Former top city lawyer opposes succession opinion

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The lawyer who served as Pittsburgh's solicitor throughout Mayor Tom Murphy's three terms disagreed yesterday with a city legal opinion that would give Mayor Luke Ravenstahl until 2009 before he faces the voters.

"In my judgment, the preferred solution is to have a citywide election for mayor at the soonest available time," which is next year, said Jacqueline Morrow, the city's top lawyer from 1994 through 2005.

The city charter says that when the mayor's office becomes vacant, as it did upon Bob O'Connor's death from cancer Friday, the council president is first in line to succeed him. Mr. Ravenstahl was sworn in Friday night.

An amendment approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1988 holds that "the mayor's office shall [then] be filled at the next election permitted by law."

Acting City Solicitor Ron Pferdehirt authored a letter dated Friday saying that Mr. Ravenstahl should serve through 2009. Yesterday he explained that opinion.

The "next election permitted by law" can't be November's balloting, because state law says that municipal voting must be done in odd-numbered years. Special elections, like those held to fill vacant council seats, are exceptions, but there is no provision in state law or the charter for a special election for mayor.

Next year is also out, said Mr. Pferdehirt. That's because the city charter says the mayor and city controller must be elected at separate times, and the controller faces the voters next year.

"If you want to give effect to all of those provisions [in state law and the charter], the only way to do that is to hold the election in 2009," said Mr. Pferdehirt, who is acting solicitor through today, while top lawyer George Specter is on vacation.

Ms. Morrow said the council president's ascension is meant to be "a temporary fix," and the bar on choosing a mayor and controller in the same year shouldn't trump the need to have a top official elected citywide.

"You can't legislate for every scenario, and this is a scenario that no one contemplated," she said.

Mr. Ravenstahl's former council seat, which represents many North Side neighborhoods, is expected to be filled in a special election held at the same time as the Nov. 7 general election.

State law allows special elections to occur in even-numbered years. In those contests, party committees choose nominees and other candidates can run as independents.


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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