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Policing A Key Issue Among Allegheny County Council Hopefuls

The Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Democrats on Allegheny County Council are slated to meet Monday with a dozen hopefuls who wish to replace Charles Martoni as the representative for Council District 8. 

While the county hasn’t released the full list of applicants seeking the post, several have spoken with WESA – and policing is a central concern for some.

That’s in part because District 8 includes East Pittsburgh, the community where a part-time police officer shot and killed unarmed teenager Antwon Rose last summer.  The new councilor will, in fact, be named the same week that marks the anniversary of Rose’s death. And the appointee, who will be chosen by Martoni’s fellow Democrats on council, may well vote on whether to create a countywide police review board to review claims of misconduct. A drive to create such a board, modeled on a simliar body in the city of Pittsburgh, took root after Rose’s death.

Such questions hit close to home for Dennis Simon, who is considered one of the leading contenders to replace Martoni. Simon has been a borough councilor in East Pittsburgh for three decades.

“For all my years on council, we had a good department,” Simon said. But when the borough began using part-time officers in the late 1990s, “One thing leads to another. People retire, and you are trying to make ends meet … We were spending money training people, and then they’d leave” for better pay elsewhere.

For that reason, Simon said that as a county councilor he would try to encourage smaller municipalities to regionalize as a way to save money. And he said he was open to supporting a review board.

“We could use it in East Pittsburgh. We don’t have the time or manpower to watch over that,” he said. But District 8 – which encompasses Monroeville, Plum, and a swath of the Mon and Turtle Creek valleys – includes communities that may not have those challenges.

“I’d go to the constituents in those communities to see how they feel,” he said.

Economics are a concern for many departments, though critics have said East Pittsburgh had problems of its own. Last year District Attorney Steven Zappala said East Pittsburgh department seemed to have no written policies, and the borough faced controversy for a 2008 decision to hire Lori Payne – the daughter of the borough’s mayor – as police chief. But Simon said the borough did the best it could. Payne “did a fantastic job” as chief, he said. “She took a pay cut because she cared about the community, and she was the only officer who lived there.”

Meanwhile Ryan O’Donnell, a first-term member of Edgewood’s borough council, said support for a countywide review board is central to his own county council bid.

“It’s the No. 1 thing I’d be in support of. It’s beyond a shame that we only saw the need for it after the tragic death of Antown Rose in this very district,” said O'Donnell.

O’Donnell said there was another reason to back the cause.

“It’s a necessary step towards regionalization” of the county’s 130 municipal governments, he said. “If Allegheny County is going to compete on the national level going forward, then regionalization of police and borough government is going to be required, even if it’s many moons down the road.”

O'Donnell touts his experience as a social worker, a background he said will be useful to oversee the county's massive human-services spending. But given the number of candidates, he joked, "Council should just have an open-mic night.”

Indeed, even the sampling of candidates who spoke to WESA reveal a wide range of backgrounds. In addition to veteran officials like Simon, they include first-time candidates like Bhavini Pateland Monroeville resident Elisa Haransky-Beck.

Haransky-Beck is a prominent environmental activist who founded a citizens group, Sustainable Monroeville, and is concerned about the health effects of fracking for natural gas.

“I want to empower the entire county to move forward instead of staying where we were as a region years ago,” she said. Her medical background as an optometrist, she said, gives her special insight into the dangers of pollution from processes like gas-drilling. "We want to move our culture from one of [environmental] disconenect into a regenerative, green and renewable economy.”

Real estate attorney James Lomeo, meanwhile, is a bit more cautious about civilian review. A former mayor of Monroeville, he said, “I never oppose civil review for anything. I just don’t know in practice how it works.”

State law does not give such boards enforcement power, he notes, and he said if the board reaches a different conclusion than police brass, that could cause more confusion in the community.

“There are budget issues and we have to talk about train,” he said. “My view is we need more police officers, not less. When you have more officers, the force isn’t as stressed. And bad things can happen when you are stressed.”

He said his own focus was on jobs and infrastructure concerns. “These are the things that don’t make CNN or Fox News, but it’s the stuff you live with every day," he said.

Lomeo and the other candidates will be able to make their case before county council Democrats starting at 4 p.m. Monday. (Under the county’s home-rule charter, an interim councilor must be registered with the same party as the council member being replaced.)  The discussion is expected to be lengthy – and the interim councilor will serve only until voters pick a new replacement in November.

County Council is slated to make the choice at its regular meeting on June 18 – one day before the anniversary of Antown Rose’s death.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.