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One County Commission Looks To Give More Power To Another Commission

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA

For 13 years, Allegheny County has had a five-member accountability, conduct and ethics commission, and in that time it has never launched an investigation of its own. Not because its members have been remise in their duties, but because the commission does not have that power. 

That would change if the Allegheny County Government Review Commission had anything to say about it.

“As it exists today, the board can only deal with issues that are presented to it by way of complaint,” Government Review Commission member Andrea Geraghty said. “Which means that if somebody on the board reads something in the newspaper that indicates there is an ethics problem, they can’t independently initiate an investigation.”

When the Home Rule Charter of Allegheny County was enacted January 1, 2000, it required the newly formed county council to create a “code of accountability, conduct and ethics” for county employees, appointees and elected officials. At the same time, it created a five-member accountability, conduct and ethics commission, or the ACE commission, to be appointed by the county council and county executive.

“We run really autonomously from the county and that’s, quite frankly, so that we don’t have any conflict once we are appointed to the commission,” Tim Moury, ACE commission chair said.

Geraghty’s fiscal and personnel sub-committee wrote a recommendation calling for both the Home Rule Charter and county code to be amended to allow the ACE commission to be granted the power to launch investigations.

Having the ability to launch its own investigations through something known as an “own motion” is not unusual for bodies like the ACE commission. 

“If we get into a municipality and we are looking at public official ‘A,’ and then during the course of things we see public official ‘B’ also has some issues, then we do that own motion mechanism,” said Rob Caruso, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission. 

Caruso said only about 5 percent of the commission’s investigations are launched internally, but having that mechanism is extremely valuable to the process, in part because everything found during an investigation must remain confidential until there is a final determination.

“If we see something out there that we know could be a violation of the act we can’t the go tell citizen ‘A’ to file a complaint against a public official,” Caruso said. “We think it’s incumbent on us to not turn a blind eye. We have to have that ability to initiate an inquiry.”

Others argue that even though complainants can remain anonymous and there are laws to protect whistle blowers, there are still barriers that could keep some individuals from filing official complaints. Moury said there are also times that something might not be completely ethical, but it does not rise to the level that would prompt a complaint. All those involved say this is just a matter of good government and stressed there was no precipitating event. 

Geraghty said she believes any fears that giving the ACE commission, which already has subpoena power, more power will result in witch hunts are unfounded.

“That’s a question of who it is that we appoint to the board and whether they fulfill their duties to the people of Allegheny County,” Geraghty said. “I don’t know why individuals who are volunteering to freely give of their time by way of public service would want to undermine our government rather than simply to help set standards for ethical behavior in public service.”

As it is now the county ACE Commission investigates about two complaints each year. 

The ACE Commission members had also suggested that it be granted the ability to hire outside experts when needed. Currently the commission uses the help of the county’s human relations department and the legal department but that does not always work, according to Moury.

“Because there are personnel issues, there have been times we have excused the supporting staff and or the solicitor,” Moury said. “We would like to talk about maybe having a mechanism in place… that maybe we could go out and seek some legal advice.”

Moury said he would also like to see the county council appoint a liaison to his commission, which he said would help to keep the lines of communications open.  Those last two requests were not addressed by the Government Review Commission’s recommendations.  

The commission released its recommendations to the public Tuesday and will officially present them to council next week.

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