Averting a possible legal battle with Lehigh County commissioners, Thomas Muller, the county's new executive, has rescinded a directive that would have given benefits to county employees who legally are married to someone of the same sex.
That directive was issued Dec. 30 by Executive Matthew Croslis, Muller's predecessor. Muller, who became executive Monday, rescinded the directive Thursday morning.
Muller said he decided to rescind the directive Wednesday night, when commissioners were about to go into a rare closed-door executive session to discuss initiating litigation against the executive.
In October, commissioners voted 5-4 to reject providing medical benefits to same-sex spouses of county employees.
Croslis had proposed offering those benefits to same-sex couples who legally were married in another state, on the grounds that the county's current policy is discriminatory.
But the commissioners' close vote removed $219,000 to provide those benefits from the 2014 county budget.
Muller explained Croslis decided he had a legal right as county executive to authorize same sex-benefits, even though they had been voted down by the commissioners.
Muller, who was the county's director of administration under Croslis, said: "He directed me to do that on Dec. 30." He explained the commissioners were upset about that directive, which he had sent to county department heads.
Rather than all nine commissioners going into executive session Wednesday night, board chairwoman Lisa Scheller and new vice chairman David Jones met privately with Muller and County Solicitor Matthew Sorrentino.
Muller said Sorrentino's opinion was that giving same-sex benefits issue "was a policy decision and policy decisions rest with the board, not with the county executive."
"I support same-sex benefits," said Muller, "but if it's not within the realm of what I can do, according to our charter, I'm not going to do do it."
Muller said if he did not rescind the directive by Croslis, the commissioners would have taken legal action against the executive. "That's no way to start off anybody's year here. I never see any value in the county exec and the commissioners being in court against each other."
Muller said he conferred with three county attorneys who advised him not rescinding the Croslis directive "would be a losing cause."
In rescinding the benefits, Muller asked county employees, retirees and their families to continue to have patience.
The executive said if the state still is "fence-sitting" on the same-sex benefits issue later this year, he will put funding for those benefits into his proposed 2015 budget, just as Croslis did in the 2014 budget.
"We'll debate the issue then," he said.
In his directive rescinding the benefits, Muller explained: " I realize that this reversal must be extremely frustrating to those who have been hoping -- and even expectiing -- the county to fall in line with the major cities and employers in the Lehigh Valley, but the action taken by former county Executive Matt Croslis was beyond the powers granted to the county executive by the county charter.
"As county executive, I must respect our county charter."