Though the city of Pittsburgh's lawyers have told Mayor Luke Ravenstahl his term won't expire for more than three years, there is considerable uncertainty among others about whether the lawyers correctly interpreted the city's home rule charter.
The home rule charter says a "vacancy in the mayor's office shall be filled at the next election permitted by law ... and shall serve the remaining portion of the vacated term," which presumably would mean next year's municipal election.
However, city lawyers have apparently hung their legal opinion on another section of the home rule charter that prohibits the city controller's election in the same year as the mayoral election. The controller's office is up for election next year.
That interpretation bumps the mayoral election into 2009, the next municipal election year. That would permit Mr. Ravenstahl to effectively complete the term of Mayor Bob O'Connor without facing the voters.
Mr. Ravenstahl, 26, was sworn in as mayor on Friday, about an hour and a half after the death of Mr. O'Connor. Mr. Ravenstahl acceded to the post as president of City Council, a succession dictated by the home rule charter upon a vacancy in the mayor's office.
But the legal interpretation to extend Mr. Ravenstahl's tenure until November 2009 defies logic to some.
"If [the authors] intended the home rule charter to be interpreted that way, there wouldn't be any mention of an election," said Barbara Ernsberger, a lawyer and chairwoman of the city Democratic committee.
"They didn't say, 'shall remain in office until the term is completed' without an election."
November 2009 "seems like an awful long time from now," Ms. Ernsberger said. The election to replace Mr. O'Connor should be held next year, she said.
The problem stems from the ambiguity of the language in the home rule charter between when a mayoral election should occur after a vacancy and the conflict with the controller's office being on next year's ballot.
City Councilman William Peduto, an unsuccessful Democratic mayoral candidate who lost to Mr. O'Connor in last year's primary election, said he does not believe there is a conflict if the mayoral election is held next year at the same time as the controller's race. His reason: because the mayoral election is not a normal race, but a special election to fill a vacancy.
"The [home rule charter] provision under the controller's office has nothing to do with a vacancy election, otherwise there would not be a vacancy provision for the mayor's race," Mr. Peduto said.
"It doesn't make any sense."
Mr. Peduto and Ms. Ernsberger agreed with others who said the final resolution of the election decision will no doubt be left up to a judge after a legal challenge.
Mike Bucsko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1732.