Allegheny County Council member Sue Means announced today her intention to substantially work to reform how council operates. She called the council “an inherently weak legislative body” and one that “is often denied the necessary information to make informed decisions.”
Means, a Republican who represents Mount Lebanon and Bethel Park, is taking advantage of a review by the Form of Government Subcommittee and was set to present her recommended changes at today's 3 p.m. subcommittee meeting. This subcommittee, which reports to the county's Government Review Commission, is permitted to suggest changes to the county's Home Rule Charter once every 10 years, a p
rovision outlined in the original charter. The charter has not been updated in 15 years, according to Joe Catanese, council director of government relations.
“This is an opportunity to improve the charter,” Means told City Paper
prior to today's meeting. “County Council was created very weak and I don’t understand why.”
Means says that the vast majority of council’s actions are merely to approve committee members sponsored by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. (For tonight’s meeting, there are 13 such appointments to be voted on.)
Means says that Fitzgerald's appointments are usually approved with little difficulty, but she says this can lead to potential problems. In February, for example, businessman Mark Aloe was sponsored by Fitzgerald to serve on the county’s Finance and Development Committee, and easily passed through the committee's vote. But when news leaked that Aloe was indicted in 2010 in Nebraska on federal embezzlement charges
, the council voted against Aloe’s appointment. The charges were later dismissed.
Issues like these are why Means is calling for increased transparency within the council. She told CP
that she has requested information from committees many times in the past, and has consistently been denied.
“[Pittsburgh City Council] is doing great strides towards plain language and transparency, but the county is lagging behind,” she says.
Means points out that this lack of transparency leads to the council "voting blind" on land use issues. She adds that Fitzgerald himself admitted last year to council that the system as currently constructed could easily be corrupted.
Means says, for example, that council members are not informed on the specifics of road projects before voting on them. Council Member James Ellenbogen brought up this problem at a July council meeting when he said council was never informed of the bike lanes that were installed on the Roberto Clemente Bridge.
The Government Review Commission is expected to release recommendations for improvements next year.
The full release appears after the jump.
Council Member Means Comments on the Functioning of County Council to the Government Review Commission
18 August 2015
– Calling Allegheny County Council “an inherently weak legislative body” and one that “is often denied the necessary information to make informed decisions,” Council member Sue Means today launched an effort to substantially reform how that body operates.
Means is presenting her detailed recommendations today to the Form of Government Subcommittee of the Government Review Commission, which is currently reviewing the functioning of Allegheny County’s government as is required every 10 years under the Home Rule Charter. The subcommittee is meeting at 3:00 p.m. in the Gold Room at the County Courthouse.
Means declared that her proposed changes are necessary to ensure a proper system of checks and balances in county government. “I believe that, for us to enhance public trust in Allegheny County government, Council must play this counterbalancing role,” she said. “I further believe that Allegheny County government as it is operating today fails miserably to meet this standard and that, on the contrary, the system of checks and balances envisioned at the time of the Charter’s creation has been eviscerated.”
In defense of her position, Means referred to a July 13 meeting of a Government Review Commission subcommittee at which all three men who have served as County Executive — Jim Roddey, Dan Onorato, and Rich Fitzgerald — agreed that the current system could be easily corrupted and taken advantage of by an unscrupulous chief executive due to the lack of oversight.
Means’s specific proposals include:
*Granting additional staff support to County Council members, including specialists in contract review
*Removing the requirement that members of County Council must resign their seat before running for another office
* Term limits of 8 or 12 years for Council members
* Enforcing County Council’s plenary powers regarding all county land use contracts, which is granted by the Charter but routinely ignored
* Ensuring all County Council members’ ability to consistently obtain information from executive branch staff
* Enacting a mutual non-interference clause as to the Executive branch to ensure the independence of the Council staff
Noting that Pittsburgh City Council has many of the powers that County Council is denied, Means concluded, “The evidence of County Council’s impotence, to the extent of routinely being denied information to which the Charter says it is entitled, is so overwhelming that no honest and thorough discussion about the fairness and effectiveness of our county’s government can ignore it.”