Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at 1-year mark: energetic and assertive

While shakeups are inevitable, Fitzgerald has faced criticism about the manner as well as substance of some moves. But the consensus is: 'It's hard to outwork him. He's everywhere.'

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Some campaigns reveal a candidate; some conceal his real nature. Along with the normal quota of forgettable rhetoric, the 2011 primary for Allegheny County executive offered several what-you-see-is-what-you'll-get glimpses of the man who won the seat.

Rich Fitzgerald showed his confidence and comfort with risk when he lent his campaign $800,000 in his battle against then-county Controller Mark Flaherty. He foreshadowed his bent for confrontation in an impatient, leaked email, spotlighted by his rival, in which he dunned the region's nascent shale industry for contributions:

"... stand up for me now. Because if you don't, I will be gone in a few months,'' he thumbed into his BlackBerry. "This is 'The Race.' The chief executive of Allegheny County is the most influential political office west of the Susquehanna. ... I hope you guys realize this before it is too late.''

Mr. Fitzgerald, a Democrat who ended up winning fairly handily, is still around. It's a fact that a variety of figures with whom he's clashed -- such as Mr. Flaherty, former Port Authority chief Steve Bland and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- may regret. His assertive, energetic approach to his job is tough to miss, earning him fans as well as detractors as he heads into the second year of what he hopes will be a long tenure in the courthouse.

"Rich is there when I pick up the telephone,'' said Urban League president Esther Bush, introducing him at the group's annual celebration.

It was the first of five stops he would make on a chilly Saturday night this month, a busy but hardly unprecedented itinerary for a figure who prides himself on his outreach to community groups, Democratic committee meetings and grass-roots events of every description -- chatting, mixing, sharing his personal cell phone number.

"He comes to all of our meetings, he's always supported Millvale,'' said Patricia Knierim, the town's Democratic Party chairwoman, watching as he worked a roomful of committee members and would-be judges moments after leaving the Urban League event at the Heinz History Center.

Later, after a stop on the South Side, he swung by the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown for a gala fundraiser for Squirrel Hill's Community Day School. Entering the 17th-floor ballroom, he ran into a longtime friend and neighbor, Avi Baran Munro, the head of the school.

"His heart's in the right place and ... he has the guts to do hard things,'' she said after he'd moved on.

There, as in other stops that evening, he accepted congratulations from a variety of well-wishers on what is perhaps the high point of his relatively young administration -- the airport gas drilling deal he'd just unveiled that week, which promises as much as $500 million in revenue for the county over the next two decades.

"I love it,'' Mr. Fitzgerald said of the seemingly endless round of meeting and greeting. "I love this job.''

Whole lotta shakeups going on

But, as a string of headlines have attested, not all of his personal encounters are so benign.

Shortly after taking office, he pressed the Board of Health to oust Bruce Dixon, the longtime Health Department chief whose tenure had spanned administrations of both parties. More recently Mr. Fitzgerald engineered the Port Authority board's dismissal of Steve Bland, an administrator whose political and personnel skills Mr. Fitzgerald found wanting. And he persuaded the Airport Authority to seek a new airport boss while effectively demoting the incumbent CEO, Bradley Penrod.

Some shakeups are inevitable in any new administration at any level of government, but Mr. Fitzgerald has faced questions and criticism about the manner as well as the substance of those moves, particularly on his seemingly heavy-handed approach in pressuring members of the quasi-independent boards to follow his lead.

As he settles into his second year in office, the still unanswered questions surrounding his administration include whether he is shaking up entities that need to be shaken, or whether he is overreaching.

"A couple of things concern me,'' said Moe Coleman, the former head of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics. "One is that, by law, the authority board members are responsible and accountable for that agency; you can't take away their responsibility.

"I happen to like Fitzgerald, but it seems to me by having people sign letters of resignation before they get in there, people will have some trepidation. They'll be looking over their shoulders for decisions where, legally, they're responsible.''

Jack Brooks led the Port Authority board until he was stripped of its chairmanship, though not his board seat, in the same meeting where Mr. Bland was ousted.

"He certainly doesn't have the background to know what a transit authority is all about,'' said the former Carpenters' Union official. "I don't like his style.''

He said that Mr. Fitzgerald had sounded him out about leaving the board late last year and that he gave an unprintable response.

"I'll stay there just to aggravate him and keep him honest,'' said Mr. Brooks, who has two years left on his term on the board.

Allegheny County Councilwoman Amanda Green Hawkins, who sits on the Port Authority board, also resisted Mr. Fitzgerald's wishes and voted against firing Mr. Bland. She said it is too early to assess Mr. Fitzgerald's overall administration, but takes strong exception to his dealings with the Port Authority.

"Time will tell if it's the correct approach or not,'' she said. "I just hope that members of the board who have statutory, fiduciary duties will be able to do what they need to do.''

Mr. Fitzgerald cheerfully rebuts the criticism. He told reporters after the Port Authority showdown that he has no apologies for exerting his will on boards, asserting that as county executive, he sets policy, while the boards have a more advisory function.

In a subsequent interview, he defended the personnel moves and argued that the close timing of the actions at the two big transportation agencies had created an impression of greater upheaval than was the actual case. He said that his predecessors, Republican Jim Roddey and Democrat Dan Onorato, had actually removed more department heads than he has at equivalent points in their administrations.

Ms. Hawkins, who was appointed by Mr. Onorato, contrasted the styles of the two Democrats.

"My experience with Dan was that he was negotiable with his positions. He would say, 'This is what I'd like to see happen. What would you like to see happen? Let's talk.' "

She called Mr. Fitzgerald "a stark contrast.''

"He wants what he wants when he wants it,'' she said.

Mr. Fitzgerald described his agency reviews as a collaborative process among his top aides and other interested parties.

"Business, labor, non-profits, etc. -- I very much pride myself on being able to bring folks together,'' he said, adding that he and his aides had been in the process of assessing different departments and agencies over the past year.

"A lot of the evaluations are coming due now. That's why it seems there are a lot of changes,'' he said.

Of the airport reshuffling, he said, "That's been a long time coming. That's something the corporate community, even before I took office, wanted to see happen.''

The Democrat freely acknowledges that he has asked new board appointees to sign undated letters of resignation but noted that he has yet to ask anyone to submit them.

He declined to comment on reports that Alcosan, facing a billion-dollar-plus bill to upgrade the region's sewage treatment systems, may be next for a shakeup.

"I don't comment on those kinds of personnel issues,'' he said while adding that "certainly Alcosan, because of the [federal] consent decree and some of the issues surrounding that, is something that is going to take a lot of work. ... It impacts development, job growth, our ability to continue to grow. I'm very interested in more green solutions to storm water management, source reductions, things like that.''

Win some, lose some

But the Democrat doesn't always get his way.

Ms. Hawkins noted that he had lobbied her and other Port Authority board members to back one of his new board appointees, former Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier, to replace Mr. Bland. As the Post-Gazette's Jon Schmitz reported, Corbett administration officials exerted back-channel pressure to veto Mr. Fitzgerald's choice. Among the concerns they cited were various investigations of the operations of the turnpike agency during his tenure.

Asked about the exchange last week, neither Mr. Corbett nor Mr. Fitzgerald would comment on whatever exchanges on the Port Authority issue had taken place.

But the Republican -- who, as a Shaler resident, is among Mr. Fitzgerald's constituents and who shares his interest in promoting natural gas drilling -- praised Mr. Fitzgerald's overall ties with Harrisburg.

"He works with us; we stay in communication fairly regularly,'' Mr. Corbett said. "I think, from what I can see, he's doing a good job. ... People vote for you to make decisions, and there are some people who don't like decisions being made, they like the status quo. And I think he's not necessarily maintaining the status quo.''

Supporting the mayor's rival

While Mr. Fitzgerald insists that the volume of personnel upheaval in his administration has been exaggerated, there's at least one person he would cheerfully fire if it were in his power. That, of course, is his Grant Street neighbor, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Their well-known feud spurred the county official's politically risky decision to back city Councilman Bill Peduto's challenge to the mayor in the Democratic nomination battle that also includes city Controller Michael Lamb. The primary election is May 21.

While he highlights positive motivations for the move -- his respect for Mr. Peduto's record and his gratitude for his support in the county executive battle -- he makes no effort to disguise his disdain for the mayor.

"When I was going to run two years ago, Bill was very helpful and stepped up," he said, "Luke, very frankly, did everything he could to help my opponent, and there's a certain loyalty factor that I've always tried to have in politics.

"Also, I'm not crazy about some of the people the mayor surrounds himself with,'' Mr. Fitzgerald continued, citing as an example, William Lieberman, chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Mr. Lieberman, a prominent and politically connected Pittsburgh businessman, has raised money for a variety of political figures of both parties, including the late Mayor Bob O'Connor.

"The fact that our city is being kind of run by ... a Republican fundraiser is not in the best interests of the city of Pittsburgh. He's tied to [former state House Speaker John] Perzel, [state House Majority Leader Mike] Turzai, [state Senate Republican leader Joe] Scarnati ... why's he interested in the mayor's race of the city of Pittsburgh?''

Mr. Lieberman could not be reached for comment on the Fitzgerald analysis. Yarone Zober, Mr. Ravenstahl's chief of staff, shrugged off the criticism of his boss and his associates.

"He's obsessed with Mayor Ravenstahl and politics,'' he said of Mr. Fitzgerald. "We, as Allegheny County residents, wish he would spend more doing his job -- things like keeping his promise to halt reassessments, and getting tax bills out on time with appropriate refunds to seniors and homeowners.''

Along with Mr. Fitzgerald, state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, was one of the original members of county council before being elected to his Harrisburg office, and he remains a strong supporter, echoing Mr. Fitzgerald's assessment of Mr. Bland as a figure with a rocky relationship with Harrisburg.

"It's hard to outwork him, he's everywhere,'' he said. "He's up here; he makes the effort. That's important. ... I give him an A-plus for his work effort.

"He's not afraid to make a decision ... he speaks his mind. Sometimes he could be a little more subtle on some things, but that's his style.''

After one more stop in the South Side last Saturday, Mr. Fitzgerald walked into the Mardi Gras celebration at St. Bede Parish in Point Breeze, not far from his home. He laughed as the croupier at the craps table kidded him about his reputed penchant for firing people.

Later in the week, Mr. Fitzgerald mocked that image himself.

"There is no truth that I forced the pope to resign,'' he said the evening after the pontiff announced his decision to step down, "or that I have asked the cardinals to sign any letters.''

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


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