.

In late February, after much debate over four meetings, commissioners voted 5-4 to approve Muller's appointment of Daniel McCarthy as the county's new director of administration. In that vote, Creighton voted with the majority for McCarthy.

All the commissioners attended an intergovernmental and appointments committee meeting before their main meeting, where Walker again was introduced and invited to speak.

He previously had responded in writing to seven questions submitted to him by commissioners.

"This position is a significant one in terms of administrative responsibility and also service to the community," said Osborne, who chairs that committee.

Osborne said the human services budget comprises about 39 percent of the total county budget, "a significant amount of money." He said it also has about 13.5 percent of the county's total employees.

Mazziotti, who also is on that committee, provided figures showing the county's human services department has 273 people and a $137.8 million budget.

Walker previously told commissioners the Conference of Churches has 28 employees and he manages about a dozen, three of them directly.

Saying he was going to the root of the concern some commissioners -"including myself" -- have about Walker's ability to handle the position, Osborne challenged the appointee "to convince this board that you can do this job."

Rather then responding directly, Walker talked about the growing need for human services in the county, while "there are shrinking dollars to meet that need."

"If confirmed to the human services director position, I intend to guide the human services department - and all of our departments - toward facing head-on the challenges ahead," said Walker.

He talked in detail about four key areas where he would make improvements and reviewed his strengths and accomplishments.

Walker concluded by telling commissioners: "It is my sincere hope that you will have me as your next human services director and I ask for your favorable vote tonight."

Osborne's committee declined to make a recommendation for or against Walker to the full board of commissioners.

When first introduced to commissioners as Muller's nominee in February, Walker said he has 15 years of experience managing non-profit organizations.

Walker also said he is the co-chair of the local Commission to End Chronic Homelessness.

Action on homelessness