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County Council wants room to run

Thursday, May 15, 2003

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Allegheny County voters on Tuesday will have their first opportunity to amend the county's 3-year-old home rule charter.

But the proposed amendment might not be the one voters were expecting.

Last winter, a Republican-dominated group was collecting signatures -- and making headlines -- for a referendum that proposed eliminating all but two of the 10 county row offices.

But the referendum on Tuesday's ballot instead asks voters whether they wish to eliminate a charter provision that forces County Council members to resign if they become candidates for other elected offices.

While Citizens for Democratic Reform didn't collect enough signatures to force a referendum on abolishing row offices, County Council exercised its power to put a proposed charter amendment of its own on the ballot.

The provision in question forced James Simms, a Democratic candidate for county controller in Tuesday's primary, to resign as president of County Council two months ago.

Mike Crossey, a Democrat from Mt. Lebanon, had to resign from council last year when he ran unsuccessfully against incumbent state Rep. Tom Stevenson, R-Mt. Lebanon. If not for the charter provision, Crossey would be serving the final year of his council term. Instead, after losing to Stevenson, he found himself out of office.

On council, Democrats and Republicans alike want the resignation requirement removed from the charter.

"We've had state senators and state representatives run for other offices midway through their term. They didn't have to resign their seats to do that," said Councilman Ron Francis, R-Ben Avon.

The state Legislature inserted the requirement into the 1997 bill that authorized Allegheny County to draft a home rule charter. Legislators have acknowledged that the provision was written to discourage council members from running against them.

"It had nothing to do with good government," said council President Rick Schwartz, D-Plum. "It was simply a protection for the state legislators."

Morton Coleman, a member of the ComPAC 21 panel that recommended the switch to home rule government, believes the provision has some merit.

"We were looking at the County Council as a body of citizen legislators who would not be using their council seats to enhance their political careers," said Coleman, retired director of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics.

"This [provision] is a way to build a [council] that's concerned about the county and not about their personal careers," he added.

Francis argues that the county benefits from having politically ambitious council members.

"I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing that you have politicians who seek to move up the political ladder," he said. "That means they're going to be responsive to the concerns of the citizens. They do the things the public wants."

The referendum will likely catch many voters unawares. Nobody is campaigning for or against it.

Such provisions are not unique to Allegheny County.

Members of the Miami-Dade County Board of Commissioners have to take a leave of absence if they run for another office.

There has been no effort to eliminate that provision in the Florida county's charter, according to Rafael Morel, director of legislation for commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler.

"At this point, it's just part of the political culture," Morel said.

In Philadelphia, as in Allegheny County, council members have to resign once they enter a race for another office.

"It's considered a good-government provision," said Bob Previdi, spokesman for Philadelphia Council President Anna Verna.

In Allegheny County, Philadelphia and Miami, the council members are part-timers who receive nominal salaries.

Even if Allegheny County voters approve the charter amendment, Schwartz doesn't foresee many of his fellow council members taking advantage of the change.

"I personally don't expect any rush of County Council people to run for another office," the council president said. "It's not something that's going to open the floodgates."

Jeffrey Cohan can be reached at jcohan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3573.

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