The selection of city and county watchdogs is all about control | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The selection of city and county watchdogs is all about control

"What's at stake is the independence of the office."

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The selection of city and county watchdogs is all about control
Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb and challenger Natalia Rudiak

Pittsburgh City Controller

Michael Lamb is comfortable with the political cliché that all elections are a referendum on the incumbent.

"We're doing more audits, we've got more advanced degrees and CPAs on staff now," says Lamb, who is seeking a third term as the city's top financial watchdog. "I think my job in this campaign has been to remind people about the good work we do every day in the city controller's office."

Lamb touts the ways he's modernized the office: He put monthly expenditure and revenue reports online; created searchable databases for city contracts and campaign finance data; and worked with the county to implement the JD Edwards financial-management system, which Lamb says saved the city about $10 million in that initial upgrade.

He also helped spearhead the creation of The Congress of Neighboring Communities, an effort to get 37 communities surrounding Pittsburgh to collaborate on everything from transit to sewer issues.

"If you look at my career, it's been a career of reform and implementing change ... bringing technological innovation to the fore — whether it's my prior life at the county or now in the city," Lamb says.

Many of the city's top endorsers appear to agree. Lamb has the support of the Allegheny County Labor Council, teacher and police unions, the LGBT-friendly Gertrude Stein Club, Pittsburgh Building Trades, 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club and the county Democratic Party.

His challenger, City Councilor Natalia Rudiak, doesn't have such a rosy view of Lamb's record and is trying to frame the election as a choice between a "vision for the next chapter of Pittsburgh's history" and "legacy politics and machine politics."

Rudiak, who serves as chair of council's Finance and Law Committee, says Lamb has failed to catch corruption and root out ineffective programs. She often cites the Bureau of Police, which was embroiled in scandal after top officials diverted money into an unauthorized account for personal use.

"If the police bureau had been properly audited, we could have caught these issues much earlier on," Rudiak says. "It shouldn't have to take a grand-jury investigation to catch issues of corruption."

Lamb called that criticism "absurd" and "despicable," noting that city council didn't create a trust fund for the city's share of secondary employment revenue, so "there was nothing for us to audit."

Rudiak also points to the JD Edwards system — but blasted Lamb for allowing cost overruns on the payroll component of the system to balloon to over $1 million. "He was the last person to sign the checks on all those bills," Rudiak says, noting that the payroll system has not yet been implemented.

Lamb says the cost of the payroll system has grown because the city demanded the company change its software to work with existing accounting practices and that it wasn't his project to shepherd.

If elected, Rudiak says, she would digitize the controller's office, which still relies heavily on paper invoicing; create a scorecard for city spending on women- and minority-owned businesses; and institute a new claims-management system that would let the city address the "spiraling cost of legal claims against the city."

Supporters of Rudiak's agenda include: AFSCME Retirees, the Laborers District Council of Western Pennsylvania, paramedics and Teamsters/Graphic Communications Workers Local 24. She's also supported by the Sierra Club Allegheny Group, Steel City Stonewall Democrats and African Americans for Good Government, among others. And, of course, Peduto and Fitzgerald.

But like the county race, Lamb and Rudiak have differing views about what it means to be an "independent" controller, the only citywide elected office other than the mayor.

"My record has been one of independence," says Lamb, "and ... she's pretty much a rubber stamp for the Peduto administration."

Rudiak counters that the relationship between the controller and mayor should mimic a company's chief financial officer and its executive. "The CFO of any organization should be realistic and collaborative," she says.

Asked whether she worries about the criticism that she's running to get rid of one of Peduto's political adversaries, she says, "I can scream until I'm blue in the face, but a lot of people have their minds made up about the lens through which they'll view this election. ... I have been fiercely proud of the independence of my donor base."

Though neither candidate would provide a list of campaign contributions in advance of the filing deadline, Lamb wonders what that might reveal.

"You don't want to seem overly beholden to the executive," he says. "It's going to be interesting to see where the money is coming from."