Push on to abolish more row offices

Council Republicans want fall referendum on sheriff, treasurer

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Less than two months after voters overwhelmingly approved the elimination of six of Allegheny County's elected row offices, County Council Republicans want to give voters a chance to eliminate another two, the treasurer and sheriff.

Abolishing those offices was part of Chief Executive Dan Onorato's original row office reform proposal, but council's Democratic majority favored an amended plan that kept the treasurer and sheriff.

The success of the row office referendum in the May 17 election -- with a "yes" vote exceeding 72 percent -- emboldened Republicans.

"The people want more reform. So let's get the ball rolling and give the people what they want," Councilman Doug Price, R-Carnegie, said before last night's council meeting.

All of council's Republicans joined Price as co-sponsors of a bill, which, if approved, would place a new referendum on the November ballot.

First, however, officials must determine if the referendum would be legal. Some experts have argued that the county home rule charter requires a five-year waiting period before any new change in the form of government can be considered by voters.

"There's a serious question about whether or not it's legal," council Solicitor Jack Cambest said of the referendum.

Councilman C.L. Jabbour, D-West Mifflin, chairman of the Committee on Government Reform, said he would seek opinions from Cambest and county Solicitor Michael Wojcik before his committee meets to discuss the referendum.

Wojcik started considering the issue in May, when the group Citizens for Democratic Reform said it would collect the 500 signatures needed to put a new row office referendum before council.

Even if legal issues are addressed, Democrats appear unlikely to stray from last year's compromise legislation that spared the sheriff and treasurer, both Democrats. Council President Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill, said it was too early to consider a new round of row office consolidation.

"I'd like to see how the first consolidation works logistically before we jump to another one," he said.

With the success of May's referendum, the register of wills, prothonotary, clerk of courts and two jury commissioners will be merged into one office, an appointed director of court records. The elected coroner will be replaced by an appointed medical examiner. The elected recorder of deeds will be replaced by an appointed real estate manager.

The controller's office has predicted that the changes, which will be phased in over the next three years, will save the county $773,000 annually.

Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, wants council to be able to vote on the new referendum on July 12, its last meeting before members take a month and a half summer recess. He said yesterday that council is required to approve any referendum by Aug. 9 to get it on the November ballot.

Jabbour said he wasn't sure if his committee would be able to meet soon enough to discuss the legal issues, and Gastgeb said he may request a special summer session to hold a vote.

Michael Mullen, Sheriff Pete DeFazio's executive assistant, said he wasn't ready to comment on the referendum.

"I don't even know if it's legal, and I think that has to be looked at," he said.

Treasurer John Weinstein could not be reached.

Price, Gastgeb and Republican Dave Fawcett also proposed a referendum yesterday that would ask voters to give council the power to set salaries for elected officials and the newly appointed officials who would replace the row officers.

Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at jsherman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1183.


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