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‘Watchdog’ moves to the front row

GOP’s Walter Griffith defeats Democrat Bob Morgan and Independent Wil Toole.

Walter Griffith reviews election results at Luzerne County Republican headquarters Tuesday night before unofficial results made it clear he had won the county controller race.

CHARLOTTE BARTIZEK/FOR THE TIMES LEADER

Walter Griffith’s days of challenging Luzerne County Commissioners from the audience are over because he now has a seat at the head table and the clout of the county controller seat.

The 55-year-old Wilkes-Barre Republican was elected county controller with 28,160 votes, fending off challengers Bob Morgan and Wil Toole, according to unofficial results.

Morgan, a Democrat, received 21, 916 votes, and Toole, an Independent, garnered 8,197 votes, the results showed.

Griffith celebrated his victory at the county Republican Party headquarters in downtown Wilkes-Barre. His relieved wife, Mary Jo, rushed over to give him a kiss when it became clear that he was the winner.

County residents are “anxiously waiting for someone who is going to look out for their best interest,” Griffith said.

“It’s a great day for the taxpayers in this county because they’ve obviously taken the time to do the research to pick the candidate that’s going to be their taxpayer advocate,” Griffith said.

Griffith said a family member plans to take over his business – Rutter Auto Service in Nanticoke – by the end of December.

“The big issue with the county taxpayers is they’re tired of paying people to come and go whenever they feel like it,” Griffith said.

The election of a Republican controller is a feat in the county because there are more Democratic voters.

But Morgan may also have lost some Democratic votes to Toole, who was active in the Democratic Party before he switched his registration.

Morgan, a 46-year-old financial consultant from Fairview Township, said he called Griffith to congratulate him.

“I truly wish him the best,” Morgan said.

Toole, a former Pittston city clerk from Dupont, had said he was not staying up for the results and would “read about it in the morning.”

In the event that he lost, Toole issued the following comment: “Congratulations to the winner. I pray your campaign promises were not simply campaign rhetoric, and I wish you success in your efforts as county controller.”

Griffith has become a regular at county meetings and said he would use the controller’s office to demand more accountability. He vowed to force the county to adhere to the law and internal policies and said he would push for additional policies.

“I will make sure that our audits are done timely. I’m going to make sure that everybody is held accountable in their financial responsibilities to the county,” Griffith said Tuesday night.

He also promised to create a controller’s office hotline for the public to anonymously report problems with county spending.

Luzerne County has been without an elected controller since Maryanne Petrilla became a county commissioner in January 2008.

The county controller is paid $36,562 to be a watchdog for taxpayers, making sure all expenditures are properly approved and documented.

The controller also has a powerful vote on three boards: the Salary Board, which creates jobs and sets salaries; the Retirement Board, which manages the roughly $167 million employee pension fund; and the Prison Board, which oversees hiring and spending in the county’s prison complex.

Though he was elected as a Republican, Griffith said he won’t let party loyalty dictate his decisions.

Republican minority Commissioner Stephen A. Urban said he was pleased with Griffith’s victory. Urban was at the party headquarters monitoring results Tuesday night.

“The people spoke that they really want a full-time watchdog at the courthouse to watch over the $250 million in general fund and human services dollars that flow through the county,” Urban said.

Urban said Griffith “definitely has his work cut out for him.”

“We look forward to his help to eliminate the budget deficit,” he said.

Petrilla, a Democrat who serves as commissioner chairwoman, hopes Griffith comes into office “with an open mind.”

“I’m sure it will be no time at all before he sees for himself the remarkable improvements we have made in the last 18 months towards fiscal recovery,” Petrilla said. “We all are working towards the same end – accountability and fiscal responsibility for our taxpayers.”

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