Merger Benefits Not Necessarily White and Black | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Merger Benefits Not Necessarily White and Black

One day our city and county governments will merge and, "we should give in to the fact that this is inevitable," says Richard Adams, dean of Community College of Allegheny County's Homewood branch.


But the merger won't be without a fight to ensure that minorities have a stake in the combination. The Western Pennsylvania Black Political Assembly, which Adams co-chairs, has already begun voicing reservations and recommendations. These will turn to demands if minorities become an afterthought in regional reorganization, as they were in the composition of the city's financial oversight board.


On Jan 27, Ray Reeves, a consultant with Sustainable Pittsburgh, led a forum among Assembly members and Urban League Young Professionals on how residents -- minorities particularly -- would be politically and socially affected by the merger. 


Although other regions have been restructured dating back to the '60s (Louisville, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Portland, Indianapolis) there is no perfect model for merged regional governments: Each post-merger government had unique functions, consolidated services and infrastructures. Thus far, there have been no scientific analyses of the social conditions before the merges and after. Reeves believes Pittsburgh could become the model, since University of Pittsburgh researcher Ralph Bangs has already produced the kind of studies needed for post-merger comparisons.


Many in the audience, particularly those from the Assembly, were more concerned with black political power. Blacks currently make up 27 percent of the city but only 12 percent of the county. With a city-county merger, black voting strength would be diluted and elected seats occupied by blacks would likely decrease. Today, although blacks hold two of 15 county council seats, there is one black elected to the 12 county row offices, Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts, a position threatened anyway by a May referendum reducing the row offices to four.


One answer lies in proportional voting, sometimes called cumulative voting, in which a voter is given many votes as there are candidates in each particular office and can choose to spread them among the candidates (or lavish them all on only one candidate) as he or she desires.


In Louisville, the state is considering legislation mandating proportional representation of racial minorities on all governmental committees, boards and authorities.


As the Assembly's Carlos Brossard concluded, "There's only one argument for a merger -- efficiency. All other arguments don't make sense."


Nor do the other arguments make for dollars saved, says the Sustainable Pittsburgh study. Reeves argues that if the city's and county's parks and recreation departments were merged and "one of the functions [of those departments] is cutting the grass ... you could combine forces but there's not going to be any less grass to cut." Managerial and administrative functions would be cut, too, but that doesn't necessarily improve government, or necessitate the collapse of municipal boundaries, he says.


"We need to be suspicious of anything that moves government and popular decision further away from us," said CCAC's Adams. "If it's efficiency versus democracy, then I don't care what it costs for us to have higher participation at the voting level."


Ed Gainey, aide to Mayor Tom Murphy, said consolidation was already a done deal. "While we debate whether this is a right or wrong cause," he said, "they're moving ahead with the money already in the case ... just like how it happened with [slots gambling]. While we debated it right or wrong, the legislation was being pushed ahead."

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