Paid expertise: County council backs the rights of property owners

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Elected officials often find that theirs is a thankless job, but when they act as true tribunes of the people thanks is in order. Such is the case with members of Allegheny County Council who struck a blow Tuesday night for ordinary citizens at the expense of attorneys.

The county Assessment Appeals and Review Board, itself not the public's favorite, had quietly proposed a rule that property owners could not be represented at their appeals by certified appraisers and other real estate professionals on a paid basis. The rule would have gone into effect in 30 days if not challenged.

Fortunately, Councilman Jim Ellenbogen saw what was going on and brought it to council. The result was a 12-1 vote to overturn the rules.

"What kind of nonsense is this?" he asked, expressing the view that taxpayers have the right to pay whomever they want to represent them or help them -- a view not supported by some members of the legal community.

This is the kind of nonsense: The appeals board solicitor, David Montgomery, framed the issue in terms of protecting the public, because he said attorneys have to answer to a disciplinary board if their representation is flawed. In fact, the main protection this rule would have provided was to self-interested lawyers seeking to monopolize paid business that should not be theirs exclusively.

The one dissenting vote on council came from Heather Heidelbaugh, herself a lawyer, who feared that the state Supreme Court could charge appraisers or others with practicing law without a license. Indeed, if the court wanted to damage its public reputation further after the recent conviction of one of its members, that would be the way to do it.

But council was right to stand with the property owners. The appeals board may make deliberations that have the force of law, but it is not in the same league as courts in the commonwealth. A paid appraiser or real estate professional is not arguing points of law in appearing before the board but arguing real estate value -- and, further, those professionals are likely to know much more than the average attorney about the subject.

The assessment process is controversial enough without denying property owners the right to hire the professional help they think they need. We think the public would agree, by at least a 12-1 margin.

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