In a bare-knuckles political fight early Friday evening, Lehigh County Executive Thomas Muller out-maneuvered four conservative county commissioners who are determined to stop the appointment of Daniel McCarthy as the county's new director of administration.
The gloves came off during a special meeting of the county commissioners, called solely to act on McCarthy's appointment.
After they succeeded in preventing a county commissioner from voting for McCarthy by phone, the four Republican commissioners -- Vic Mazziotti, Scott Ott, Lisa Scheller and Michael Schware -- appeared poised to kill the appointment.
It looked like good old-fashioned political payback because Democrat Muller beat Republican Ott in last year's race for county executive -- and Democrat McCarthy contributed to Muller's campaign.
But Muller quickly withdrew his nomination of McCarthy before commissioners could vote on it.
Only eight of the nine commissioners were at the meeting. The missing commissioner - Republican Percy Dougherty-- has announced that McCarthy has his complete support to become director of administration.
The confident county executive intends to resubmit McCarthy's name when he's certain he has the votes of five commissioners to confirm him.
"I'd like to bring it back as soon as possible," said Muller. "I'm going to check to see when the five votes are going to be present."
"He had five votes tonight," said Muller after the meeting, adding that's why the four commissioners would not allow Dougherty to vote by phone.
After Friday night's meeting, Ott maintained the issue is not about politics, but good governance. He said the commissioners have an obligation to serve as a check and balance on the administration.
"Under some conditions, the board should say no. We're not just there to be a rubber stamp."
McCarthy attended Friday's meeting, but did not address the commissioners. After the meeting, he said he was discouraged and disheartened that his appointment has become a political issue. "I didn't think it would be so controversial. That's catching me by surprise. I hope we can have a resolution of this quickly."
In interviews after the meeting, three of the four commissioners who oppose McCarthy's appointment said they don't believe he is qualified for the job.
Muller announced he wanted McCarthy to be his new director of administration in late December -- only a week after McCarthy ended a 12-year career as a county commissioner and before Muller was sworn in as the county's newly-elected executive.
McCarthy already is on the county payroll as Muller's acting director of administration, but he can only continue in that capacity for a couple more months.
The unusual Friday night meeting was called because the commissioners had 30 days to act on Muller's appointment of McCarthy. If they did not act by the middle of next week, his appointment would have been approved automatically. But all that changes now that his nomination temporarily has been withdrawn.
The commissioners initially were expected to act on McCarthy's appointment at their Jan. 8 meeting, then at their Jan. 22 meeting.
But they said they still needed more time to consider information they received from and about McCarthy. So they scheduled Friday night's special meeting.
Dougherty was absent, as he announced he would be when the meeting was scheduled.
At the beginning of the meeting, Commissioner David Jones made a motion for the commissioners to suspend their normal rules and allow Dougherty to vote by phone. His motion was seconded by Geoff Brace.
Jones and Brace are the only Democrats among the nine commissioners.
Jones said it's important to have "the full voice of the board" for such a critical vote.
The director of administration serves as the county's executive's right hand man, including as his liaison to the county commissioners.
"I'm against this motion," said Schware. "Our rules don't allow for it
- and I think with good reason. The citizens of Lehigh County deserve to have their elected officials here."
Jones' motion to allow Dougherty to participate by phone failed in a 4-4 vote.
Voting to let Dougherty vote were Jones, Brace and Republicans Thomas Creighton and Brad Osborne.