County council presidency attracts several hopefuls

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After a tough re-election race, Charles Martoni has had enough of playing moderator on Allegheny County Council. Next year, the council president from Swissvale says he's stepping down to take a more active role in debates, handing his gavel to someone else.

So who is that going to be?

Consensus seems to be building around John DeFazio, an at-large councilman from Shaler, a longtime councilman who served two years as the council's first president in 1999. Mr. DeFazio, the director of United Steelworkers District 10, has a firm relationship with county Executive Rich Fitzgerald and the confidence of several of his colleagues.

"People are starting to ask me. I'd have to sit down and think about it," he said. "If people weren't behind me and pushing me, I might not have even thought about it."

Council Vice President Nick Futules, who briefly considered running himself, has thrown his support behind Mr. DeFazio. "They talk about these checks and balances all the time, and John is one of those guys who can do that," he said.

But he's not the only candidate.

Councilman Bill Robinson, D-Hill District, sent an email last week notifying his colleagues of his intention to run, making him the first to officially announce his interest.

Mr. Robinson is a stormier figure on council, a loquacious former state representative who has made no secret of his disagreements with Mr. Fitzgerald. He believes the council deserves a greater measure of independence from the chief executive -- and more oversight of county matters.

"Council has to be able to stand up on its own legs and say, 'We are here,' " he said. "The presiding officer has an obligation to represent the body. I have no problem representing Allegheny County Council as we interact with the executive and others."

Then there's Michael Finnerty, a former schoolteacher from Scott. Mr. Finnerty has fashioned himself as a tell-it-like-it-is politician, making the blunt points that others on council, perhaps out of politeness, shy away from. When councilman Matt Drozd, R-Ross, proposed a bill targeting tourism agency VisitPittsburgh on Thursday, it was Mr. Finnerty who told him it would never pass council and warned him he was "beating a dead horse."

The councilman says he would help council "become more relevant" by communicating more closely with Mr. Fitzgerald, who ultimately sets much of the body's agenda.

"I think there's a little friction here from some people," he said. "I just don't think we need that kind of friction. I think it would be better if we somehow cooperate."

The council president has few described powers, but plenty of influence. He or she runs the council meetings, making sure every member has a chance to comment. The president also picks heads of committees and routes bills through the legislative process.

By necessity, it's a role that requires its possessor to put aside political parties, said Councilman Jim Burn, who served as council president in 2011. Council presidents don't often enter debates, giving up their voice to play referee among others.

"You give up the ability to be an advocate," he said. "No matter how you may feel about a bill, you have to let that bill or issue be vetted by everyone else."

Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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