Councilwoman Danko wants to keep her drilling bill alive

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For many Allegheny County Council bills, life is brutish, nasty and short -- if they ever have a life at all.

In council's 13 years, nearly a quarter of all proposed ordinances and resolutions have disappeared into a Bermuda Triangle of government, introduced by elected officials but never hearing a minute of debate. They instead sit dormant in one of council's many committees, where they have as much as two years before they're unceremoniously dumped.

The biggest culprit? The Committee on Government Reform, where 80 percent of referred bills die without ever being heard.

Some on council fear the latest casualty could be legislation proposing a three-year moratorium on natural gas drilling under county parks, pitched by Councilwoman Barbara Daly Danko in September but still stuck in committee two months later.

"I have had at least one council member say to me, 'You know, that bill was sent to the committee to die,' " said Ms. Danko, D-Regent Square. "To not even take up the discussion is disrespectful to those citizens. And I think it's disrespectful to the kind of check and balance that's supposed to exist under our home rule charter."

Here's how it's supposed to work: After a council member introduces a bill, the council president assigns a committee to examine it. It is then the committee chairperson's responsibility to schedule a discussion of the proposal, which is then sent on to the full council for a final vote.

Council President Charles Martoni has diligently performed his duties as council's leader, routing his colleagues' proposals to be heard in committee. But he has been more lax as chairman of the government reform committee, holding off on scheduling a hearing in nearly six months despite a pile of bills that just keeps growing.

Indeed, the committee has become so synonymous with stalling that Ms. Danko suspects her bill's burial could be politically motivated on the part of county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who opposes it.

"Dr. Martoni and I have not had that discussion. I would like to think he's better than that," she said.

Mr. Martoni has denied any political pressure and says he's simply waiting to schedule a meeting until he's learned enough about gas drilling. Although he'll freely admit most the bills he gets on the committee "are kind of silly things," he believes Ms. Danko's drilling moratorium is worth discussion.

Just not right now.

All this may be a moot point. The county code requires council to vote on all ordinances and resolutions "within 90 days of submittal," regardless of whether they've made their way out of committee. But this provision has no teeth, and with 10 bills languishing in committee despite having broken the three-month mark earlier this year, it has been frequently ignored.

Council veterans say members have to stand up for their own legislation.

That is exactly what Ms. Danko plans to do. Such a parliamentary move would require support from majority of council, a tough pull -- but one she would need to make anyway to get her moratorium passed.

"I don't introduce a lot of bills ... I introduce bills that I'm serious about, and I want to see them through the process," she said. "I realize [the moratorium] was controversial, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about it."

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.

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