It will be up to a state Commonwealth Court judge to decide whether to appoint William B. Lynch, who also led the Pennsylvania National Guard for five years, to succeed David Unkovic as the leader of an unprecedented state takeover of one of its cities.
Lynch expressed confidence that he can complete a financial arrangement that so far has eluded state appointees, city leaders, creditors and taxpayers who say their poor city will become poorer if they are unfairly railroaded into paying the tab for an illegitimate debt.
Aides to the Republican governor approached Lynch about the job, and he accepted on Thursday.
"I'm taking it because I guess I'm a bit of a sucker for a challenge," Lynch told reporters during a Capitol news conference. "I'm taking it because I've been back from Iraq a couple years now and this seems to be something that needs to be done, it seems to be something that can be done, particularly by someone who doesn't bring a lot of preconceived notions to the issue."
Lynch, 69, was the Pennsylvania adjutant general from 1999 to 2004 under former Gov. Tom Ridge and briefly under former Gov. Ed Rendell. After an unsuccessful run as a Republican for the U.S. House in 2004, Lynch went on to work in Baghdad for several years as a senior civilian planner and strategist as part of the American mission there. In 2010, he campaigned for Corbett as part of a veterans' coalition and served on Corbett's gubernatorial transition team.
Lynch joined the Air Force in 1964 after graduating from Brown University and piloted numerous missions in Vietnam.
The Oct. 20 takeover law was part of a broader effort by Corbett and the Republican-controlled Legislature to force the city to pay down an approximately $300 million debt tied to its municipal trash incinerator without letting it slap a tax on commuters or seek bankruptcy to extract concessions from creditors.
Under the law, state appointees have broad authority over the city's day-to-day financial dealings, as well as the power to sell city assets and negotiate contracts, but not to raise taxes.
Lynch's nomination comes as several Harrisburg city officials are pressing the court to investigate why Unkovic resigned. Lynch said he would be happy to speak with Unkovic, but did not want to say before he has been appointed by the court whether he thought Unkovic should tell the court what problems he encountered.
Unkovic, a career municipal bond lawyer, held financial control of Harrisburg for barely three months before he left in late March.
In his hand-written resignation letter to Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, Unkovic said he'd done the best he could to bring stability to the city, but was frustrated by "political and ethical crosswinds" and unable to achieve a solution.
His plans had included tax increases on city residents, renegotiating labor contracts and selling or leasing various city assets, such as parking garages and the incinerator.
But Unkovic also had become popular with opponents of the state takeover after he agreed that the city could not pay off the entire debt, and suggested that he'd take the city into bankruptcy court if creditors and other parties were unwilling to make concessions.
Two major creditors, Dauphin County and bond insurer Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp. of New York, are suing the city and the city authority that owns the incinerator, which are tens of millions of dollars behind in payments on debt stemming from a costly and mistake-filled overhaul of the aging incinerator.
Two days before he resigned, Unkovic said he asked state and federal prosecutors to look into an auditor's report in January on the financing of the incinerator's retrofit. The audit's authors said that, in some cases, city and county officials took "strained positions" on state municipal debt financing law to allow the retrofit to proceed.