Decade old, county's home-rule gets mixed reviews

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Ten years after Allegheny County voters adopted a home-rule government to replace a three-commissioner system that some saw as antiquated and patronage-ridden, the change is getting mixed reviews.

Defenders, including the current county executive, Dan Onorato, said the three-headed executive branch no longer made sense, and they point to major changes in the government structure, including elimination of several elected row offices.

Critics say the new charter created a toothless and ineffective council, vesting too much power in the executive.

The commissioner system "was a horrible form of government. It created rule by committee and I just don't think that can work anymore, especially for a big county," said Mr. Onorato, the second person to hold the position of county executive since the new government took effect in 2000.

Mr. Onorato, now in his second four-year term, said home rule gave citizens a stronger voice, including the ability to petition for referenda.

Detractors say home rule has evolved into another political machine, complete with its own circle of insiders and a culture of patronage only slightly better than the entrenched interests voters threw out.

"It seems that all we did was change the legal structure of the government," said Mark DeSantis, a Republican who tried to unseat Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in 2007.

Mostly supported by the region's business community through the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, and opposed by much of the Democratic establishment, home rule was approved by a slim 564 votes in spring 1998.

Pittsburgh attorney Barbara Ernsberger, a Democrat and member of the Committee to Vote No on Home Rule, said a fundamental weakness was the centralization of power in the county executive with a rather weak County Council.

"The problem is that we have a council that has no real say and a county executive who basically gets to do whatever he wishes," she said. "Also, they said that home rule was supposed to make county government more broad-based and representative of the people in this county. I question whether we can say that happened."

Mr. Onorato and his predecessor, Jim Roddey, said home rule has produced clear benefits.

Since the new government took effect, six of the 10 row offices have been eliminated and five regional 911 centers have been merged into one command center in Point Breeze. All social services are now centralized in the Department of Human Services.

Mr. Roddey, chairman of the county Republican committee and a member of the ComPAC 21 panel that recommended the new system, said it also elevated Western Pennsylvania politically, by creating the third most powerful office in the state, behind governor and Philadelphia mayor.

"There has always been this conventional wisdom in this region that if you change the structure of government, things will get better," countered Mr. DeSantis, an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University and co-founder of Citizens for Democratic Reform, a group that helped push for consolidation of county row offices. "Nothing really ever changes because the politicians and the system remain the same."

County Councilman William Robinson, D-Hill District, who opposed the home rule effort while a member of the state Legislature, said the new government still doesn't adequately represent African-Americans or Latinos.

"What we really have are some dark faces in high places, but no real representation for the interests of the minority community in this county," he said.

Mr. Roddey, who served one term as the first county executive, said a weakness of the system is that the current council has essentially become a rubber stamp for Mr. Onorato, who was unopposed for re-election in 2007.

Mr. Onorato said the home rule drafters intentionally created a weak legislature because they wanted a single executive who could chart a strong agenda.

"Why do we even need a County Council?" asked County Councilman Chuck McCullough, R-Upper St. Clair. "We have a system where we have 15 members of council who have long given up their role as representatives of the people."

He is one of four Republicans who are constantly outvoted by an 11-4 margin.

"Council is so compromised that we really don't have a role in the key public policy debates of this county," he said. On issue after issue -- from approval of bonds for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to enacting a drink and car rental tax, council has invariably "caved" to Mr. Onorato.

Council President Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill, disagreed, citing a statewide smoking ban in restaurants and taverns, which he said started as an ordinance in County Council, a challenge of Mr. Onorato's appointments to the county's health and community college boards, and a riverfront park proposal initiated by council.

"This council was designed as a weak body. We don't have power over appointments of county directors or county contracts. We have no staff or offices of our own in the communities we represent. But we do our best to support the administration when we agree with [Mr. Onorato]. It so happens that we agree with a lot of what he is doing. It doesn't mean we are ineffective," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

"Government is produced by people. When we sat down to create this government, we envisioned a strong executive and a citizen legislature," said Morton Coleman, former director of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics and also a member of ComPAC 21, the Committee to Prepare Allegheny County for the 21st Century.

"We made County Council a part-time body with very minimal pay because we wanted citizens who would not be driven by political ambition and would be genuinely interested in government," he said. "I think that was pretty naive of us."


Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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