How Allegheny County’s next executive could reshape the local power structure | Pittsburgh City Paper

How Allegheny County’s next executive could reshape the local power structure

The next county leader will appoint numerous unelected officials to shape policy.

click to enlarge How Allegheny County’s next executive could reshape the local power structure
CP Illustration: Lucy Chen
Pittsburgh City Paper partnered with PublicSource to produce this story. PublicSource is a nonprofit newsroom serving the Pittsburgh region.

The next Allegheny County executive will not only have sway over the county’s billions of dollars in spending and become one of the most prominent public figures in the region. They will also have a big impact on the composition of dozens of appointed boards and commissions that form the county’s vast unelected power structure.

The Pittsburgh region is governed in large part by around 500 unelected members of boards, commissions, and public agencies. Of those, around 300 seats are on boards for which the county executive or their administration appoints all or some members, usually subject to council approval. That allows the executive to make their ideological imprint on bodies that set policy on public health, wastewater, transit, corrections, and much more.

This power structure is stocked today with appointees of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has been in office for 11 years. But Fitzgerald is term-limited, and in January 2024, a new executive will take over and begin making their mark on the county’s board network.

They won’t be able to remove all of Fitzgerald’s appointees, but can replace them when their terms expire. Many appointees are serving despite the expiration of their terms; appointees often stay on until a successor is named.

These four notable boards demonstrate how this year’s executive race could shake the region’s governing structure.

click to enlarge How Allegheny County’s next executive could reshape the local power structure
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Allegheny County Jail

A crossroads for jail oversight

Board name: Jail Oversight Board
Board mission: Oversee the operation and maintenance of the jail and all alternative housing facilities, and the health and safety of incarcerated people.
Members: 9
Executive appointments: 3

A new county executive would be able to shape the Jail Oversight Board through appointments, and their mere presence at meetings would be a significant shift from how the board now operates.

By statute, the county executive serves as one of the board’s nine members. But Fitzgerald has almost never attended monthly board meetings himself, instead sending a proxy, which some board members and observers have argued is not legal.

Fitzgerald’s spokesperson, Amie Downs, responded to PublicSource’s questions about the executive’s lack of attendance, saying, “The County Executive is statutorily appointed to dozens of boards and committees and is unable to personally attend each one. He does have representation at each.”

Advocates and oversight board observers have frequently said, though, that the executive’s absence impacts the board’s effectiveness.

“The presence of the person ultimately responsible for the jail would have, in my opinion, a big impact,” said Brad Korinski, who worked with the oversight board from 2012 through 2021, most recently as an aide in the county controller’s office. “It would send a message to the jail administrators that the board is an important government entity and one to be taken seriously.”

Board member and county Councilor Bethany Hallam said a new executive and their appointees could join her in trying to hold the jail administration accountable. Hallam presses Warden Orlando Harper and other jail administrators for information at board meetings, but often is alone in her efforts and rarely gets majority support on motions.

“The board could hold the jail administration’s feet to the fire, making them answer questions put before them, making sure they do the things they say they were going to do, making sure they follow the law,” she said.

Both Korinski and Hallam accused the Fitzgerald administration of being apathetic toward the board’s mission and even trying to “stymie the board at every turn,” as Korinski put it.

Downs said the executive meets with the warden and other jail officials “on an ongoing basis” and pointed out that this is the only board whose recommendations go back to the executive branch for implementation.

By statute, the nine-member board includes the executive, the sheriff, the controller, two judges, a county council member, and three community members appointed by the executive and approved by council.

Two of the current appointed members — Terri Klein and Abass Kamara — are serving on expired terms, meaning the executive can move to replace them at any time. In 2022, Fitzgerald nominated a former jail warden to replace Klein, but county council defeated the nomination by a narrow vote, allowing Klein to continue serving.

“[The law] does not say to appoint the cronies of the county executive,” Hallam said.

click to enlarge How Allegheny County’s next executive could reshape the local power structure
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Clairton Coke Works

Sewer fix could test green cred

Board name: Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN]
Board mission: Oversee development and maintenance of sewage systems countywide and fund operations by setting individual user rates, with limited reliance on county government.
Members: 7
Executive appointments: 3 direct appointments and 1 joint appointment with Pittsburgh’s mayor

Four years before Fitzgerald took office in 2012, ALCOSAN had committed, in federal court, to reducing the roughly 9 billion gallons of untreated sewage water that, each year, flow into local rivers and streams. Those plans — mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — have finally taken solid form, along with a $2 billion price tag and a 2036 projected completion date.

Many advocates are already disheartened. In October, local policy groups authored a 37-page study criticizing the plan for emphasizing so-called gray infrastructure — like concrete tunnels — instead of green infrastructure — like rain gardens. The report also said the current plan could still permit around 3 billion gallons of untreated water to pour into local waterways each year.

Mike Hiller, executive director for the environmental group Upstream PGH, said finalizing the consent decree is a meaningful step forward for ALCOSAN, but he’d like to see an executive candidate emphasize green infrastructure and environmental issues.

“I do believe a county executive with a vision for a more resilient, more green future for the region could absolutely be powerful,” Hiller said. “I would hope that [the candidates] would be talking openly about climate change and how it’s here, and the rainfalls are more intense, and they’re creating flooding.”

An executive can help deliver bolder change on clean water and environmental initiatives, according to Hiller, by working with municipal leaders on a regional strategic vision and pushing for greater funding.

Hiller said the GROW program — which has so far disbursed nearly $70 million to local municipalities for funding green infrastructure projects — represents the kind of positive synergy regional leadership can foster. Recently released federal infrastructure monies offer new opportunities to build on this, he added.

“I think we’re at a really critical moment in history with infrastructure,” Hiller said. “There's a massive infusion of funding from the federal government, and I would love to see Pittsburgh take advantage of that.”

Health panel shows intrigue ahead

Board name: Board of Health
Board mission: Formulate rules and regulations for the prevention of disease, promote and preserving public health, and oversee the Health Department
Members: 9
Executive appointments: 9

The Board of Health is at the epicenter of some of the most critical challenges facing the next executive — ones involving public health and the environment, particularly air quality. The board has recently assigned hefty fines to polluters such as U.S. Steel, and may well find itself at the center of the next executive’s plans to address the county’s poor air quality.

The board is also emblematic of a widespread phenomenon in county government: seven of its nine members serve despite expired terms.

Six of the members saw their terms expire in January 2020, and one expired in January 2022, but they have neither been reappointed nor replaced. The other two members will see their terms expire days after the next executive takes office.

The bottom line: Unless new appointees are named and confirmed this year, the next executive could appoint all nine of the Board of Health members at any time.

More than 90 members of boards and commissions appointed in whole or in part by the executive’s administration are serving on expired terms right now. Another 75 are due to expire this year. And 56 are due up in 2024.

Fitzgerald has made appointments regularly in the past year, but not at a pace that would fill these gaps before the end of this year. Unless he changes course, the open seats will present the next leader with a major opportunity to shape key governing bodies.

It remains to be seen how much resistance Fitzgerald will face in county council when making appointments this year. Last month, council approved appointments to the CCAC board, some lasting until 2028, by 12-2 votes. Councilors Bethany Hallam and Olivia Bennett said they would not support any appointments that last more than two years into the next executive’s term.

Downs said in an email to PublicSource that Fitzgerald will continue to fill board seats without regard to the electoral calendar.

“He inherited a number of appointments — some of which remained and even continue to serve today, others who were replaced or chose not to serve any longer,” she said. “The person after him will have the same experience.”

To the contrary, Council President Pat Catena said he thinks that as long as seats are adequately filled by members serving beyond their terms, new appointments should be held over for the next administration.

“A new executive should have fresh faces,” he said. Asked whether he would try to have council block new appointments, he said he will “certainly take that into consideration.”

click to enlarge How Allegheny County’s next executive could reshape the local power structure
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Passengers aboard a PRT bus.

Can transit rebound from pandemic losses?

Board name: Pittsburgh Regional Transit [PRT]
Board mission: Oversee a staff of 2,600 employees who operate 700 buses, 80 light rail vehicles, and two incline systems, funded in part through county and state sources.
Members: 11
Executive appointments: 6

Nearly three years on from the COVID-19 outbreak, bus and light rail ridership in Allegheny County remains below 60% of its prior average. On top of this, PRT has struggled with chronic staffing shortages prompting repeated services cuts.

Despite these challenges, advocates say a new county executive who prioritizes transit could build an impressive system that would help redress related issues like income inequality and climate change.

“We want people to vote for transit in this next election cycle because probably the county executive has some of the most power to influence what that looks like,” said Laura Chu Wiens of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

Katherine Kelleman, PRT’s CEO, said that, in addition to appointing board members, the executive shapes the organization by acting as its ambassador.

“The county executive helps make the case that public transit is vital to the people of Western Pennsylvania as he engages with other local leaders, business communities, and potential funding entities in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C.,” she said.

The county’s transit system has evolved significantly during Fitzgerald’s tenure. Right after he was sworn in, the North Shore Connector formally opened, extending light rail to the North Side. Since then, distance-based fares have been scrapped in favor of flat fees, and riders can track live vehicle movements, buy digital tickets, and more on PRT’s mobile application.

Wiens said she wants to see the next executive lay out clear steps to remedy the staffing and ridership issues. And to keep them more accountable, she’d also like to see more regular riders appointed to the board of directors.

“We believe [transit is] a human right, like mobility and freedom of movement is a human right, because it is the connecting tissue to access all other human rights.”

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @chwolfson.

Jamie Wiggan is City Paper’s news editor. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JamieWiggan

This story was fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.

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