Fitzgerald agrees to nix advance resignation letters

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Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald will no longer request undated resignation letters from political appointees, a controversial practice that sought to extend his power over legally independent boards and authorities.

At Tuesday night's county council meeting, President Charles Martoni, D-Swissvale, announced Mr. Fitzgerald had met with council political leaders and agreed to immediately destroy the resignations he has on file.

"The letters were a good idea to keep the boards from going 'off the rails,' or from the members thinking that they were in charge of everything," council member John DeFazio, D-Shaler, wrote in a news release after the announcement. "Now, they are just becoming distractions."

Mr. Martoni said he asked for the meeting with Mr. Fitzgerald and council's caucus leaders, Republican Jan Rea and Mr. DeFazio. He said the letters were "not worth the trouble they were causing" but wouldn't say if he would have blocked appointments if Mr. Fitzgerald kept requiring the letters.

"It was just getting in the way of doing things," he said.

Many functions of the county -- transit, health, sewers -- are performed through authorities, legally independent organizations that answer to the state. In most cases, their leaders are selected by the county executive and approved by county council.

Mr. Fitzgerald took it a step further, arguing that authorities and boards should answer to him in perpetuity. Policy is set by elected officials like himself, he said -- and boards should follow his lead.

To that end, he received more than 40 undated resignation letters from appointees, a collection that spanned the boards of Community College of Allegheny County, the Port Authority and the board of health. If someone stepped out of line, he'd pull out their resignation and kick them out.

"I want to have a board who is going to follow the policy of this administration and this county," Mr. Fitzgerald said in an interview last month. "And the letter they sign is a pledge to do just that."

But the practice drew criticism from members of council, who considered it an overreach of power. Republican Heather Heidelbaugh of Mt. Lebanon and Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, both voiced objections during last week's appointment review committee meeting, when Mr. Fitzgerald's latest political pick admitted he had signed an undated resignation letter.

Ms. Heidelbaugh said after the council meeting she was happy with the decision.

"I think it was the right thing to do," she said. "As a matter of public policy, we need independent members."

The issue also raised eyebrows outside the courthouse.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority board voted last week to send a letter to Mr. Fitzgerald, asking him to clarify his informal policy. That came after some strong words from board member Theresa Kail-Smith, who is also a Pittsburgh city councilwoman.

"I had concerns about how we could remain independent and how it looked as if one person was controlling the board," she said. "We need to ensure for ratepayers that we are acting independently."

Her motion passed by a 4-3 vote -- the three negative votes coming from board members who had signed letters in Mr. Fitzgerald's file.

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


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