Lehigh County commissioners will appoint a new county executive Wednesday night, selecting between candidates Matthew Croslis or Daniel McCarthy.
The commissioners’ intergovernmental & appointments committee interviewed both candidates Monday evening, then decided to recommend both men for consideration by the full board of commissioners rather than recommending one or neither of them.
Although McCarthy has been a Lehigh County commissioner for more than 11 years, he apparently is not a shoo-in to be appointed county executive by his eight fellow commissioners.
McCarthy is one of only two Democratic commissioners. Although seven of the nine are Republicans, they must appoint a Democrat because the last elected county executive was a Democrat.
Both candidates are lawyers and both sought to be appointed county executive in 2012, when commissioners selected William Hansell, who died last week.
Croslis, 40, ran for county executive in 2001. He is the owner of Croslis Realty, Croslis Law Offices, Croslis Realty Referrals and Legacy Title – all based in Allentown. He resides in Whitehall.
McCarthy, 64, works at the Davison & McCarthy law firm in Allentown. He resides in Allentown.
Whichever man is appointed executive will only serve for six months, until an elected county executive is sworn in next January. But the appointee will play a central part in developing the 2014 county budget.
The most provocative question of the interviews came from Commissioner Brad Osborne, a Republican who chairs the appointments committee.
“In the spirit of transparency and an effort to uphold the integrity of the process, I’m going to ask you a question,” said Osborne. “Have you been given an indication by any member of this board, or someone who is in communication with this board, that you have the five votes necessary to be appointed county executive?”
Croslis replied: “No, I don’t believe I have the five votes. I don’t know for certain I have the five votes.”
To the same question, McCarthy replied: “Oh no…No sir.”
Osborne declined to elaborate on his reason for asking that question after the meeting, only repeating that “I wanted to ensure the integrity of the process was maintained.”
Less than a dozen people attended the interviews, which were conducted in public.
Each of the three committee members -- Osborne, Vic Mazziotti and Scott Ott –asked the two candidates questions in separate interviews.
Also attending were Commissioners Percy Dougherty and Michael Schware, Both were invited by Osborne to also ask questions. Dougherty did, Schware did not.
Not attending were Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners, Thomas Creighton and David Jones.
After the meeting, Osborne said advancing the names of both candidates to the full board was appropriate. He said the questions by his committee didn’t uncover anything that would disqualify either man from consideration.
This is the second time in less than a year that the commissioners are appointing an executive. In August 2012, they appointed Hansell to complete the unexpired term of Don Cunningham, who resigned.
Referring to Hansell’s death, McCarthy said he regrets “the circumstances that bring me here tonight. The county was well-served by his limited time here.”
Hansell resigned on May 17 because of failing health. He died June 4. Before his death, he appointed Thomas Muller, the county’s director of administration, as interim executive.
Muller, a Democrat, is running against Republican Scott Ott for a four-year-term as county executive. That race will be decided in November. Ott or Muller will be sworn in on Jan. 6, replacing whomever commissioners appoint executive Wednesday.
Saying the county executive should do as much as he can to keep politics out of the county government center, McCarthy said if he is appointed, Muller will not represent the county at official functions, such as groundbreakings or photo opportunities.
He also said Muller will be prohibited from engaging in any political activities, such as campaigning or fund-raising, in the government center, on county time or while performing county functions. And he said he would not contribute money to Muller’s political campaign.
On another ethical issue, Osborne asked how Croslis could operate independently as county executive if County Controller Glenn Eckhart still owes him money.
Croslis replied that Eckhart does not owe him money. “As of Dec. 17, I have been paid in full by Mr. Eckhart.”
Osborne said Eckhart, “whose office audits the executive branch,” set up a defense fund to help pay legal fees to Croslis or his law firm when District Attorney Jim Martin legally challenged Eckhart’s right to hold that office shortly after being a county commissioner. Eckhart won that case.
Croslis said he wants to be county executive for the “opportunity to do public service and contribute back to the community.”
“My promise to the commissioners and to the residents of the county is that I will come with a different perspective and I will be willing to take on things that maybe other people with political ambitions might not be.”
One of his goals will be to take politics out of the position. He said it’s a unique opportunity to do public service without being involved in politics or the baggage that comes with politics. He said he’s not interested in running for any office.
He hopes that will free him from people questioning his motives when he makes decisions as county executive.
Croslis said he started his own business and works for himself. He said a multitude of people work for him and rely on him, “but it’s at the point now where I feel I can step back a little and devote my time to something I’ve wanted to do since 2001.”
He started his residential real estate company in 2008, during the Great Recession, “and we’ve grown to 23 agents with offices in three counties. If you do things right, if you do things smart, you can accomplish great things.”
Croslis also hopes he can remove some of the politics from the upcoming budget season. He doesn’t want the budget to become a political football, preferring a collaborative process that begins even before the 2014 budget is introduced to the commissioners in August.
Saying he seeks good ideas from people, Croslis said: “I’m smart enough to know what I know, and I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know.” He intends to immediately form a committee of local business leaders and retired government leaders willing to volunteer to help him with the next budget.
He said his only angle is to get the best budget and “hopefully propose more long term things that people with political ambitions might not want to propose.”
He said the financial priorities are for the county to take care of what it is mandated to do. “Everything else is up for discussion,” he said, indicating that could include funding for parks, arts and the county zoo.
But he said he has no pre-conceived notions about cutting the budget without first talking to those directly involved. He intends to meet with commissioners and department heads.
He also would look at overtime, sick leave, flexible scheduling and early retirement packages for county employees, as well as consolidation and ways the county might raise revenues, including using the county parking deck for hockey arena parking.
McCarthy wants more interaction between commissioners and the county executive on the budget. He doesn’t want the administration’s proposed budget to be a big surprise when it comes before commissioners on Aug. 31 or Sept. 1.
He suggested a couple of commissioners would work on it in a liaison relationship with the administration.
But he also said the executive must focus on much more than just the county budget, adding his many years as a commissioner have given him expertise about the county’s operations, priorities, mission and people.
“I won’t need a learning curve when I’m sworn in. I bring more experience, knowledge of county government and all the entities that we deal with.” He added he also knows the commissioners’ priorities.
“I don’t have a grand plan for six months of administration in the county,” said McCarthy. “My major concern is that the county will go through four executives in an 18-month period, with the new executive coming on in January.
“My goal would be to keep the ship of state afloat, sailing on its mission, bring it into port so the next county executive can get on board and carry the ship of Lehigh County in the direction he thinks is the best way for the county to go.”
He offered “stability and some predictability” – but no disruptions -- while carrying out the functions and missions of the county.
McCarthy said if he would run to be elected county executive, he would have goals and an agenda. “But I have none of that now. That is not my priority at this point.”
He said he has no changes in mind. “This is an appointed position, not an elected position. There’s so little time, but that time is very important to our citizens. It needs to be carried out in a very business-like, professional fashion.”
McCarthy said he will be a full-time executive, explaining other members of his law firm will fill in for him. “I can devote for six months the time, the energy, the focus on this.”
Last December, McCarthy failed in his attempt to increase the $75,000 annual salary for the county executive. He said 176 county employees get paid more. He proposed raising the salary to $127,500.
When Ott asked him about that, McCarthy said the discussion had to be initiated. He noted the county is large operation with more than 2,000 people and a $3.5 million budget. He didn’t expect to get $127,500 but was hoping to get something over $75,000 approved. “I got zero over $75,000.”
Osborne said his committee’s interviews with the two candidates will be posted Tuesday on the county’s website.
Commissioners will have another big decision before them Wednesday night: deciding if they want to approve a tax increment financing plan for the proposed Hamilton Crossings shopping center in Lower Macungie Township.
A no vote will kill the $140-million project, which will include a Costco, Whole Foods Market and a Target as its anchor stores.