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Reform at LCB awash in politics

| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

Seven years ago, Joe Conti began his tenure as chief executive of the state Liquor Control Board amid bitter political tension at the agency.

Almost a month after Conti quietly stepped away from the LCB — the focus of a protracted tug-of-war over whether liquor sales should be privatized — the fate of his controversial post remains, at best, uncertain.

Conti retired from his $156,700-a-year position on Feb. 2, then immediately returned as a part-time, $80-an-hour consultant until July 25, when he exhausted the 95 days allowed under state law.

Brought on board during the reign of former Gov. Ed Rendell, Conti's hiring prompted then-LCB Chairman Jonathan Newman to abruptly resign, citing the governor's heavy-handed push to have the three-member liquor board hire Conti, a former Republican state senator from Bucks County, without question or input.

Since that time, critics and supporters have been sharply divided about whether the post should be filled.

Without it, supporters say, the agency loses a level of professional management and efficiency only possible with a full-time chief executive. But critics say it's an unneeded taxpayer expense because a paid board and full-time staff can competently manage the LCB's day-to-day operations.

Gov. Tom Corbett has sided with the critics, repeatedly stating that he sees no need for a chief executive.

Eric Shirk, a spokesman for Corbett, said the governor doesn't have a direct authority to nominate someone for the job. It's an LCB staff position that the board would fill, Shirk said.

But the three-member board has been operating with just two members since Patrick J. Stapleton III stepped down in October.

Board Chairman Joseph “Skip” Brion, appointed by Corbett, and Robert Marcus, appointed by Rendell, have not publicly offered any names or said when they will fill the job.

And agency officials are tight-lipped about whether the position will be filled.

“A decision has not been made in regard to that position,” said spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman. “Discussions are ongoing. That's all I can say at this point.”

Corbett, a Republican, nominated former U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, D-Schuylkill County, to the board in mid-June, but the Senate has yet to consider his nomination. Holden will need a two-thirds vote of the 50-member Senate to take his seat. Although the Senate is controlled by Republicans, they have not been generous in giving Corbett what he has wanted.

Lawmakers could vote to confirm Holden when they return to Harrisburg this fall.

A third board member could allow the agency to move forward on issues on which Brion and Marcus disagree, including the fate of the LCB's line of in-house brands of wine and vodka.

Even with a full board, members may still be hesitant to hire a CEO with uncertainty swirling about the future of the agency and the state store system, said Sen. Jim Ferlo, of Highland Park, the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel that considered liquor privatization.

“(Board members) are saying, ‘Get this resolved. Give us the direction we need,' ” Ferlo said.

At least one privatization plan put forth by lawmakers this summer would alter the position and the way it's filled.

A proposal by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, to phase out state stores and expand where beer, wine and liquor could be sold would recast the chief executive position as an “executive director.”

The plan would require the governor to nominate and the Senate to confirm someone for the job.

“It makes it more clear the director serves the board. The board is the entity that should be making the decisions, setting the policies,” said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Pileggi. “If you're changing the function of the LCB as dramatically as the Pileggi amendment proposes to do, it's obviously an appropriate time to consider the structure of the management there.”

Pileggi's plan would require the Executive Board, a statewide group that handles administrative duties such as establishing salaries, pay increases and job qualifications, to set the salary of the LCB executive director.

Conti's pay, more than double the LCB chairman's $74,400 salary, was a point of contention when he was hired to the post.

But Ferlo said filling the job should be left up to the LCB members.

“I think the Pileggi model was to micromanage,” Ferlo said. “There's a way for the ... Legislature to have oversight, and that's through our appropriations.”

The LCB reported sales of nearly $2.2 billion for the 2012-13 fiscal year and profit of more than $128 million. The agency turned $80 million over to the state's General Fund last year.

“At that scale and magnitude of activity, they should be able to hire somebody akin to running a major corporation,” Ferlo said. “It doesn't have to be a political appointee per se. They should look for the best and the brightest.”

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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