The mechanics of when and how Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton will depart are up in the air.
It’s not a question of mutual agreement that it’s time for a change.
Seven of the 11 Luzerne County Council members now want him gone, and Lawton is actively seeking employment elsewhere.
But unless Lawton obtains employment elsewhere Monday, it’s highly unlikely he will resign before Tuesday’s potential county council vote to terminate him.
County Councilman Rick Morelli has formally requested a vote to fire Lawton on Tuesday. Sources have said Lawton was informed last week he would be terminated if he does not resign. Morelli hasn’t identified who is expected to provide the seventh vote, and none have claimed ownership of the plan.
While five council members have repeatedly pushed for Lawton to be reprimanded or terminated, it’s unclear if they will go along Morelli’s proposal. These five are Edward Brominski, Kathy Dobash, Eileen Sorokas, Stephen A. Urban and Stephen J. Urban.
Dobash has been writing emails questioning the recent action to terminate the manager.
“Under what authority did a county council member approach Luzerne County Manager Robert Lawton in private and use intimidation to get a resignation?” she asked in an email last week.
In another email, she questions the ethics of council members “secretly approaching” Lawton asking him to resign.
Citizen Michael Giamber, who is close to Brominski, also sent the council members an email urging them to “be mindful of the possibility that Lawton may have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit.”
“I recognize Pennsylvania is an ‘at-will’ state and Lawton works at the ‘pleasure of council;’ however, termination decisions should be supported by documented objective criteria, ample warning, fairness and be free of malice,” Giamber wrote.
Giamber, who is no fan of Lawton, advised the council to consult a labor law attorney before proceeding with this “subject adverse action.”
Lawton has declined comment on his job search and attempts to terminate him. He may be interested in staying on at least through the end of December if he’s not hired elsewhere, some say.
Morelli’s proposed resolution would remove Lawton as manager immediately and provide him with two week’s severance pay in addition to any compensation he is owed for unused sick or vacation days.
This resolution may conflict with requirements of the county’s home rule charter.
The charter says the council may suspend the manager pending his removal by resolution.
The resolution must adopted by at least seven council members and state the reasons for the suspension and proposed removal. Morelli’s resolution doesn’t spell out reasons.
A copy of the adopted resolution also must be promptly delivered to the manager, who then has up to 15 days to decide if he wants to have a public hearing before the county council.
Charter drafters added this component to ensure the manager had a means to publicly dispute or provide an explanation of claims made against him.
Lawton has never expressed an interest in fighting attempts to dismiss him, but nobody knows how he will react if the council votes to fire him, effective immediately.
His advocates say no decisions should be made about the manager’s termination in the weeks before a new mix of county council members are seated in January. Morelli and Councilman Jim Bobeck did not seek re-election, and Stephen J. Urban did not win another term. They will be replaced by Eugene Kelleher, Robert Schnee and Jane Walsh Waitkus.
Lawton’s recent decision to reactivate his job search prompted the council to proceed with creation of an outside committee that will recruit, screen and recommend manager applicants to the council. At least nine citizens have applied to serve on this unpaid committee.
The council members may review these applications this week.
Two other resolutions related to Lawton are on Tuesday’s agenda, both proposed by Dobash. She wants her colleagues to reprimand Lawton and reduce his $110,000 salary.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.