Luzerne County manager wants to address election management turnover

Cecilia Nysing

Luzerne County Manager Randy Robertson said management turnover in the county’s election bureau must be addressed.

Robertson, who has been overseeing the county since June 13, said he conveyed this message to council members last week when informing them of Election Director Michael Susek’s resignation.

Susek is leaving Aug. 11 after eight months in the position.

He is the third election director since Marissa Crispell resigned from the position in September 2019, following criticism over her participation in vendor-funded advisory board trips.

Crispell’s successor, Shelby Watchilla, left for another position in December 2020, after a year in the position. Bob Morgan, the next director, departed in October 2021 after six months on the job, also to accept employment outside county government.

The county has had four deputy election directors since Mary Beth Steininger resigned in August 2020 to accept another position outside county government.

Dino Ninotti was promoted to deputy the following month and resigned in January 2021 to take a private sector position. Eryn Harvey, who is currently running for state representative, held the deputy position from February 2021 until resigning in February this year. Sarah Knoell was hired as deputy in March and resigned effective June 3 to pursue another career path.

Beth Gilbert McBride started work as deputy election director July 15.

Susek said in his resignation letter he has obtained another position that advances “elections integrity and the profession as a whole on a national level.”

He declined to comment on whether other factors played a role in his decision.

During a county election board meeting last week, Susek noted he supports free speech but has personally received menacing voicemails since he started as election director in December that, at times, have made him uncomfortable coming to election board meetings. Some election directors across the country have received death threats, he had said.

Digging deeper

Robertson said he wants the administration to work with council and the county’s volunteer five-citizen, bipartisan election board to identify issues that may be contributing to turnover.

It must be a “combined effort” because there may be many factors and no simple solution, he said.

One obvious stress is the “enormous pressure and near daily microscopic scrutiny” the county leadership, community and media place on the managers in these positions, he said.

“We’re going to have to make a concerted effort, I believe, to create an environment where they feel this is a home for them for the future,” Robertson said. “There’s no one person who can fix it.”

Robertson also will explore whether compensation is an issue in the director position but emphasized he has not concluded an increase is necessary.

Salary increases require careful consideration, he said, because he must ensure there are budgeted funds and that a change in one department does not have a ripple effect on the fairness and equity of compensation for other department heads throughout the county, he said.

A Plains Township native and 1996 Coughlin High School graduate, Susek received $64,500 annually in the county position, which is the same compensation that had been paid to the last two directors. He came to the county with 15 years of elections administration experience through positions in three Colorado counties. He also has master’s degrees in philosophy and public administration.

Next director

Robertson said he plans to promptly launch the “biggest search we can” to find a new director.

“This is one with a true sense of urgency,” Robertson said.

Once the position is advertised, he is hopeful the county will attract applicants with tangible experience in elections and management and the ability to serve a county of 320,000 residents who have passionate and often opposing views on election matters, he said.

“It takes a person who has very thick skin,” he added.

He has not determined which worker or workers will temporarily oversee the office when Susek leaves and said he is still in the process of “soliciting thoughts.”

Susek promised to work with the county for a “smooth transition” and said he has confidence in the remaining election bureau management team of McBride and Operations Manager Emily Cook.

Cook started working for the bureau as an administrative assistant in September and was promoted to operations manager in March.

McBride is new to the bureau. Susek has expressed full confidence in her appointment to the position. Some have criticized the hiring, in part because she is set to continue serving as a Wilkes-Barre Council member until that seat expires. McBride has stressed she will remain “completely apolitical” in the deputy role.

Election board

Election Board Chairwoman Denise Williams said she was “very surprised” to learn of Susek’s resignation through a media report Thursday night.

The subject did not come up during an election board meeting the previous evening.

“I was disappointed to learn of the resignation because he’s very good at what he’s doing,” Williams said of Susek. “I wish him the best at his new endeavor.”

The council-adopted administrative code requires the county manager to consult with the election board before hiring an election director, although the decision is ultimately up to the manager.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Luzerne County manager wants to address election management turnover

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