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White Like Me

Old white guys call for oversight-board diversity

Efforts to make Pittsburgh's financial oversight board more diverse have received support from a somewhat surprising source: the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. But the conference, a key regional player whose members are among the area's top business leaders, hasn't exactly been crowing about it.


When state legislators appointed the five-member Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA) board in February, advocates for women and minorities objected that the board -- which will oversee the city's ailing finances for the next seven years -- consists entirely of older white males. A measure to add a woman and an African American was proposed by state Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Hill District), but despite support from local Democrats and Republicans, it has idled in Harrisburg for months.


In mid-May, however, the Allegheny Conference's board of directors voted to support Wheatley's legislation. "[W]e believe that making the Board more diverse will facilitate the development of creative solutions and forging of community acceptance," asserted a May 20 letter to legislators signed by the Conference's chairman, Marty McGuinn. Citing Wheatley's legislation, McGuinn urged legislators to "consider immediate action to support expansion of the Board and selection of a qualified woman and African-American."


What caused the Conference to make such a request? "I pushed the importance of the ICA board hearing from the city fathers, and [the Conference] bought it," says City Councilor Sala Udin, one of the ICA's most vocal critics. "I don't know that the letter by itself will make a huge difference, but certainly it helps when you have the conference speaking in favor of legislation."


The board has not spoken very loudly, however. Even as the conference has publicly lobbied for plans to bail out the city in recent weeks, it has yet to issue so much as a press release about its call for diversity. Conference insiders say they feared doing so might come off as grandstanding on a sensitive issue, and that already-recalcitrant legislators might be even less likely to take action.


"This has been under the radar screen," agrees bill-sponsor Wheatley, and that's fine with him. "We're not trying to embarrass anyone or one-up them, and I don't like to run out to the media when we don't have any leverage to pull people to the table."


 Then again, sometimes the media is the only leverage a measure has. Wheatley himself predicts his measure is unlikely to come up for a vote any time soon -- a problem he says "falls on [Democrats] as well. We haven't been able to agree on how we should use the support we got from the Conference." Plans to hold a press conference citing the letter were scotched, he says, because of conflicting schedules and Harrisburg's focus on issues like gambling expansion. "I'm getting more lip service than I'm getting action" from other legislators, Wheatley says. "The real pressure to do anything has passed. I certainly appreciate Marty McGuinn writing the letter, but that will not be enough."


It can't help that, of the 50 board members and officers listed on the Conference stationery, only a half-dozen are women or minorities. But Udin says that doesn't hurt the conference's credibility: "Even the Conference has improved because of the demands put on them. Everybody has to start somewhere."

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