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The selection of city and county watchdogs is all about control

"What's at stake is the independence of the office."

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It's easy to imagine that the battleground for the region's top financial watchdogs would be fraught with arguments about finances.

But to many political observers, the races that will determine who occupies the city and county controller's offices might have little to do with pension obligations or auditing procedures — and will instead test whether Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald will be able to expand their political influence.

"It's inter-party politics," says William J. Green, a Republican political analyst. "To make it to be anything other than that would be in error."

Nowhere is that clearer than in the race between incumbent Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner and challenger Mark Patrick Flaherty. That contest, argues Green, is fundamentally about whether Fitzgerald will be able to wrest authority from a controller who has often created political problems for him (including recently pressuring him into cutting the county a roughly $42,000 check after Wagner argued that Fitzgerald used a county Jeep for personal and political use).

"I've known [Flaherty] for a long time and like him a lot," says Green, noting he did an "adequate" job as county controller, an office he previously held for eight years. But "who's supporting him? The chief executive. What's at stake is the independence of the office."

On the other hand, the city controller race, in which Pittsburgh City Councilor Natalia Rudiak is trying to unseat two-term incumbent Michael Lamb, is not quite as stark. Though there is a similar dynamic at work — a challenge to an incumbent controller who is politically at odds with the executive branch — some argue Rudiak's campaign doesn't seem to have fully articulated its message. For instance, Peduto called for an internal investigation into a delayed-payroll program, leveling a criticism of "lack of oversight" at Lamb. Still, RudiakĀ isn't mounting a campaign with the same level of vigor as Flaherty.

"I think [Rudiak] has support," says Don Friedman, a Democratic political analyst. But "I don't think she has a particularly great case to make to fire [Lamb] — which is what she's asking people to do." (Full disclosure: Friedman is working for the Wagner campaign, but is neutral in the city-controller race.)

While each of these controller races has its nuances (explored more fully below), both pose a fundamental question about whether executive branch-backed challengers could make for less effective watchdogs. If political and financial resources are flowing from top politicians in city and county government to candidates who might ultimately audit city and county government, does that create an inherent conflict of interest?

"We have these functions in the counties and cities to watch everybody's tax dollars," says Green. "If people wanted the controller to be part of an administration, we wouldn't have elected ones. ... As much as that sounds like civics 101, that's exactly what it is."

For Green, the independence of the controller's office isn't merely theoretical. He points out that Wagner has taken various county authorities to court in an attempt to audit them — a move that has been challenged by the county.

"If [Fitzgerald] gets his own controller, then Flaherty ... would be more inclined to listen to him to not audit the airport authority or Port Authority," Green says. "If you're welded at the hip, it's pretty hard to unweld it when you're elected."

To be fair, while Flaherty and Rudiak have Fitzgerald and Peduto's support, it is not yet clear the extent to which Fitzgerald, Peduto or associated political action groups have supported any candidate financially. Candidates are not required to disclose their financial backers until May 8, after this story went to press — and Fitzgerald did not respond to a request for comment.

But not everyone thinks independence necessarily grows out of political tension.

"Under both Mayor Caliguiri and Mayor Masloff, we always had an adversarial relationship with the controller," says Joseph Sabino Mistick, who worked in both of those administrations. "Some of our folks got plenty frustrated with the criticism that the administrations would receive from the controller's office."

The controller's office, Mistick adds, is "very important to the smooth operation of government. [But] that doesn't mean you have to be political adversaries."

At least one influential group, however, seems to value the political independence of candidates in the controller races. The 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club, an important progressive East End group, endorsed Wagner and Lamb over Flaherty and Rudiak — partly due to their independence from the mayor and county executive.

Wagner's "independence from the county executive certainly played a role in her getting the endorsement," says Kathie Smith, the club's president. "People are generally not happy with [Fitzgerald] putting candidates up ... seeming like revenge candidates."

In the city race, Smith acknowledges that people "see Rudiak as a leader of the progressive wing of the party." However, Smith says, "in addition to progressive values we also have good-government values. And we think Michael Lamb represents good government."

But Green also cautions against reading too much into the politics of the moment. "When you have a one-party county or city as we do, you get four or five families of influence in this city and people get aligned with those groups." And of the disputes between them, he says, "some of them go back years."

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