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And what to make of the county's most recent leaders?

Sunday, January 02, 2000

By Mark Belko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

What a long, strange ride it has been for the 118th and last board of commissioners to serve Allegheny County.

It started in 1996 under the most unusual of circumstances. Two Republicans -- Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer -- held power for the first time in six decades.

Then Dunn lost his clout before his term was half over, as Cranmer and Democrat Mike Dawida shut him out by forming their own cross-party alliance. Now all three will be heading out the door -- along with the three-commissioner form of government itself.

Who would have thought four years ago, when a giddy Dunn ascended to commission chairman and Dawida vowed to recapture the board in 2000, that a 212-year-old institution that survived the Whiskey Rebellion, the War of 1812, the Civil War, two World Wars, and the collapse of the steel industry wouldn't make it to the new millennium?

No doubt history will give the last board credit for providing impetus to the change, which will culminate tomorrow with County Executive-elect Jim Roddey and a 15-member council taking office.

But whether historians will view the commissioners' decision to embrace a blue-ribbon committee's recommendations for change as an act of political courage or simply a reflection of their inability to work together is a matter of debate.

"If the last four years are known for anything, it was that they were such a disaster it led voters to adopt a new government," said political analyst Jon Delano, a Democrat. "I don't believe we would have a new government today if Dunn and Cranmer were able to run the show."

In Delano's view, the chaos, bumbling, bickering, financial problems and lowered bond ratings that characterized the 19 months of the Dunn-Cranmer administration overshadowed all else and led voters to dump the entire system -- by a mere 564 votes -- when they got the chance.

"It really highlights the depth of public disgust with the governance of the county that none of the three made it to the final race [for executive] this November. Each paid the price for the widespread public perception that this was a leaderless county," he said.

However, Cranmer believes the accomplishments of the last 29 months, after he and Dawida began running the government, eventually will shine above the pratfalls that preceded it.

"I think and I'm sure that as the economy picks up in Allegheny County over the next 10 years, as jobs are created, as the new government functions well, people will look and history will look back at how the change came about and will look favorably on it," he said.

There no doubt were accomplishments, including:

Implementation of 911 service after years of haggling and delay.

Development of a new hotel at Pittsburgh International Airport.

A commitment by US Airways to maintain 5,000 maintenance-related jobs in the region.

A 1,000-employee reduction in the county workforce.

Roles in major new developments in Homestead, McKeesport and Munhall.

Cranmer and Dawida also teamed with Mayor Murphy to put together the Plan B projects. They are the new Pirates ballpark, new Steelers stadium and expansion of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The buildings are an accomplishment or a big mistake, depending on your point of view on public financing of such projects.

The stadiums might not have happened were it not for a reversal by Cranmer. He had come into office opposed to any public funding for stadiums and then changed his mind.

Moe Coleman, retired director of the Institute for Politics at the University of Pittsburgh, said the board also should get credit for improving city-county relations and cooperation. He said the last board of commissioners probably will get an average rating from history.

"I think they'd be sort of in the middle -- not terrible, not great. After the first two years, which were chaos, they sort of pulled it together in a reasonable way."

Republican political consultant Bill Green was less generous, giving the commissioners a "C-minus to D-plus" grade.

"I think we're pretty lucky we just survived it," he said. "They were pretty nice fellows, but collectively, this group just didn't work."

Much of the trouble goes back to the first two actions taken by the Dunn-Cranmer team after taking office -- the 20-percent property tax cut and the five-year freeze on property assessments. Dawida voted for the tax cut and against the assessment freeze.

The tax cut, a Republican campaign pledge, was implemented before spending reductions could be made. It nearly drained county reserves of almost $80 million, produced growing financial woes when the commissioners were unable to agree on spending reductions, and prompted Wall Street to lower the county's bond ratings.

It also brought layoffs of public defenders and assessment office employees that later haunted the board. Then there were budget fights with the courts that led to costly settlements and gave impetus to a number of Dunn-Cranmer privatization initiatives, including the creation of a nonprofit corporation to run the county's four nursing homes. That plan ignited union protests and added to the sense of chaos.

Ultimately, those factors helped to trigger the Aug. 14, 1997, coup. With Cranmer and Dawida worried about the county's financial health, they joined to oust Dunn as chairman and seize control of government's direction.

Under their agreement, Cranmer served as chairman until September 1998 and Dawida from then until the end of the term.

Dunn, who has claimed the coup was more about Cranmer's thirst for power than concerns about finance, branded Cranmer, his GOP running mate, a "Benedict Arnold."

Cranmer, saying he had heard Dunn on the radio comparing himself to George Washington, shot back, "You're no George Washington."

The property assessment freeze worsened the county's money shortage. A year later, Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. declared the freeze illegal and ended it.

He ordered a countywide reassessment. He also mandated that the property assessment board, long controlled by the commissioners, must be independent.

Layoffs and firings made after Dunn and Cranmer took office eventually triggered a slew of lawsuits. They have cost taxpayers more than $1 million in settlements to date.

As their partnership unraveled, Cranmer railed about the grass not getting cut at South Park, which soon became a metaphor for the inefficiency of government.

In the end, Coleman said, the clashes, the problems, and the bad publicity were too much for the commissioners to overcome, even after Dawida and Cranmer began to turn things around.

"It was hard to alter the image of the first two years," he said. "People perceived the government as chaotic. It was circus-like. Once that image is in the public, it's hard to alter that."

Even after Dawida and Cranmer assumed control and began to stabilize the county's financial footing and get the grass cut, they were forced to sell tax liens and rely on other one-time revenue sources to help make ends meet. To help balance their last budget, they took $6.7 million from a special reserve fund set up as part of the Allegheny Regional Asset District for "unanticipated emergencies."

"I think Bob and Larry were probably wise in [enacting] the 20 percent tax cut. Where they made their mistake was in doing it all at once," Green said.

Nonetheless, by the end of their term, commissioners were citing the tax cut as an accomplishment.

Neither Dunn nor Cranmer was interested in sitting down for interviews to discuss their terms. Dawida refused to speak to the Post-Gazette beat reporter, saying he did not believe he could be fair.

But in talking with a group of reporters last week, Dawida and Cranmer said they believe they ultimately will be remembered for the good they did, not the divisiveness that marred the first part of their term.

Dawida cited these accomplishments:

Creation of a quasi-independent airport authority, though that was mired in politics for months.

A more aggressive approach to economic development.

Improvements in the way mental health and mental retardation services were delivered.

Creating the mechanism for Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall to be a self-sustaining enterprise.

Cranmer and Dawida also bit the bullet and paid top dollar to hire an aviation professional to run Pittsburgh International and Allegheny County airports, got development rolling at the old airport terminal, which had been sitting vacant since 1992, and prepared the groundwork for a possible high-tech business campus in Marshall.

Dawida was particularly proud of the work he and Cranmer did to implement 911 service, ordering a reduction in the number of dispatch centers from 41 to six and enduring the wrath of some local police chiefs as a result. The system has worked so well there may be more consolidation.

"That's another issue that was strictly done by us, which people fought. Lawsuits were instituted, and yet, clearly, we were on the side of the angels with that, saving lives and money to the point now where nearly everyone says, you did the right things," Dawida said.

"But we paid a political price for all of those things because this community doesn't change quickly and the county never played these kinds of roles before, at least not so aggressively."

Dawida also believes that the county under his and Cranmer's watch made inroads in development, though his oft-touted figure of $8 billion in development has drawn skepticism.

"Mostly I feel good about the fact that our kids will have a chance to stay here and live and work in this region because we've clearly turned the corner. And those of you who were here a couple years ago know how we were flat on our backs as a community. There was no new development occurring. And now the problem seems to be how to get enough people to work in these different jobs. That's a nice change, one that I think is worthwhile," he said.

As for the futures of the last three commissioners, Green and Coleman see Dawida, who is joining a law firm, returning to politics at some point. But Delano isn't sure.

"He was really hurt by the general impression of the entire commission and he could never separate himself from that. He could not turn around to the voters and say I'm not part of the mess. That was the political challenge that, despite his success, he could not overcome that."

None see Cranmer, who will be going to work for L. Robert Kimball and Associates, a county consultant on 911, re-entering politics, though all seemed to be struck by his growth in office. Coleman said he found Cranmer to be "very forthright."

"I was impressed with his integrity. I just saw him develop his knowledge. You always felt that you get an honest answer from him," he said.

Delano called Cranmer "a fascinating political figure who contravened earlier predictions. When he was first elected, people thought he would be a rabblerousing, right-wing Christian Coalition partisan and he turned out to be anything but. He proved to be a very complicated -- almost enigmatic -- political figure. He's clearly someone who listened to his own drummer."

Though Cranmer's decision to split from Dunn probably cost him his political future, Green said he should get credit for it. "It was a very difficult personal decision but he did it because it was right for the county."

Analysts didn't see much of a political future for Dunn, the oft-ignored minority commissioner who rose to become chairman only to lose it all.


"He had aspirations of leading the whole operation and ended up in the same position as under the Foerster administration," Coleman said. "His showing was so poor that I don't see a political future for him."

To a point, Delano agrees.

"He's in political wilderness. But so was Richard Nixon and he came back to be president," he said.

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