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Last Allegheny County commissioners bow out

Executive-elect Roddey, new county council take office on Monday

Tuesday, December 28, 1999

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With a verse from Revelations, a round of reflections on their accomplishments, and one healthy bang of the gavel, the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners yesterday adjourned itself into history.

After 212 years, the board, in the form of Democrat Mike Dawida and Republicans Bob Cranmer and Larry Dunn, held its last meeting yesterday.

Let the record show that it lasted approximately 30 minutes, and as its final item of business the board approved gave the Department of Human Services authority to apply for a $3 million grant from the state for educational and employment services.

Officially, the board will not be abolished until Monday, when a new government, consisting of a full-time county executive and a part-time, 15-member County Council, takes office.

The last commissioners clearly sensed the history taking place in the courthouse Gold Room, where the board has been meeting for years.

"In closing, my thanks to the citizens of Allegheny County for giving me this opportunity to serve them. It's been fun," Cranmer said.

After ticking off a list of accomplishments, it was clear Dawida believed history would treat this last board kindly, despite the turmoil and financial problems that plagued it for much of its term.

"I doubt that there will be many epochs of history [in which] more things got done in a better way for the people of this community," he said.

Dunn, who started the term as chairman, only to end up as the odd man out, declined to speak.

Dawida, the last chairman, opened the meeting with the reading from Revelation, 3:8:

"I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and have kept my word, and have not denied my name."

Dawida said, "For 212 years, people have been meeting here, praying here and doing the works of the community, and I thought that the open door that is suggested in Revelation is appropriate."

There were two tributes: one from Joe Dugan, manager of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, and another from Dawida's chief of staff, Karen Hochberg.

Dugan praised the commissioners for helping to make the Oakland hall a self-sustaining enterprise, and Hochberg thanked them for giving her a chance to serve the public.

"It's been a great time. I've learned so much, and I'll never forget it," Hochberg said.

The commissioners seemed to be in good humor despite losing their jobs. Of course, part of it was their own doing, because they set in motion the historic change that led to the end of the board of commissioners.

After first rejecting a blue ribbon committee's recommendation to alter the form of government, Dunn and Cranmer, once their partnership failed, embraced it, as did Dawida, who had always supported it.

While each of the three at one time envisioned himself as the county's first executive, none succeeded. Dawida and Dunn lost in the party primaries, and Cranmer, feeling he could not win, chose not to run.

Oddly enough, the last board began its term on an historic note, with Dunn and Cranmer being the first Republicans in six decades to win control of it. But their partnership unraveled over policy clashes and financial woes triggered by the 20 percent tax cut they enacted when they took office.

In August 1997, Cranmer dumped Dunn and teamed with Democrat Dawida to run the government, a coalition that endured to the end.

Though Cranmer and Dawida worked to stabilize the county's financial footing, most people probably remember the sense of chaos and turmoil that surrounded their actions.

Cranmer acknowledged as much.

"To make a good omelet, you have to break a few eggs, and I think we broke a few in the past few years and probably had even more thrown at us," he said. "But I think that ... what was accomplished was very constructive."

Dawida said the last board could take credit for many things, including creating an airport authority, bringing in billions of dollars in economic development, and implementing 911 service after many years of delay. He said the commissioners paid a "political price" for some of their decisions.

"The last 212 years have been tremendous," Dawida said, "but the last couple of years have been probably the most remarkable the county has seen. Tumultuous and difficult, but certainly we did things for the good of the community that will be felt well past the time when I will be retired and sitting in my easy chair."

The board of commissioners was formed in 1788, with the appointment of Gen. John Gibson and Richard Butler. It grew in 1794 to three members, each of whom was elected every year. In 1877, terms were changed to three years, then to four years in 1912.

Over the years, a number of notable figures have served on the board, including John J. Kane, whose name is on the county's nursing homes, W.D. McClelland, John E. McGrady, Leonard Staisey, Tom Foerster, Cyril Wecht, former Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty and state Treasurer Barbara Hafer.

Yet, by yesterday afternoon, only hours after the commissioners adjourned, county workers were ripping up sections of the Gold Room to reconfigure it to meet the needs of the County Council.

Change, it seems, pays homage to nothing, not even a 212-year-old institution.

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