Warren County’s Impending Government Crisis

The unprecedented choice of Warren County voters: Will we elect part-time commissioners?

In the current race for county commissioner in Warren County, Pennsylvania, two candidates, if elected, will keep their full-time jobs, and will perform their commissioner duties part-time.

If one or both of these candidates are elected, it will create an administrative crisis in county government, not because of who the candidates are or who employs them, but because this county cannot be adequately managed by part-time county commissioners.

According to research conducted by a Warren citizen, Barb Lucia, in the history of the county examined so far reaching back about eighty years, keeping a full-time salaried job while simultaneously serving as Warren County commissioner is unprecedented.

Many former commissioners were self-employed—including farmers, a veterinarian, and small business operators. But all of these former commissioners, so far as is known, were careful to restructure their commitments at their own personal expense so they could perform their public duties full-time. In fact, it is likely these former commissioners sacrificed financially so they could assume the duties of commissioner. Clearly, that is the kind of civic duty deserving of our respect and gratitude. But it is a species of civic duty that may be on the verge of extinction.

Now, two candidates for county commissioner, Republican Tricia Durbin and Democrat Paul Giannini, both plan to treat the commissioner position as a part-time job—one that pays $57,178 per year plus full benefits.

Note: In Warren County, the average person earns $39,973, and the average teacher salary is $44,610. Supervisors of second class townships earn between $1,875 to $5,000 per year. Warren County commissioners receive an annual salary of $57,178, plus a generous benefit package, including health insurance, life insurance, a retirement fund, even dental insurance. 

We must not blame the candidates alone for the decision to run as part-timers. The decision must also have had the support of the candidates’ political parties, as well as the support of their “running mates” (current Commissioners Jeff Eggleston and Ben Kafferlin). It is rather difficult to imagine that the decision to run part-timers was made without debate within each party. Let’s hope someone raised the red warning flags and argued against the idea. But if not, what does that say about the dedication to fiscal responsibility within both parties? Do they really assume taxpayers are ready for such consequential and disruptive change?

What happens if voters choose a part-time commissioner

If the voters select Ms. Durbin or Mr. Giannini (or both), the result will be an historic shift in the county from full-time to part-time commissioners, a shift that will create voter dissension long into the future.

It is also likely that once we allow even one part-time commissioner, a domino effect will begin causing any elected full-time commissioner(s) to reassess a commitment to full-time service.

So if a part-timer is elected and either Commissioners Eggleston or Kafferlin retain their position, how long will it take them to reconsider their full-time commitment? How long will they resist being wooed away into lucrative full-time private-sector positions, or into pursuing self-employment full-time, all while retaining their commissioner pay and benefits?

Indeed, a private-sector employer might be especially interested in hiring full-time commissioners into full-time positions, since the employer will not need to pay for benefits because those are already paid by the taxpayer.

[Note: Pursuing self-employment while serving as a part-time commissioner comes with its own ethical issue, because the county-provided health and dental care benefits will save the self-employed commissioner the cost of purchasing private health insurance, effectively subsidizing that commissioner’s business.]

More importantly, once part-time commissioners become the norm, only civic-minded saints, the independently wealthy, or retirees will consider serving full-time as commissioner. Other future candidates will simply plan to keep their current full-time day jobs. And each one of those jobs will probably be loaded with potential conflicts of interest that voters will have to tease out during every future election and during every future term of office … and probably during every future vote.

What a can of worms!

If this happens, how long will it take before the position of commissioner will be routinely sought by opportunists simply for the supplementary income and benefits the position provides?

Realistically, if serving part-time is attempted by one of the winners of next Tuesday’s election, some significant percentage of the electorate will not be pleased. And that will lead to the various ways citizens have of expressing their dissatisfaction—through social media posts, letters to the editor, rants to neighbors, and possibly by vocalizing their complaints in commissioner meetings. It is certainly imaginable that some meetings may be dominated by the topic. Do we really want to invite that level of discord?

From the perspective of the taxpayer and those who prefer a fully functional board of supervisors, the upshot of filling one or more positions as part-time will be a gift to political adversaries, since the issue will be used continuously and effectively to discredit the part-timer(s). Such political clashes may even descend into formal complaints. How much time and taxpayer funding will those potential political, ethical, and possibly even legal squabbles cost over the coming years? And how much will they distract from conducting the county’s critical business?

Worse, while voter friction may get hot (especially if the part-time commissioner is from the “other” party), the more concerning issue is one of public trust and confidence. Will citizens trust elected officials who have divided loyalties between private employment and public duties? Will they trust the part-timer as much as the full-time commissioner? Or will voters just become even more cynical about local government and local politicians?

One important consequence of a part-time commissioner receiving full-time pay and benefits is how that will affect the morale of county employees. Will county employees (and their union) bristle against perceived inequity? Surely, that could make future meetings of the salary board more spirited (assuming the part-time commissioners can break away from their full-time jobs to attend).

Once the full-time standard is broken, it may never be restored, leaving Warren County citizens permanently stuck with overpaid part-time commissioners. If that happens, how will commissioners serve as anything other than figureheads, like British royals. Who among the part-timers will actually have the time to manage the county?

Eventually, will we have to hire a county manager?

With the election only days away, what can voters do?

So what do we voters do now, less than a week before the election, to address this issue?

Perhaps, prior to the election, the part-timer candidates will provide some acceptable clarification of how they plan to balance their public and private schedules. However, it will be insufficient that a part-timer attempts to assuage voters by agreeing to work in the early morning hours, or after hours, or on weekends, because such hours do not allow the kind of access citizens or county employees must have? So any announced balancing-act plans must be more substantial.

Agreeing to defer all or part of the commissioner salary or benefits would also be insufficient, because it does not address the core issue, which is that Warren County needs full-time commissioners to effectively tackle the formidable social, economic, and environmental issues that confront us.

The only solution that fully addresses the problem is for candidates Durbin and Giannini to publicly declare that, if elected, they will fill the position full-time and be available during normal county work hours.

Our Warren County commissioners are the three most important elected offices in the county—possibly the three most important jobs in the county. Will we elect part-timers whose civic duties will be conducted as a side job and limited to odd hours?

We taxpayers pay for dedicated, full-time commissioners. We should not settle for less.

Zaffino is the only candidate for Warren County commissioner willing to answer questions about environmental issues

Candidates Durbin, Eggleston, Giannini and Kafferlin decline

On October 18, 2019, I contacted the five candidates in the Warren County commissioners race and asked them to respond to the following ten environmental questions:

  1. If elected, will you support a county-wide recycling program?
  2. Would you support a state severance tax on natural gas if revenues were substantially distributed to county governments?
  3. Do you favor a ban on hydraulic fracturing of conventional and/or unconventional oil and gas wells? 
  4. If elected, would you advocate keeping the state-wide moratorium on spreading conventional oil and gas wastewater (also called produced water) on roads for dust abatement or de-icing?
  5. Do you favor the development of additional injection wells (for disposal of oil and gas wastewater) in Warren County?
  6. If elected, would you support amending the County’s zoning ordinance to prohibit new oil and gas development in residential neighborhoods, near schools, or in the vicinity of municipal water wells?
  7. If elected, would you support citizen efforts to adopt a Home Rule Charter?
  8. Do you believe municipalities should have the right to democratically approve local ordinances that exceed environmental standards set by federal or state governments?
  9. Are you concerned about the potential harmful effects of climate change on Warren County? 
  10. Do you believe county governments can take actions to slow or reverse the harmful effects of climate change?

Along with the questions, I promised the candidates I would publish their unedited responses so “voters of both parties and various perspectives” could become more informed of their positions.

(The last article published in the Warren Times Observer about the commissioners race was May 18, more than five months ago, so many voters are probably unfamiliar with candidate positions on issues, especially environmental issues.)

Republican candidates Kafferlin and Durbin, and Democratic candidate Giannini, all declined to answer the questions.

Democratic candidate Eggleston initially replied “I think all of those questions are pretty fair and straightforward. I will do my best to answer them.” Less than a week later, though, he wrote: “After thinking about it, John, I will not be answering the questions.”

Only write-in candidate Connie Zaffino provided a response. Her unedited answers to all ten questions are below.

Candidate Zaffino’s Answers to Environmental Questions

Question 1. If elected, will you support a county-wide recycling program?  

Realizing that recycling is costly to venture into, yet necessary to preserve our county and its resources, I would favor the county’s efforts to support individuals or local municipalities recycling efforts.  I would be against a county-wide program that might unfairly cause Warren’s city residents to pay for both a city recycling program as well as duplicated county efforts.  When the city applied to be raised from borough status to a city it was mandated to provide a recycling program. The residents of the city pay for this program monthly as a part of their sewage bill.  The county code does not allow for millage to vary from one municipality to another.  Therefore, if the county took on a county-wide recycling program it would not do away with the city’s mandated program. City residents would suffer double jeopardy in paying for recycling. There are several municipalities that currently have recycling programs.  Keeping recycling local and convenient makes it more likely that citizens will recycle. Tidioute is able to use the proceeds from their recycling efforts to help their local Lions Club. 

Question 2. Would you support a state severance tax on natural gas if revenues were substantially distributed to county governments?

I would want to know how the tax would be distributed and what affect the tax would have on the citizens prior to voicing support or non-support. If there was to be severance tax the proceeds should go to the county where the assessed tax is derived.  Other areas have revenue from a gaming tax on casinos and such, or receive revenue from entertainment tax for sports arenas or amusement parts.  Those taxes are not collected across the state and allocated across the state. If there is to be a severance tax, let the funds stay in the county where they were assessed and mandate they be used for efforts to correct environmental affects or enhance the natural landscape in the county in which the natural gas was extracted. 

Question 3. Do you favor a ban on hydraulic fracturing of conventional and/or unconventional oil and gas wells? 

I am concerned that this way of accessing wells may cause damage to the environment.  I would be supportive of environmentally safe ways to access wells.  There may be a need to enforce stricter guidelines to how fracturing is accomplished. 

Question 4. If elected, would you advocate keeping the state-wide moratorium on spreading conventional oil and gas wastewater (also called produced water) on roads for dust abatement or de-icing?

I would like for Warren County to explore the use of other environment friendly products for dust abatement and de-icing. In this way, Warren County can address the need for dust abatement and de icing and comply with the moratorium. 

Question 5. Do you favor the development of additional injection wells (for disposal of oil and gas wastewater) in Warren County? 

I have concerns about the safety of injection wells.  I have been following the legal case involving Grant Township and PGE.   

Question 6. If elected, would you support amending the County’s zoning ordinance to prohibit new oil and gas development in residential neighborhoods, near schools, or in the vicinity of municipal water wells? 

I would research the pros/cons to change of ordinances.  I would work with my fellow commissioners and county leaders with input from the community to determine what changes to ordinances were most appropriate for the safety of the county.   

Question 7. If elected, would you support citizen efforts to adopt a Home Rule Charter?

I would want to know details of the Home Rule Charter the citizens want to adopt prior to supporting it.  There are many variables to consider in a Home Rule Charter. However, in general I am supportive of citizens having the ability to direct how their community is governed. 

Question 8. Do you believe municipalities should have the right to democratically approve local ordinances that exceed environmental standards set by federal or state governments?

Yes.  

Question 9. Are you concerned about the potential harmful effects of climate change on Warren County?

Yes.  I am concerned about potential harm to our county. I believe we need to be good stewards of our environment.  This is where we live -we need to make sure our environment can sustain us and generations to come. 

Question 10. Do you believe county governments can take actions to slow or reverse the harmful effects of climate change? 

Yes.  I recently attended the Conewango Creek Watershed Association Year End Gala.  The guest speaker, Chuck Keeports, discussed the Allegheny National Forest and the monitoring efforts and the efforts to restore balance in the forest through projects such as rerouting water, measuring erosion and having old gas wells capped. He also discussed the impacts related to oil and gas development and acid rain. 

Candidate Zaffino can be or contacted or followed at the Zaffino for Commissioner site on Facebook, or by calling her at 814-730-0682.

[Note: For those candidates who initially declined to answer the questions, I invite them to reconsider by simply sending their responses to editor@alleghenyvoice.com. Complete responses will be published without editing, and without editorial comment. If provided, I will also publish contact information for campaigns so interested voters can ask questions prior to the election. Readers are also invited to ask additional questions in the comment section of this post.]