County commissioners narrowly approve McCarthy

They also expand LCA board to include two members from Allentown

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - By a 5-4 vote Wednesday night, Lehigh County commissioners narrowly approved the appointment of Daniel McCarthy as the county's new director of administration

In another 5-4 vote, the commissioners expanded Lehigh County Authority's board of directors from seven to nine members, with two of the nine representing Allentown.

Voting no on both issues were Republican Commissioners Vic Mazziotti, Scott Ott, Lisa Scheller and Michael Schware.

Scheller, chairwoman of the nine commissioners, was singled out for criticism twice during the meeting - first by fellow Republican Dean Browning, a former county commissioner and unsuccessful primary candidate for county executive in 2013, and later by County Executive Thomas Muller.

Muller stood to respond to one of Ott's criticisms that the appointment of McCarthy had the appearance of cronyism, because McCarthy was "a major, if not the major" campaign contributor to Muller in last fall's county executive race, which Ott lost.

Muller told Ott that bringing up McCarthy's $6,500 contribution "is almost nonsense given how your campaign was funded."

Muller said McCarthy was far from his largest contributor, but Scheller and her husband Wayne Woodman gave Ott's campaign almost 10 times more than McCarthy gave Muller's campaign. "She also funded about 40 percent of Commissioner Schware's campaign and about 100 percent of Commissioner Mazziotti's campaign when he ran."

Charged the county executive: "There appears to be a bloc, all funded by the same source, trying to vote in one direction here."

Ott said if he had been elected county executive and then tried to hire Scheller, it would be appropriate for people to ask why one of his major campaign contributors "was now taking the top position in the county."

On a different matter, Browning held Scheller personally responsible for lack of public access to the county commissioners' office.

Browning said the commissioners represent and serve 350,000 county residents. "To be effective, you have to be available to those citizens and you have to be engaged with those citizens," he said. "You're falling short in that responsibility."

Browning said the commissioners' office in the county government center in Allentown often is closed; calls go to voicemail because no one is in the office to answer phones, and reports and agendas are not being put online for people to see. Browning said the agenda for the Jan. 28 commissioners meeting was posted three weeks after that meeting was held.

"Without having information online, you're short-changing the public and the press and you're not fulfilling your responsibilities."

Browning singled out Scheller, saying: "It was under your watch as chairman to cut the commissioners' staff by one-third. That was done for a political purpose without considering the full impact of the ability of the commissioners' office to fulfill its responsibilities."

He quoted Scheller saying she wanted to set an example. "The example you have set is not that you can do more with less, or even do the same with less. The example you have set is you're going to do less with less. We believe in smaller government, but we believe in effective government. Please make the necessary changes to fulfill your responsibilities."

Scheller said the decision to reduce the commissioners' staff from three to two was not arbitrary, but done after careful discussions with the commissioners' clerk. She added financial resources have been set aside to make adjustments if commissioners see things are not going well with only two people on their staff.

The two staffers in the commissioners' office have dealt with both serious illness and family deaths in the past several weeks.

"If things aren't going as well as they should, the proper adjustments will be made," promised Scheller.

Browning wasn't satisfied, saying: "That sounds more like excuses, when you expect results. We as the citizens who are paying your salaries expect results and you're not fulfilling them."

Before Browning spoke, resident Stan Bialecki, who regularly attends commissioners meetings, complained he has not been able to find agendas for the main meetings, or the committee meetings that precede them, where they usually are posted on the county's website before the meetings.

Bialecki said he has been going online to see those agendas, and print them out, before commissioners meetings for several years.

Ott apologized to Bialecki, saying: "You're right to bring it up."

McCarthy finally appointed

As the number two man in Muller's administration, McCarthy will develop county budgets, serve as the administration's liaison with commissioners and handle union negotiations.

His annual salary will be $94,744, considerably more than the $75,000 a year that the county executive makes.

McCarthy, who was a county commissioner until this year, was first brought before commissioners as Muller's appointee to become director of administration in early January. He has been employed as the county's acting director of administration, but that is a temporary position with a 90-day limit.

"I'm hoping that the fourth time is the charm," McCarthy told commissioners before the vote, indicating that's how many times his appointment previously has been before them for approval.

Some commissioners oppose McCarthy because he would get an annual pension of $28,500 if he serves four years as director of administration, because that pension also factors in his 12 years as a county commissioner.

But before the vote, McCarthy said that, if approved, on Thursday he intends asking the state's pension fund to give him a lump sum payment of $4,965 for his years as commissioner, which he plans to roll over into an IRA.

That means, after four years as director of administration, he will get a pension of about $8,500 a year --- $20,000 a year less than he could have gotten.

Ott said another reason he was voting against McCarthy is because "the job is not a good match" for him. Other commissioners who oppose McCarthy's appointment previously have expressed the same opinion.

Voting in the majority for McCarthy were Commissioners Geoff Brace, Tom Creighton, Percy Dougherty, David Jones and Brad Osborne.

After the meeting, Osborne said: "Dan is a good man caught in the web of a bad pension law. He addressed the concern professionally and will serve the residents of Lehigh County with distinction."

McCarthy was gracious after the vote, thanking the commissioners for giving him the opportunity to continue serving the people of Lehigh County.

Despite her no vote, Scheller was equally gracious. She congratulated McCarthy and said she looks forward to his service, doing good things for the county and being effective in his role as administrator.

LCA action

The move to get Allentown representatives on the LCA board is based on the fact that LCA now has a long-term lease to manage the city's water and sanitary sewer systems.

Dougherty said the request to expand that board to nine members came from the current LCA board. He added: "It would be micro-managing on our part to try to interfere with that."

The four commissioners who opposed expanding the LCA board said nothing prevents Allentown residents from being appointed to the current seven-member board, especially as an alternative to reappointing long-time LCA board members.

And they argued no other specific municipalities are represented on that board with a certain number of seats.

Some commissioners feel betrayed by current LCA board members in regard to the way that lease was reached with Allentown. Last year they unsuccessfully tried to block LCA from winning that lease.

Ott told LCA manager Aurel Arndt: "It would be a mistake to increase the size of this board to lock in the existing board members. You could lose some board members and it would help the organization.

"I'm not interested in protecting the tenure of people that have been there anywhere from 10 to 30 years and creating an even more unaccountable organization." He called LCA's board "a group of insiders who all agree with each other, with one exception."

Arndt said only one LCA board member will be up for reappointment this year but the terms of three other board members will end in December.

Approving those appointments is the only control commissioners have over the LCA board.

Two residents told commissioners the Allentown LCA board members should be private citizens, not members of the city administration or City Council.

Human services director nominee

Also Wednesday, Muller introduced commissioners to Thomas Walker, his nominee to become the county's next director of human services.

Walker is human services director at the Lehigh County Conference of Churches, where he has worked for 13 years. He told commissioners he has 15 years of experience managing non-profit organizations. He also said he is the co-chair of the local Commission to End Chronic Homelessness.

Mazziotti asked how many people Walker manages. He said his agency has 28 employees and he manages about a dozen, three of them directly.

In response to other questions from Mazziotti, Walker said he has not held another position where he's managed more people and has not worked for any county, state or federal human service agency.

After the meeting, Mazziotti estimated hundreds of people work under the county's human services director.

Commissioner David Jones told Walker: "I'd rather have somebody that doesn't have your breadth of on-the-ground experience but is an effective facilitator and coordinator, because that's really what management is about."

Ott complained that commissioners rarely see any data showing how effective county human services programs are at actually helping people. He told Walker that commissioners should be getting that data, so they know what they are paying for in budget allocations. Walker said he would be happy to share that information.

Said Ott: "We're almost never presented with data that says anything other than 'there's a horrible problem, give us more money'."

Said Walker: "Service providers must be held accountable. It is my commitment to the commissioners that I will do that very thing."

Best laugh of the night

Mazziotti wanted more time to review a contract with the Wood Company to provide food service to residents of the Cedarbrook nursing homes.

He noted it's a $14 million, three-year contract, but commissioners had spent only 15 minutes discussing it in committee Wednesday evening - although later they discussed it again in their 7:30 p.m. meeting.

"I'm not saying I'm opposed to the agreement; I don't know enough about it to vote yes on it tonight," he said.

Commissioners approved the contract by an 8-1 vote. Only Mazziotti voted no.

He got the best laugh of the night when he asked: "What happened to my bloc?"

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Allentown, PA 18102




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