Onorato backers get key positions

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Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato is moving fast to reward campaign supporters and Democratic Party insiders with plum appointments to powerful boards.

Onorato, in his third week in office, has nominated a total of nine new members to the most important boards. All of those nominees either made significant contributions to his successful campaign for chief executive or have deep roots in his party. All are male and all but one are white.

Among the nominees are: Charles Zappala, the uncle of District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and the contributor of $10,000 to the Onorato campaign; Herky Pollock, a real estate executive who gave the campaign more than $8,000; and state Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, who contributed more than $10,000.

County Council, split almost evenly between eight Democrats and seven Republicans, has 45 days to confirm or reject the nominations.

"It looks like there are a lot of political payoffs in these appointments," said Councilman Ron Francis, R-Ben Avon. "I think that's unfortunate."

In an interview yesterday, Onorato acknowledged that his important nominations went to supporters.

"I thought this out," he said. "I have to have people on these boards who are going to implement my agenda for governing. More than likely, they are going to be people who supported my campaign in some way."

The first batch of Onorato nominees contrasts with the approach of his predecessor, Jim Roddey, a Republican who appointed a significant number of Democrats and apolitical people to heavyweight boards.

Onorato also departed from the Roddey practice of limiting people to one appointment, nominating Zappala to seats on both the Regional Asset District board and Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and nominating Pollock to the boards of the Allegheny County Sanitary and Residential Finance authorities.

The award of dual nominations to both Zappala and Pollock has raised eyebrows even among other Democrats.

"I think council members ought to keep the [one-appointment limit] in mind," said Councilman Bill Robinson, D-Hill District.

In addition to Zappala and Pollock, Onorato also nominated:

James Dodaro, the county solicitor when Democrats Tom Foerster and Pete Flaherty were in power more than a decade ago, and James Burn Jr., the mayor of Millvale, for the Port Authority.

Rick Pierchalski, who rallied support for Onorato in the Polish-American community, for the Regional Asset District.

The Rev. William Curtis, who campaigned for Onorato in the black community, for the Sports & Exhibition Authority.

Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, for Alcosan.

Logan, for the SEA.

William Green, a Republican political consultant, said Onorato was turning to "old Democratic warhorses" in Zappala and Dodaro.

"The question is: Is Onorato going back to the Foerster-Flaherty days or is he moving forward?" Green said. "I don't think [the late] Tom Foerster would have a problem with any of these nominees."

Onorato, though, points out that Burn, Curtis and Logan are all under 40 years of age.

"I'm bringing young people in," the chief executive said. "Nobody can argue that this is the same old, same old."

Onorato also defended the nominations of Zappala, Pollock, Dodaro and Shea.

Zappala's experience on the boards of several cultural groups makes him a natural for the RAD board, Onorato said, and his interest in transportation issues makes him a good fit for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which does transportation planning for a 10-county area.

Pollock, with his experience in real estate, would ensure that economic development is taken into consideration as Alcosan confronts the problem of raw sewage overflows, he said.

Dodaro, a longtime state turnpike commissioner, could coordinate public transit with planning for the Mon-Fayette Expressway, according to Onorato.

And Shea, a Shaler resident, would bring the perspective of a North Hills suburb to Alcosan, he said.

Onorato insisted that support for his campaign is not a prerequisite for an appointment to a major board.

"You're going to see that over the next 11 months as we continue to fill vacancies that become available," he said.

Onorato's next major appointment will be to the Airport Authority, where the term of board member David Mayernik is expiring.

Roddey accumulated a mixed record in four years of making appointments.

Political supporters such as Sara Davis Buss and David Hamstead received appointments to the SEA and RAD boards, respectively.

But on some occasions, Roddey considered only expertise. For instance, he put University of Pittsburgh Associate Professor David Miller, who has written a book on regional governance, onto the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and added Yale graduate Catherine Armstrong, who has researched handicapped access to public transit, to the Port Authority.

Miller would be knocked off the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission if Zappala wins council confirmation.


Jeffrey Cohan can be reached at jcohan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3573.


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