Undated resignation letters jar Allegheny County panels

Critics: Fitzgerald hungry for power

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Rex Crawley is not a politician. As a member of the Community College of Allegheny County's board of trustees, he doesn't get paid, doesn't get much prestige.

He joined the board for many reasons, but one stands out: because too many young people -- especially black men, like himself -- can't get the education they need to succeed.

So it surprised him when Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who sponsored his nomination to the CCAC board, asked him to sign an undated resignation letter.

"I did not respond immediately," said Mr. Crawley, who is an assistant dean at Robert Morris University. "I had to really think about the implications. I'm nervous about if I'm ever in conflict with Rich's perspective or his desires, that's going to be kind of a problem."

Under Mr. Fitzgerald's reign, Mr. Crawley's conundrum -- sign or don't sign -- is a choice confronting every appointee to a county authority or board, including the Port Authority and CCAC. Though many authorities are legally independent, the county executive considers the resignation letters a requirement for new board members, reminding them who really sets policy.

PG graphic: People who have signed resignation letters
(Click image for larger version)

Critics say the letters show a county executive who is reaching for more power -- and isn't afraid to use muscle to get it.

"I can understand any chief executive wanting people to serve at his pleasure," said county council member Bill Robinson, the former chairman of the CCAC board. "But I don't think that's the best way to influence people in government to do what you would like them to do."

Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Fitzgerald handed over the more than 40 "resignation" letters he's collected over the past two years. He makes no secret of it: They're meant to keep boards and authorities in line.

Most board members are nominated by the executive and confirmed by county council, and Mr. Fitzgerald said he doesn't put a name up for consideration without a resignation letter in hand.

"I want to have a board who is going to follow the policy of this administration and this county," he said. "And the letter they sign is a pledge to do just that."

Seven out of the nine members of the Allegheny County Airport Authority signed letters to Mr. Fitzgerald. Same for six of the nine members of the Board of Health.

That also goes for five of the nine members of the Port Authority -- six if including Joe Brimmeier, who submitted his real resignation earlier this month.

More letters may be coming. Today at 4 p.m., a county council committee will consider the appointment of Robert Hurley, the county's deputy director of economic development and Mr. Fitzgerald's latest pick for the Port Authority board.

The question of whether he signed a resignation letter is likely to come up, especially after county council member Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, told off the county executive at last week's council meeting.

"Why create these boards, authorities and agencies in the first place if the members of the board can be controlled by a single individual?" she wrote in a letter to Mr. Fitzgerald.

Allegheny County solicitor Andrew Szefi said he has not reviewed the legality of the letters, calling their enforceability more of a "political determination."

Other lawyers say the resignations likely wouldn't hold up in court. Ira Weiss, a former county solicitor and head lawyer for Pittsburgh Public Schools, believes the letters imply a measure of control the county executive really doesn't hold by law.

"I think they're aren't worth the paper they're written on," he said.

This question came to a head last year after the firing of Bruce Dixon, the director of the Allegheny County Health Department. In a lawsuit filed against Mr. Fitzgerald and the county, Dixon said the county executive used the leverage of the letters to turn the board's vote against him.

He has since died, and his case is in legal limbo.

Some authority board members who signed letters say they don't believe they have sacrificed independence. Most pass it off as a largely symbolic, if distasteful, condition of appointment.

Mr. Fitzgerald hasn't intervened at CCAC yet, Mr. Crawley said, and the board enjoys a large degree of independence.

But what happens when that changes?

"He will be forced with the decision to get rid of someone because they disagree with him," he said. "He definitely will have the ability to."

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Andrew McGill: 412-263-1497 or amcgill@post-gazette.com


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