A raging political battle between Lehigh County Commissioners and Lehigh County Executive, Thomas Muller, reared its ugly head again Wednesday night, as commissioners continue to drag their feet on confirming the county's nominated Director of Administration.
Commissioners, by a slim 5-4 margin, once again voted to defer the confirmation of Dan McCarthy as Lehigh County's Director of Administration, citing additional questions about pension money that surfaced late Wednesday afternoon.
McCarthy, who ended a 12-year stint as a Lehigh County Commissioner at the end of 2013, is eligible to collect a $1,900 per year pension from that position.
But, as commissioners brought up during a Jan. 31 special meeting on the matter, McCarthy will be eligible for a pension of about $28,000 a year, because of a state system that allows elected officials to factor in their part-time work as county commissioners.
If Muller hired someone who never worked for the county, that person would get a pension of less than $9,000 a year. Muller and McCarthy offered to separate the pensions, which would save the county $17,500 per year.
Commissioners, particularly Michael Schware, seized on the pension issue again Wednesday night and called for an immediate deferment on the scheduled confirmation vote.
"We got an e-mail at 3 p.m. (Wednesday) with more information about Mr. McCarthy," Schware said. "We should defer this matter until we have a chance to investigate it further."
Schware called for further investigation about the pension matter from the Philadelphia-based Hay Group, a management consulting firm.
Even if McCarthy decided to forgo his commissioners pension, he would be able to buy back into it, according to the county's solicitor. That served to raise the hackles of some current commissioners.
Commissioners Schware, Vic Mazziotti, Scott Ott and chairwoman Lisa Scheller voted to defer the confirmation.
Geoff Brace, Tom Creighton, Percy Dougherty and David Jones, Sr., voted against the motion.
Muller had asked that commissioners consider an immediate confirmation vote, stating that he's been working without a fully operational Director of Administration since the beginning of the year.
"New information came in at 3 p.m. today that may change our minds," said Scheller. "We have to take time to digest the information we have."
Ott, a Republican who lost the county executive race to Muller last November, was more direct about his misgivings.
"It's the pensions, questions about his qualifications and his political contributions," Ott said. "It's said (McCarthy) was the largest single donor to (Muller's) campaign."
Ott stated earlier this month that McCarthy was one of the top, if not the top, political contributor to Muller's campaign in the last election, with a total of $6,500 coming from McCarthy and his campaign committee.
McCarthy told commissioners that he accepts the Director of Administration position with an eye on retirement.
"My skill sets for the job are fine and (Muller) and I didn't talk about fringe benefits," he said. "There's been little or no conversation about doing serious work to serve the taxpayers of Lehigh County. There's only been conversation about a future fringe benefit that I might not live to see. I want to work to get this resolved."
Muller announced he wanted McCarthy to be his new director of administration in late December, 2013 -- 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 short period of time.
The director of administration's salary is $94,744.
Commissioners have 30 days to act on McCarthy's re-nomination, which was made again by Muller on Feb. 4. That gives commissioners another opportunity to confirm the nomination at its Feb. 26 meeting.
McCarthy's first nomination was withdrawn by Muller after a Jan. 31 special meeting did not produce an affirmative majority vote.
The vote was split 4-4 and Dougherty was not allowed to vote by phone, killing approval. Muller then pulled the nomination.
Commissioners did appoint Timothy A. Reeves as the county's fiscal officer, Kimberly Makoul as the county's chief public defender and Schware to the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority.
Robert Souder of Emmaus was reappointed to the Lehigh County Conservation District.
Commissioners, Muller spar over Hamilton Crossings TIF
Commissioners scolded Muller about holding Tuesday night meeting at Muhlenberg College concerning the $140 million Hamilton Crossings shopping center project, which would include a Costco, Target and Whole Foods Stores on 63 acres in Lower Macungie Township.
Muller called the meeting in hopes to persuade county commissioners to approve a tax increment financing plan (TIF) to help pay for the shopping center.
The TIF was shot down last June by a 6-3 margin.
"It wasn't an appropriate meeting," Scheller said. "It was organized by the county executive, trying to gain support for something that was already voted down."
"It's an awkward situation," said commissioner Vic Mazziotti. "It was kind of a pep rally for the developers."
"If the developer has something new to show us, then is should be brought here," Schware said. "It's also not appropriate for the developer to have a Power Point presentation (about the proposed shopping center) on the county's web site."
Ott chided Muller for using county funds for a mailer promoting the meeting.
Muller said the Tuesday meeting was designed as informational and bore no cost to the county.
"It's entirely appropriate for a county executive to be in touch with citizens. I want to be as open with citizens as possible and don't think it was inappropriate," he said.
Muller hinted that a reduced cost TIF could be pitched to county commissioners in the near future.
"If there's great interest, I will be back in front of the board in March," Muller said. "I'm in favor of jobs and wages. I may never go to Costco, but (Hamilton Crossings) will being economic development and jobs."
None of the county commissioners attended Tuesday's meeting.