Experts say Fitzgerald runs risk of being cited for contempt of court

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In defying a court order to implement property reassessments, Democratic Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has put himself and the county he represents at risk of being cited for contempt of court, legal experts say.

Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr., who ordered the reassessments, has the power to send someone to jail or issue hefty fines for contempt.

Two days after taking office and less than two weeks after the first round of new assessments were mailed to Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver residents, Mr. Fitzgerald called a halt to the process. His predecessor, Democrat Dan Onorato, also disagreed with the need to reassess property in Allegheny County when other counties have gone decades without reassessing, but he began implementing the program after exhausting court appeals.

Mr. Fitzgerald's position that he met the law by certifying assessment numbers from 2002 has little chance of winning, said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University. Mr. Fitzgerald believes it is unfair to make Allegheny County reassess property when other counties have not done it in more than three decades.

"It may well be a popular position politically, but ultimately this is a game of chicken because the judge has all of the power," Mr. Ledewitz said. "[Fitzgerald's] only argument is that nobody else has to do it. That is not going to fly."

Since the state Supreme Court ordered Judge Wettick to oversee the reassessment, the judge is in "an incredibly strong position," Mr. Ledewitz said.

It is easy for the state to defy a court order because the court has no power to force the state to follow it, Mr. Ledewitz said.

"When you have a county, you almost always have the court in a strong position and the court ultimately wins," he said. "The state court will absolutely stand behind [Judge Wettick]."

Kerry Fraas, a former county solicitor who represented former Republican commissioners Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer before Judge Wettick after they illegally froze assessments in 1996, said that Mr. Fitzgerald is fighting a battle he can't win.

"The county executive can take any position he chooses to take that he believes represents the wishes of his constituency. But ultimately the courts will determine how the assessment process plays out and he will have little or no influence on the ultimate outcome."

Mr. Fraas said that after Judge Wettick overturned the freeze ordered by Mr. Dunn and Mr. Cranmer, county officials and other parties to the case would meet with him to map out a plan for a reassessment, one that eventually took place. While Judge Wettick was willing to work with the county to resolve practical issues, there was never any question who had the power.

"There was no doubt who ultimately was in control and that was the courts, unless the Legislature wants to change the assessment law," he said.

In 2005, Mr. Onorato chose not to use a new round of assessment numbers because he believed they were too high and local municipalities and school districts likely would not cut tax rates to avoid a revenue windfall. But that led to the lawsuits that resulted in Judge Wettick ordering a new round of assessments.

In the current battle, Judge Wettick does have the power to order the process completed and the ability to hold Mr. Fitzgerald in contempt if he does not comply, Mr. Fraas said.

"That would be the nuclear option, I guess, but there's where the power lies," he said.

During his campaign for county executive, Mr. Fitzgerald said he would go to jail before he would allow new assessments to be sent out to homeowners. He backed off that campaign pledge recently, but he could face that possibility in the days ahead.


Ed Blazina: eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470. Mark Belko: mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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