Issues strain the ties between Pittsburgh mayor and Allegheny County executive

Is the lovefest between Ravenstahl and Onorato over?

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At first blush, it looked like the fates had aligned to bring the city and county together.

Two North Siders and family friends, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, showed every indication of being able work closely together. They talked openly about the ability to consolidate services and perhaps make history on Grant Street.

On Oct. 19, they unveiled the Advisory Committee to Enhance Efficiency and Effectiveness of County and City Government, with an eye to exploring everything from minor collaborations to a full merger of city and county government.

"A year from now, when you ask the question, 'Should the city merge with the county?', we'll have the answer," Mr. Ravenstahl said then.

Nine months later, that answer seems far off, because the relationship between the mayor and chief executive has apparently cooled just as differences in philosophy on city-county relations emerge.

Mr. Onorato, the more established politician with apparent gubernatorial ambitions and the ability to raise millions, has found himself by turns overshadowed by, or dragged into stories about, the mayor. After a July 16 trip to Louisville, Ky., to study that city's consolidation with its county, their differences extended into the policy arena.

Mr. Onorato has touted the Louisville model, in which city government folds into the county while suburban municipalities are left untouched. Mr. Ravenstahl said on Friday that he's unconvinced.

Louisville officials "were quite honest that the savings were not there," the mayor said. "I'm not interested in consolidating just to consolidate. I'm interested in consolidating to provide a more efficient and better government of the residents of the city ... If not, why have the discussion?"

The two maintain that their relationship is healthy, though they don't always meet weekly, a practice Mr. Onorato and the late Mayor Bob O'Connor started.

"Sometimes our schedules force us to be flexible, but we have a positive working relationship and we continue to work as partners with the shared goal of the revitalization of our region," said Mr. Onorato, in a brief e-mail from Milan, Italy, where he was attending a conference.

"I'd characterize our relationship as good," said Mr. Ravenstahl.

There was a time when the two seemed politically inseparable.

On Dec. 4, Mr. Onorato and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle flanked the mayor as he announced his bid for election to the office he's held since the Sept. 1 death of Mr. O'Connor.

"Luke had no bigger supporter than Dan Onorato, and there was nobody who guaranteed Luke the Mayor's Office as much," said city Councilman William Peduto, who launched a bid for mayor but, behind in the polls, withdrew in late March.

Mr. Onorato was the biggest donor to Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign and helped him raise other funds and secure the Democratic Committee endorsement. Mr. Peduto said the county executive even told contributors not to donate to the challenger, making him "the creator of the Ravenstahl administration."

In January came the first hint of a payoff for taxpayers from that close relationship, when the city and county announced they would jointly buy uniforms, fuel, office supplies and other goods. Though that fell short of a full purchasing merger sought by Mr. Onorato, the two leaders said it would shave $700,000 to $1 million from the city's costs.

The two also engineered a joint purchase of telephone services.

They avoided any dustups over Port Authority bus route cuts, with the mayor at one forum calling the executive "the boss" when asked about the issue.

Starting last month, though, the mayor made it abundantly clear that he's nobody's caddy.

First he seized the lead on using the U.S. Open to publicize the city, launching a billboard campaign and spending much time working the media at Oakmont Country Club -- despite the fact that it sits in the county, but far outside the city.

Then, on June 14, he announced that he was requesting the resignations of 10 city and authority officials (an eleventh was later requested) including Pittsburgh Parking Authority Executive Director David Onorato, the county executive's brother. All were asked to reapply as part of a search process, and just one, Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Jerome Dettore, has said that he will leave.

Dan Onorato hasn't talked publicly about the request for his brother's resignation.

Another political figure whose brother was asked to resign is state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, brother of city Public Works Director Guy Costa. Sen. Costa said he found out that the mayor had asked for his brother's resignation after the letters went out, but isn't upset.

"I've got no issues with Luke Ravenstahl and the mayor's office," he said, adding that he spent the last month and a half in Harrisburg putting together a $60 million economic package benefitting the city and county.

In early July, news broke that Mr. Ravenstahl attended the exclusive Mario Lemieux Celebrity Invitational charity golf tournament as a guest of the Penguins one day, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center the next. The city Ethics Hearing Board is reviewing whether that violated a city code ban on accepting gifts from parties with matters before the city.

Mr. Onorato faces no such gift ban -- he is just required to report gifts he receives annually. But news that Mr. Onorato, too, attended the invitational brought attention to the comparative looseness of ethics rules on the county side.

"There seems to be a sort of cooling of the relationship," said former county executive Jim Roddey, whose comments jibed with those made privately in the Onorato and Ravenstahl camps. "Luke seems to be listening to people around him and not listening to Dan Onorato."

Mr. Peduto agreed.

"I think Dan Onorato has seen the public's perception change toward Luke and he has not been as visibly connected at the hip with him," he said.

County Councilman Jim Burn, D-Millvale, the chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, said his work with both men recently has demonstrated their relationship is still strong. He said sometimes when the issues get heated in politics, people read more into them than they should.

Concerns about the strength of the relationship between Mr. Onorato and Mr. Ravenstahl peaked after the two went to Louisville. Several others who went on the trip said there was no outward animosity, but agreed that the mayor's administration has been, as one put it, "fairly noncommittal" about more city-county consolidation.

While several attendees seemed impressed by Louisville's city-county merger, the mayor said his primary question went unanswered.

"I kept coming back to the question: 'What are the benefits?'" Mr. Ravenstahl said. "How are [city residents'] lives better because of consolidation?"

The answer he got, he said, was that residents' lives didn't get any worse -- a result he finds underwhelming.

In early 2005, Mr. Onorato and Mr. Murphy said they had been meeting for months to develop a ballot question about the merger that they wanted to put to a referendum that November.

Back then, Mr. Onorato said the region should follow the Louisville model of merging the city and county while leaving the municipalities around the city intact. "We're going to streamline government. We're going to make it a big city again. We're going to make it business friendly. Companies are going to want to be here," he said.

The referendum never materialized, but Mr. Onorato has repeatedly reiterated his hope for a merger.

Mr. Ravenstahl has kept his options open, insisting that any change benefit taxpayers and give city residents a strong voice in their future. He has focused on negotiating pacts with his neighbors, like an 8-month-old deal to collect trash in Wilkinsburg. He's in talks with other municipalities about more refuse collection pacts, and perhaps shared policing arrangements.

"There's a lot more commonalities, to be quite frank, between us and other municipalities than there are between us and the county," he said.

The issue is about to come to a head.

The efficiency committee, led by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, has essentially finished its fact-finding phase.

The process of sorting through the information and making recommendations is about to begin, with five meetings scheduled between now and the end of October. That schedule means any report won't come until after the Nov. 6 General Election, in which Mr. Onorato is unopposed, but Mr. Ravenstahl faces Republican businessman Mark DeSantis.

Mr. DeSantis wants a phased consolidation, starting with combining of similar functions, leading toward a full merger.

The efficiency committee has hired Rand Corp. to study the economic performance of metropolitan areas in which cities and counties have merged, according to Mr. Nordenberg's office. The chancellor's office would not say when the committee, which has operated quietly so far, plans to get public input.

Also unanswered: when a report is expected, and whether its contents will be decided by consensus or majority vote. The 13-member committee includes representatives of the city and county, plus business and labor leaders.

Consolidation backers said that any chill in relationships across Forbes Avenue wouldn't necessarily kill cooperation efforts, but would slow them.

"I did not have a good relationship with Tom Murphy," said Mr. Roddey, who was county executive from 2000 through 2003. "We were able to get the 911 [dispatch system] combined, but that took four years."

It was finalized early in Mr. Onorato's term.

Mr. Onorato and Mr. Murphy merged the city's fingerprinting program into the county's and, under a court order, the Pittsburgh Magistrates Court was consolidated into the Court of Common Pleas.

Some county officials want more of the city's work.

County Treasurer John Weinstein presented the idea of collecting city taxes to Mr. Murphy when he was mayor, then Mr. O'Connor, and now Mr. Ravenstahl. He said at the very least it would save the costs of printing and postage if one bill went out to city taxpayers.

"I can collect taxes and invest the money and generate a better rate of return by pooling our resources," Mr. Weinstein said. He also wants the county to take over issuing dog licenses for the city.

Mr. Weinstein said Mr. Ravenstahl has been "very positive" about his ideas.

Mr. Roddey said they should be trying to combine parks departments, all purchasing, mail rooms and other departments. He said that's crucial for the city, which is expected to seek further state help with its finances, but must first "demonstrate that they can get a lot more efficient."

Kevin Joyce, owner of the Carlton restaurant, Downtown, and chairman of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, said such talks are important to the county, too, which is now weighing a drink tax to fund the Port Authority. "It seems to me that this money could be found through city-county consolidation, and I don't see the mayor and the county executive working on that."

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Chief Executive Dan Onorato at a news conference in December.
Click photo for larger image.
Listen In:

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl talks about his and the city's relationship with Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and the possibility of combined services as in Louisville, Ky.



Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. Ann Belser can be reached at abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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