STON — With a simple voice vote after a brief discussion Wednesday, Northampton County Council members kicked off a process that could shift the balance of power in county government for years to come.
Members of the Governance Committee recommended council seek bids to hire legal counsel to review the Administrative Code. The document dictates how county government functions by dividing the government into departments and assigning each one duties.
The code also spells out how contracts are awarded and when those contracts must get council's approval, and shifting that power could change the dynamic between council and the executive.
The code has long been a source of frustration of council members, who complain it is riddled with ambiguities and oversights. Council President John Cusick pointed out it fails to mention divisions such as Farmland Preservation or Open Space despite being amended 43 times in 38 years.
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"It will be a real great chance for the departments to dive down and make any improvements and changes to reflect current policies and practices," Cusick said.
Director of Administration Luis Campos said the administration was on board with the request and believed there would be ways to streamline how the government functions.
The proposal received quick and unanimous support from the council members present. Councilman Hayden Phillips recommended the review better define what makes a conflict of interest. The county has not closely enforced the protocols in recent years, allowing former Human Services Director Ross Marcus to work for the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, a county vendor he was directly involved in.
Opening up the entire code for revision, however, could restart the debate over the executive's spending limits. Under the current code, the executive is allowed to award most contracts of up to $100,000 without council's approval. In Lehigh and Erie counties, the other third-class counties with separate executive and legislative branches, that spending limit is $10,000.
Council attempted to roll back that limit to $25,000 in January 2015 after Executive John Brown inked a $76,500 contract with public relations firm Sahl Communications. The effort failed, however, when Brown vetoed the amendment and council couldn't muster six votes to override him.
Aside from simplifying the convoluted 40-page section about contracts, Phillips hoped to readdress the spending limit debate. Critics said that by lowering the limit, council would bog the county down from fulfilling simple contracts that are part of normal business operations. The code can be written so basic and essential supplies don't have to get approval, he said.
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"There's things like the Sahl contract that we absolutely should be looking at. People are saying, 'Oh, you want to hold up toilet paper contracts.' No, I don't," Phillips said.
Brown did not attend Wednesday's meeting, but he has previously argued the executive's spending limit should be hiked to $250,000 instead of cut. Council only meets twice a month, so contracts can linger for weeks longer than necessary, he said. In an interview Tuesday, he was ambivalent about renewed discussion on the limits of the executive's spending powers.
"Wherever we settle, I'll operate within that. Would I prefer a little more latitude than that? Sure," he said. "I'm not driving that discussion in any way. It's not a big issue for me."
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The full council will vote Thursday whether to accept the recommendation and hire legal counsel.