Three want to run Allegheny County Council

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At least three Allegheny County Council members want to be council president, a job that's often more akin to United Nations peacekeeper than commander-in-chief.

John DeFazio, D-Shaler; Michael Finnerty, D-Scott; and Bill Robinson, D-Hill District, have announced interest in the top spot. Whoever's selected by their peers at today's meeting will take command of a legislative body that's... well, kind of in a snit.

"We can't be fighting," said Mr. DeFazio, who serves as an at-large representative rather than representing a particular district. "People want to see things done. People don't want to see fighting over petty things."

Dec. 31 marked the end of a contentious year on council, with more hurt feelings and new cliques than a public school playground.

First came the debate on drilling for natural gas on county land, which attracted activists en masse and split council into two camps.

Next came squabbles over whether county Executive Rich Fitzgerald held too much power. Mr. Fitzgerald backed down from the controversial practice of requiring undated resignation letters from independent board members but remained firm in his stance that he's in the county's driver's seat.

And as the year drew to a close, council fought over the capital budget, with Mr. Robinson leading the unsuccessful charge to include funding for the struggling August Wilson Center for African American Culture. Several members voted against Mr. Finnerty's last-minute counter-proposal, saying he short-circuited the budget process.

Since then, the playing field has changed dramatically.

Mr. Robinson has lost power, fired from his post as budget chairman.

Mr. Finnerty is on the rise, replacing Mr. Robinson on the influential committee and winning praise from like-minded colleagues.

And Mr. DeFazio has emerged as a unifying candidate for president, commanding the respect of his colleagues and a reputation unsoiled by recent spats.

Council's president organizes the body's biweekly meetings, setting the agenda and moderating discussion. He or she also chooses who heads council committees, a powerful prerogative that can set the tone for the whole year.

If elected, all three men say they want to see council run more smoothly, though they have different ideas for getting there.

Mr. Robinson takes a longer look to strengthening council as a political force, arguing that it needs to balance Mr. Fitzgerald's clout. Though he recognizes a president can't speak as freely as he normally does, Mr. Robinson promises to maintain an ambitious legislative agenda regardless.

"We need leadership that's going to be bold," he said. "I plan to spend my time building the institution."

He's countered by Mr. Finnerty, his dueling partner for the past month over the budget.

A former schoolteacher, Mr. Finnerty pledged to foster cooperation if elected, both among Republicans and Democrats on council and with Mr. Fitzgerald's administration.

Mr. Finnerty also sees the president as council's chief ambassador to constituents, representing the body at public events. He is already a familiar face at ribbon-cuttings and openings.

"I think I can bring some prestige to council," he said. "I think I'm out there showing that council is involved."

Mr. DeFazio is an old hand on council, having already served as president during the body's first years.

As such, he takes a long view on council's current cattiness. Getting everyone to play nice -- and by the rules -- would be his top priority.

"Look, everybody doesn't have to vote the same way," he said. "I don't take it personal. I think everybody has a vote on there. Nobody should be mad or hollering at people."

Council's meeting starts at 5 p.m.

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.

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