Mayoral election could strengthen Pittsburgh-Allegheny County partnership

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Tuesday's mayoral election, in addition to ushering in a new city administration, will mark a new chapter in the sometimes cooperative, sometimes contentious ties between the region's two biggest governments, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was Democratic nominee Bill Peduto's most prominent early supporter in this race. Tuesday's results are certain to ratify the success of that political partnership. The coming months and years will test whether these two figures with big jobs and big egos can be equally successful as governing partners.

The institutional ties between the two governments have waxed and waned over the years. In the mid-20th century, Mayor David Lawrence and longtime county Commissioner John Kane were generally perceived as partners. But behind the scenes -- as Michael Weber documented in his Lawrence biography, "Don't Call Me Boss" -- their relationship was often strained.

Cooperative or divisive

Tom Foerster, the dominant figure in the final years of the county commissioner form of government at the end of the century, feuded with Mayor Sophie Masloff over the government response to a transit strike.

In Mrs. Masloff's final months in office, however, they, or their staffs, managed to cooperate with one another and the Legislature on a key structural change, the creation of the Regional Asset District and the countywide sales tax revenue stream that has aided both local governments. The next mayor, Tom Murphy, wasn't originally close to Mr. Foerster, but they ended up forging a strong relationship.

"What I came to realize with Foerster was that he was an old-fashioned politician, but his heart was in the right place," Mr. Murphy said.

City and county cooperation took a step back when two Republican commissioners, Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer, took control of the courthouse in 1995. The ties across Fourth Avenue were strengthened again, however, when Mr. Cranmer eventually spurned Mr. Dunn and formed a governing alliance with Democratic Commissioner Mike Dawida. They then worked closely with Mr. Murphy and Republican Gov. Tom Ridge on major development projects highlighted by the building of two stadiums and a new convention center.

After the county's government structure was changed with the establishment of the office of county executive, Mr. Murphy and the first executive, Republican Jim Roddey, never managed to form a similarly close bond. Their recollections conflict on why that was.

"Roddey was not somebody who easily made decisions," Mr. Murphy said. "He liked to set up committees. ... He would not consider using public money to incentivize development."

Mr. Roddey's take is that "Murphy was difficult to work with; he really didn't like other peoples' ideas. If he had an idea, and you accepted it, he was great to work with."

His successor, Dan Onorato, started out as a close ally of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl after Bob O'Connor's death. While the two governments have made cooperative strides on some fronts, such as coordination of their financial accounting systems, on a personal level, the relationship sharply deteriorated in subsequent years. Mr. Fitzgerald was openly contemptuous of Mr. Ravenstahl at a time when the mayor was still a strong contender for re-election.

Warming trend

Both Mr. Peduto and Mr. Fitzgerald said that a significant warming in the institutional ties is already underway. In separate interviews, they said the first fruits of that strengthened relationship would be evident in the early weeks of the new administration with an initiative on cooperation on the operations of their major parks, with more work in tandem to come.

Both officials said they envisioned a new parks coordinating body, modeled on the current Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, designed to coordinate operations and harness the resources of third parties such as business groups and foundations to help support the parks.

"The idea is that we could share the maintenance and the planning of the parks," Mr. Peduto said. "It does not mean we are turning our parks over to the county.

"We'd be using [Regional Asset District] funds to leverage private money -- corporate, foundations -- [to] create major assets for our parks," he said. "It's an opportunity to create one of the greatest regional parks systems in the country."

Mr. Fitzgerald said he and the all-but-elected mayor had also discussed setting up uniform standards and procedures for firms seeking certification as minority- or female-owned businesses. Currently the two governments have different setups for that process, as do their affiliated authorities.

Mr. Peduto said they also had conversations on coordinating the two governments' responses to the problem of homelessness. He noted that the city had generally approached the issue from a public safety perspective whereas the county, because of the services it provides, had more of a social services approach.

The officials said they and their aides were already in almost daily conversations on issues such as coordinating development and strategies for soliciting state and other government funding.

"There's a lot of development cooperation," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "Things like the Civic Arena site, the Almono site, East Liberty and Larimer."

He also pointed to his accord with the emerging city administration on the development of a bus rapid transit system between Downtown and Oakland.

"A lot of that is already occurring ... [those talks] began after the primary," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "Bill and I are both big believers in using technology to make government function better."

Separate ideologies

The two Democrats have a relationship that goes back decades, preceding their respective tenures representing overlapping districts on city and county council. But while they are close they are not ideological clones. Mr. Fitzgerald, for example, is notably more willing to embrace and nurture the development of natural gas fracking in the region.

"They like each other; both have a good work ethic. That's a welcome change," Mr. Roddey said. "But Fitzgerald has a history of wanting to control everything. Peduto is not the type of person who will take kindly to that if that manifested itself."

At one point, after a disagreement on tactics when they were both working in a 1996 congressional campaign, Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Peduto stopped speaking to one another. But both have said that their ties were solidified by their years of working together when they both reached public office.

"You're always going to have disagreements over policy, personnel, whatever it might be," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "It's how you work through those things. ... It's in all of our interests, Bill's interest, my interest, the community's interest to have a city and county working together."

Mr. Peduto's most immediate institutional relationship, of course, will be with the body he's leaving, city council. Initially, at any rate, it seems he has a clear opportunity to forge a working majority of support for his policies. One measure of their likely political affinity is the fact that three current members of council as well as two strong contenders in Tuesday's council elections share or have shared the campaign services of one of Mr. Peduto's key strategists, Matt Merriman-Preston.

One of those past clients, however, is current council President Darlene Harris, who has clashed sharply with Mr. Peduto in the past. To varying degrees, Mr. Peduto has also been at odds with council members Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess. A close ally, Councilman Bruce Kraus is viewed as the early favorite to replace Mrs. Harris as council president in the new term, but Mr. Peduto said he does not plan to impose a choice on his former colleagues.

"It's not something I intend to have a heavy hand on," he said.

Mr. Peduto has already moved to buttress ties with the city's foundation community, recently embracing a Pittsburgh Foundation plan to professionalize hiring in his administration. Question marks continue to hover over other closely watched civic ties, with business in general and specifically on how he will manage the city's frayed relationship with the "eds and meds" institutions that have helped spur growth in recent years.

During the primary, for example, he said he supported Mr. Ravenstahl's legal challenge to UPMC's tax-exempt status and said he would consider a broader strategy of contesting the tax status of other institutions.

Mr. Roddey said another challenge would be his ability "to forge a working relationship with the business community."

"He does not have a reputation as being friendly to the Downtown business groups," he said. "Even his commercials talk about concentrating in the neighborhoods. ... That's fine. I'm not necessarily disagreeing with his decision, but he has definitely sent a signal."

In his election campaign, Mr. Peduto often talked about "the new Pittsburgh" and the "new coalition" that he sees as supplanting some of the city's traditional establishments.

Morton Coleman, former director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics, predicted that while Mr. Peduto welcomes that evolution, it would also create challenges for him.

Beyond the city's problems with long-standing issues including poverty, race and pensions, he said, "The population is going through a major change from an old city to a young city and I think there are a lot of public policy issues involved in that. Education is one ... a lot of the city's economy has been built on an aging population ... what these [younger] groups want from city government is different. I see that as a big dynamic."

Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?