Not the right job: County council members need to avoid conflicts

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When Allegheny County went from a three-commissioner system to a county executive and a 15-member council in 2000, the understanding was that most council members would have day jobs and act like citizen lawmakers, not professional politicians.

Councilman Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin, has a day job, but there’s a problem. Under county law, no council member should have a job that might pose a conflict of interest. Yet, based on the law’s wording, it’s not entirely clear whether his job is ruled out.

For 30 hours a week, Mr. Macey works for state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, as a constituent service representative, helping people find the county programs they need. The councilman sees this simply as public service.

It sounds innocuous, but Republican Party Chairman Jim Roddey thinks it is illegal. He wonders what would happen if the county were to seek state money and Mr. Macey were to be in the position of lobbying his own boss. He has a point.

By county law, “County Council members are prohibited from being employed, in a confidential administrative capacity, in local, state or federal government,” which is defined as “to function as personal staff for any elected official.” Another section exempts staff in a government agency performing “nondiscretionary or purely ministerial functions.” Is Mr. Macey on the senator’s personal staff? Are his functions purely ministerial?

Mr. Macey asked county council solicitor Jack Cambest about the job and was told that he didn’t have a problem. Mr. Cambest thought that filling out forms for constituents didn’t rise to the level of a confidential administrative capacity.

As to the letter of this murky law, we can’t say he’s wrong. But the spirit of the law is another matter — district offices are small, intimate settings and the law clearly saw the danger of county council members working for other elected officials. Mr. Macey should find another outlet for his public service.

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