There are fifteen Allegheny County council members. There is one chief executive.
Fifteen against one seems like good fighting odds, but as county council knows very well, it's a different story when Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald is involved.
Although most shy away from openly criticizing Mr. Fitzgerald, who makes no apologies for his cheerful use of his office's full powers, some council members say it's time they had a bit more responsibility, starting with a say in the hiring of county leaders.
"I kind of always feel like I'm at the bottom of the food chain," said council member James Ellenbogen, D-Banksville. "People do things, and I'm supposed to explain why they did them."
Mr. Ellenbogen, the council's public safety committee chairman, wants council to have a seat at the table in interviewing the replacement for William "Jack" Simmons, the dismissed former director of the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. Mr. Simmons and his deputy, Lynette Drawn-Williamson, were ousted after months of criticism regarding their leadership at the center.
While he's not asking for a vote on the new director, the councilman said he's owed the chance to give the troubled facility's future leader a once-over before he or she is hired.
"I hope I would have, if not any input, at least the concerns I have about a director be addressed," Mr. Ellenbogen said.
But fellow council member William Robinson, D-Hill District, takes things a bit further. He says county law requires Mr. Fitzgerald to allow council the chance to interview department head candidates, a rule he says has never been followed.
He's now supported by council president Charles Martoni, D-Swissvale, who rarely finds fault with Mr. Fitzgerald but nonetheless lamented council's position.
"We should have more say," he said. "Procedurally, I think we should be aware before the fact and before they're appointed. I don't think it's an arrogance of the administration -- I just think it's something that evolved over the years."
Mr. Robinson first raised the interview issue earlier this year, holding aloft the page of the county code he says backs up his argument. Now smarting from Mr. Simmons' public firing, he is demanding to see the rule enforced.
From the response of Mr. Fitzgerald's office, it doesn't look like he'll see satisfaction anytime soon. Spokeswoman Amie Downs shied away from any promises, saying the executive is pleased with his current hiring practices.
"The county executive believes the process he has utilized has been very open and inclusive and fully intends to continue having a transparent process," she said.
Time will tell how much leeway council will give. While structurally weaker than the county executive -- council members work part time, share a small staff and make a pittance in salary -- they do hold the power of the public pulpit.
"I think we do have a relevancy problem," said Michael Finnerty, D-Scott. "We find out by the paper that the chief executive branch has done things without consulting us. And we have to pass an ordinance or some sort of legislation to have it happen.
"That type of thing," he continued, "it's kind of embarrassing."
Andrew McGill: email@example.com or 412-263-1497.