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Allegheny County has a long history of commissioners

Sunday, January 02, 2000

By James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Commissioners helped govern what is now Allegheny even before there was an Allegheny County, or even a United States.

Counties were arms of the colonial government -- as they are of state government today -- with their chief duties being the administration of the county courts. In 1724, the first boards of county commissioners came into being in Pennsylvania, charged mainly with overseeing tax assessments.

Allegheny County was created in 1788, when the Legislature carved it away from Westmoreland County. Its first commissioners were appointed; the first election for Allegheny County commissioner came in 1790.

Originally, the new county government presided over a territory that stretched all the way to Lake Erie, but the Legislature created more new counties to the north in 1800, when Allegheny County assumed roughly its current size.

Prior to that, this area of Western Pennsylvania had been the object of multiple territorial disputes. The Penn family bought much of the land from the Iroquois. But other tribes settled in the territory hadn't been consulted in the arrangement, leading to recurring disputes with settlers coming over the mountains.

Those tensions overlapped the competition between the French and British colonists that ended in the French and Indian War. But the end of that war didn't bring the end of the battle over ownership of the area around the forks of the Ohio.

Pennsylvania and Virginia continued to assert rival claims to the region. In 1774, Lord Dunmore of Virginia sent a Dr. John Connolly to the remains of Fort Pitt, which he renamed Fort Dunmore. Arthur St. Clair, acting for Pennsylvania, arrested Connolly and held him in the jail in Hannastown, the Westmoreland County seat.

The dispute receded as the American Revolution began and was finally resolved in Pennsylvania's favor in 1780, with the agreement to extend the Mason-Dixon line west.

A vestige of this dispute can be seen on a map of Allegheny County. Aside from the small towns scattered along the banks of all three rivers, the township lines north of the Ohio and Allegheny have regular shapes, with boundaries generally following right angles.

The townships to the south have much more irregular boundaries. That is because the boundaries of the northern townships were laid out by Pennsylvania surveyors, who plotted them on maps. The boundaries of the southern townships were laid out by Virginia surveyors, who allowed themselves to be guided by geographic features such as streams and hills and patterns of settlements.

The county seat of the new jurisdiction was originally supposed to be Allegheny, in what is now the North Side. The lawyers and judges of the day preferred to gather in the more developed town of Pittsburgh across the river, and it became the county seat in law as well as in fact in 1791.

The county was divided into seven townships when it was formed. By the end of the Civil War, it had 38 municipalities. With the burgeoning industrialization of the next half-century, the county's municipal atomization continued. In 1910, it had 108 separate cities, towns or boroughs.

Many of the new communities, according to a study by the U.S. Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, "were 'mill towns,' created at the instigation of private entrepreneurs to encapsulate their major mills and factories, protect them from taxation and regulation, and provide them with local police powers that could be and were used to ward off union organization in the mills."

County government had a relatively limited role throughout most of the 19th century. It began to assume a more visible stance with public works projects and the expansion of the county parks system in this century. Its greatest growth was in response to changes at the federal level -- the growth of the New Deal and Great Society social programs that it administers.

The Home Rule Charter that will be implemented with the inauguration of Jim Roddey and the new county council will have the very visible effect of ending the centuries-old commissioner system. But, in many ways, it is a modest sequel to generally unsuccessful attempts at government rationalization that have recurred throughout this century.

In 1928, following the recommendations of a commission appointed by the governor, the residents of Allegheny County were asked to approve the creation of what was called a federated city of Pittsburgh. It would have been the fourth-largest city in the United States. The smaller municipalities would have been retained -- just as they were unaffected by the Home Rule Charter -- but Pittsburgh would have assumed some of the powers of an overall municipal government.

In a special election in June 1929, the proposal was approved by 68 percent of the voters. That overwhelming assent was not sufficient, however, as the Legislature had said that the plan could not pass unless it was approved by a two-thirds majority in more than half of the communities.

Subsequent attempts to adopt home rule charters were also defeated, by majority votes, in 1974 and 1978 before the current plan won approval by fewer than 600 votes in 1998.

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