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Allegheny County Council Names Plum Attorney To Interim Post

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

On Monday, Democrats on Allegheny County Councilspent hours interviewing a dozen candidates to replace the late Charles Martoni. When County Council voted on a replacement Tuesday, the discussion was far briefer and featured only one name: that of Plum Borough attorney Paul Zavarella.

Zavarella, a former magistrate district judge, received an 11-to-1 vote of support. After being sworn in, he will represent Martoni's District 8, which includes Monroeville, Plum, and a swath of the Mon Valley.

Zavarella was not present for the meeting, but reached by phone afterwards, he said he was “honored” by council’s choice. As a longtime acquaintance of Martoni, he said, “I know I have some big shoes to fill.”

Martoni, an original member of county council who served on the body for nearly two decades, died in May. Under the county’s home-rule charter, his interim replacement had to be a fellow Democrat. And Democrats said the behind-the-scenes discussion about how to replace him was brief.

County Councilor Bob Palmosina hailed Zavarella’s “past experience in the community – being an attorney and a past magistrate – plus him knowing Dr. Martoni and how he did business in the community. I myself had two or three candidates I liked, but in the end, it seemed like Mr. Zavarella was at or near the top of a lot of lists” – including Palmosina's own.

Councilors closed ranks behind Zavarella, he said, because “We wanted to try to show that it would be unanimous.”

The lone “no” vote came from councilor DeWitt Walton. During interviews with council candidates Monday evening, he said his “litmus test” would be whether they supported his bill to create a countywide police review board to investigate claims of police misconduct. The bill was sponsored in the wake of the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Antwon Rose by an officer in East Pittsburgh, which lies within the district.

Zavarella was among the half-dozen candidates who said he didn’t know enough about the legislation to comment on Monday. Walton invited them to review the bill and follow up with him before Tuesday’s meeting, and he said that while Zavarella did email some thoughts, “He was less than affirmative.”

Walton said the process for selecting Zavarella “was fair. Everyone understood what my expectations were. It was nothing personal, but the standard is the standard.”

Walton did express disappointment that “so many potential candidates from that district had not read that legislation. It’s a critical issue in that district. I don’t want to cast any aspersions on anyone, but we have a responsibility to be informed.” Going forward with the bill, he said, “We have a tough battle. I’m under no illusions. [But] we’re going to make principled decisions.”

Zavarella said he wasn’t opposed to the bill, but said one day was not enough time for him to come to a conclusion about the legislation. Councilors, he noted, had had months to study the bill.

“I’m not a yes, I’m not a no. I just don’t have all the information,” he said.

“People have to realize that there’s a lot in that bill,” Palmosina said. For one thing, he noted that state law doesn’t give a county board jurisdiction over local municipalities.

“The communities have to opt into it, and a lot of people don’t know that,” he said.

Zavarella may well vote on not just on the police review board but on a bill to compile a registry of oil and gas drilling sites in the county, aamong other legislation. But his interim appointment will last only a few months. Voters will select a permanent replacement to fill out the term, which ends in 2021, in a special election on the November ballot. Democratic and Republican party leaders will select their nominees later this summer.

Zavarella said he plans to run for the position.

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.