City of Pittsburgh charter vague on length of term for mayor's successor

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Yesterday the City-County Building was awash in theories about how long City Council President Luke Ravenstahl would be entitled to serve as mayor.

Widespread doubt about that stemmed from vague language in the city's charter.

The charter says that if a mayor can't serve out his term, the council president is next in line. That person serves as mayor until "the next election permitted by law."

When Mayor Richard Caliguiri died in May 1988, the charter language was different, and there was a mayoral election set for 1989. Council President Sophie Masloff succeeded him, then went on to win that election.

The new charter language is untested.

Jack Cambest, an experienced municipal lawyer and solicitor for Allegheny County Council, said he's independently reviewing the language and believes it can be interpreted in three ways.

First, it could mean that the city must call for a special mayoral election at the same time as next May's primary. That would be the quickest way to allow city voters to pick a new mayor.

In a special election, members of the major parties' committees choose their candidates, and others can run as independents. It's notable that the charter calls for special elections when council members don't fill out their terms, but makes no mention of that in the case of the mayor.

The charter could also mean that the city would hold a standard mayoral primary and general election next year, two years ahead of schedule.

Mr. Cambest said there is one problem with that scenario: The charter says the mayor and city controller should not be elected in the same year, and the controller's term is up next year. That could conceivably bump the mayoral election back -- all the way to 2009, since state law bars municipal elections during even-numbered years.

"You could make a logical argument that it could be in 2009," said Ira Weiss, another veteran municipal lawyer. "But to have a non-elected mayor serve almost a full term would be illogical as well."

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park and a former councilman, said he thought an election would occur next year, with a primary and a general election.

It'll likely be a battle, he said. "There's probably going to be all kinds of people jockeying for position, because that's the nature of a chief executive position like the mayor."

Mr. Weiss said he expects the issue will wind up in court.

"It's entirely likely this is going to have to be interpreted in a judicial fashion," he said.


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