Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald threatened public health across Pennsylvania when he arranged the firing of Bruce Dixon, the longtime director of the county health department, Dr. Dixon's lawyer alleged Monday.
Attorney Virginia Cook made the claim as she answered county objections to the wrongful termination lawsuit her client filed against Mr. Fitzgerald, the county and the health board. She wants the court to reinstate Dr. Dixon, 73, whose 20-year tenure as director was ended March 7 by what she said was an illegal vote of the board.
Common Pleas Judge Christine Ward heard arguments from Ms. Cook and from assistant county solicitor George Janocsko for almost two hours. "I have a lot of questions, but none that you can answer," she told the lawyers as she wrapped up the session.
Elected officials have broad powers to set policy, Ms. Cook said. Mr. Fitzgerald overstepped his authority when he asked five members of the board of health to sign undated resignation letters, she said. Those letters could be used to remove any board member who did something the county executive opposed.
His attitude was, "I'll run everything, because I am the county executive," Ms. Cook said.
Because Mr. Fitzgerald was neither a physician nor trained in public health, his actions put residents at risk in Allegheny County and across the state, Ms. Cook said. Public health issues often cross county lines, she said.
While it might have been "unseemly" for Mr. Fitzgerald to require health board members to sign resignation letters as a condition for being appointed, it was not impermissible, Mr. Janocsko said. Dr. Dixon was an at-will employee who could be discharged by a majority of the nine-member health board at any time, he said.
Health board members, who get no pay, receive no financial benefits from their service, Mr. Janocsko said. That situation eliminates any "quid-pro-quo" agreement between Mr. Fitzgerald and board members, he said.
The deputy solicitor also urged Judge Ward to reject the argument that the health board was a state-related agency that could maintain quasi-independence from the county. Health department employees are county workers who would collect county pensions, he said.
Mr. Fitzgerald, who took office in January, made no secret of his plan to make changes at the health department.
Dr. Dixon has said previously that Mr. Fitzgerald gave him the choice of resigning or being fired. After he declined to quit, he was discharged by the health board on March 7 on a 7-0 vote, with one member abstaining.
Three of the five members that Dr. Dixon claims signed the letters voted to fire him.region
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 412-263-1159.