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County Enters 2020 With Familiar Faces, New Dynamics

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was sworn in to a new term shortly after noon Thursday, a formal event at Soldiers and Sailors Hall attended by some of the region’s leading elected officials. But by the end of a County Council meeting that evening, there were already signs that his third term will be different from the previous two.

County Council elected Pat Catena, who represents southern and western suburbs, to lead the body as President. Catena’s support came from an unusual coalition that included conservative Democrats, the three Republicans still remaining on council, as well as newly elected progressives Bethany Hallam and Liv Bennett.

Hallam said her support was guided by a desire to form new coalitions – “we had to bridge the divide that’s been here so long,” she said – but also to assert council’s independence. After years of being written off as a “rubber stamp” for the executive, councilors regarded Catena’s rival, Paul Klein, as friendlier to the administration. Hallam herself had been vocal about the need to chart a separate course.

“We’re not going to talk the talk and not walk the walk. So I think that was a big message that we were going here -- we said that we were going to keep council separate and this is a show of force,” she said. Catena drove the point home by announcing that he would name Hallam to the Jail Oversight Board: Hallam has been incarcerated during a battle with drug addiction, and has called for reforms to the facility.

Klein said the outcome was “a real mystery” because progressives “will be working with people who do not seem to see the world in the same way and have not championed the same concerns or causes. It just seems so counterintuitive.” Asked whether the vote was an effort to get some distance from Fitzgerald, he said “It seems that the people who aligned with Pat were people who had that agenda.”

Catena, of Carnegie, said he won because “I can work with everybody and anybody, and I believe that’s what needs to happen. … We’ve worked very well with Rich Fitzgerald, and I expect there to be a great deal of collaboration going forward.” Still, he said, “We’ve been referred to as the rubber stamp [but] obviously this council and past councils won’t be referred to as rubber stamps anymore.”

Catena is one of the more conservative Democrats on the 15-member body. He had, for example, opposed a proposal last year to create a countywide police review board: County Councilor Dewitt Walton, who sponsored the bill, cited it as his reason for opposing Catena. But Catena said his objections had to do with problems he saw in the law, and that he could support an amended version.

Hallam said she wants the new draft proposal to give such a board the power to subpoena police, and wants a plan for getting local municipalities to participate in it. “I know going forward we will have the changes that need to be made to make this effective legislation,” she said.

Earlier in the day, Fitzgerald downplayed reporters’ questions about council’s independence. “I think they are an independent body, and they will continue to be and we’ll continue to work together,” he said. Asked whether he was urging councilors to back Klein, Fitzgerald didn’t answer directly but said, “I look forward to seeing whoever wins tonight.”

Fitzgerald has an ambitious agenda for his third term, which under the county charter will be his last. During a brief speech in a swearing-in ceremony that included Congressman Mike Doyle and state Senator Jay Costa, Fitzgerald touted the county’s economic growth during his tenure. But he said that there was more work to be done on traffic infrastructure and social equity, especially when it came to education.

"We cannot allow your zip code to determine the opportunities you are going to have,” he said. “We have got to have a pre-K system that gets kids ready to learn by the time they hit kindergarten, by the time they hit first grade."

In a conversation with reporters afterwards, Fitzgerald acknowledged that county government has no say over the operations of school districts, but said there was an opportunity to improve access to pre-Kindergarten education to all county children. The challenge, he allowed, was funding it. County voters rejected a property-tax increase in 2018 that would have provided money for children’s programs.

“We’ll have to take a look at” funding sources, he said. “We need to look at some different models.”

Fitzgerald told reporters that while growth was “on a path that I think that’s going to continue to happen,” officials still had to “make sure that it’s for everybody, that it’s an inclusive economy that includes people that have been left behind in the past.”