Drink tax still stirring debate

Council Democrats facing Roddey lawsuit

More than a year since it was proposed, Allegheny County's 10 percent drink tax remains a hot public policy debate, keeping county officials and others in a seemingly unending political brawl.

In the latest twist, Democrats on Allegheny County Council are facing a lawsuit by Jim Roddey, former county chief executive.

Mr. Roddey, the county Republican chairman, contends that the Democrats -- who pushed through current Chief Executive Dan Onorato's proposal to fund mass transit using a drink tax -- violated Pennsylvania's open records and meetings law in a private meeting last month, when they met to plan how to deal with a citizen-driven petition to reduce the drink tax from 10 percent to 0.5 percent.

To make matters even more strange, a Republican councilman, Chuck McCullough, who is a practicing attorney, announced last week that he is defending one of his Democratic counterparts, James Ellenbogen, in the suit by Mr. Roddey free of charge.

Mr. McCullough, who was the county solicitor under Mr. Roddey, says he decided to take on Mr. Ellenbogen as a client "out of friendship and to lower the level of personal acrimony that has come about because of this drink tax."

The question arose whether Mr. McCullough's gesture would possibly influence Mr. Ellenbogen on other policy matters or pose a conflict of interest.

"I see no conflict of interest here at all. Mr. Ellenbogen has a right to legal counsel of his own choosing and I believe my role [as Mr. Ellenbogen's attorney] would stand up in court," Mr. McCullough said, adding that Mr. Roddey should have excluded Mr. Ellenbogen in his lawsuit against the council Democrats.

Mr. Ellenbogen, D-Banksville, who was elected last year, describes himself as an independent Democrat. He was elected after challenging in court a council ordinance that said he could not serve on the body because he is a state employee.

He also said he sees no conflict of interest in Mr. McCullough representing him.

"I am a working guy. I don't have money to start throwing away on lawsuits that I don't think I should be involved in," said Mr. Ellenbogen, who voted against the drink tax.

Mr. Ellenbogen said he decided to get his own attorney instead of relying on the services of County Council's solicitor, Jack Cambest, because Mr. Cambest concurred with the council attempt to block his election last year.

Council President Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat, sees other motives in Mr. McCullough's and Mr. Ellenbogen's announcement at council last week.

"There are people on this council that want to harm this government. [Mr. Ellenbogen] has been working with the Republicans against [County Council] and [Mr. Onorato's] administration," he said, adding that he believes there is a conflict of interest in the legal relationship between Mr. McCullough and Mr. Ellenbogen.

Mr. McCullough added to the unfolding drink tax rancor last week when he and a Downtown restaurant owner filed notice in Common Pleas Court of their intent to sue County Council.

Mr. McCullough and John Petrolias, owner of Smithfield Cafe, are challenging the power council gave itself in creating ballot initiatives -- specifically a referendum council approved in an effort to protect the drink tax.

After granting itself authority to put referendum questions on the ballot last month, County Council submitted this question: "Shall the county enact an ordinance to increase real estate taxes in order to repeal the alcoholic drink tax?"

That was meant to counter the anti-drink tax group Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation, which collected 44,498 petition signatures in support of a ballot question reducing the drink tax.

"I want to preserve the right, if necessary, to challenge the referendum question that originated from County Council," Mr. McCullough, R-Upper St. Clair, said. He is the only member of council who did not attend a July 15 special session when council voted 14-0 to give itself authority to place referendum questions on the ballot.

Mr. McCullough contends that council gave itself powers to change the county's administrative code -- power it doesn't have according to the Home Rule Charter.

Meanwhile, Councilman Matt Drozd, R-Ross, plans to introduce legislation at tonight's council meeting demanding that all of the Democrats who have been sued by Mr. Roddey hire their own attorneys instead of using the council's solicitor.

Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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