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County Council Committee Chair Assignments Elevate Progressive Newcomers And Conservative Members

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Council holds its meetings at the Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh.

Allegheny Council President Pat Catena rewarded his allies when he named committee chairs Thursday –and along the way he put two first-time progressive councilors, Bethany Hallam and Liv Bennett, in position to advance key items on their agenda. 

A staunch supporter of a proposal to create a countywide police review board, Bennett will head the public safety committee. Hallam, meanwhile, will lead a committee that reviews political appointments, after calling for more scrutiny of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's appointees.

Catena made his picks two weeks after nine other councilors voted for him as president. He gave nine committee posts to his supporters, while assigning a chair to only one of the five councilors who voted for his rival, fellow Democrat Paul Klein.

Catena said he “tried to be as inclusive as possible” in soliciting councilors’ input on preferred committee chair assignments. But while “some members … did express interest in chairing committees,” the council president said, “others basically left it to … my discretion.”

Democrat Nick Futules was the lone councilor who voted against Catena for president to receive a committee leadership post: He will head the government reform committee.

Hallam said she viewed her vote to make Catena president as key to clinching her chair assignment. She acknowledged some progressives, including those who campaigned on her behalf, were dismayed by her support for the moderate Catena over the more left-leaning Klein.

“So for [the chair assignments] to be … coming out and everybody being able to see why we decided to vote how we voted, I think that’s really important,” Hallam said.

Hallam has previously criticized council for acting as a “rubber stamp” for Democratic County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s appointment nominations, and has vowed to take a less deferential approach. This week, she  noted that her new position will give her influence over the makeup of the county health, Port Authority, and other boards.

“This is a way to have oversight of all of those issues,” Hallam said.

Klein previously chaired the budget and finance committee but came up empty-handed Thursday. He was less charitable in his assessment of Catena's moves.

“It does send a very clear message to people who did not support him,” Klein said, “It looks like what he’s suggesting is, ‘I don’t really need you. I need eight votes [for a majority of the 15-member council], and I will have my eight votes.’”

Catena said that regardless of any internal dynamics, his selections bring valuable experience to the leadership posts. For example, he said Hallam was well-positioned for the post partly because of her experience battling addiction. Now in recovery, Hallam “has come a long way,” Catena said. “And I can think of no better person obviously to be firm and fair and independent.”

Those qualities are important in members of the appointment review committee, Catena added, “because they do the vetting of all of the candidates for all of the various appointments that we have on county council.”

Simliarly, he said, Bennett was a fitting choice for the public safety committee given her record of activism. While Bennett is new to council, Catena said, “she has a ton of experience in community relations and basically dealing with the public, and I believe that will bring a huge impact.”

A measure to form a police review board would come before Bennett’s committee. Democratic councilor DeWitt Walton said he will reintroduce the legislation next week, after it was defeated in a 9-6 vote last year.

Walton, who was elected to a second term in November and did not support Catena for president, was among the members not to receive a committee chair assignment. Previously the chair of the economic development and housing committee, Walton said Catena never asked him what committee he might want to lead. But Walton added that he did not feel entitled to be consulted.

“Mr. Catena was elected president of council, and as president of council, he has the ability to make decisions irrespective of any other council members' wishes,” said Walton, who at one point had sought the post himself.

In addition, Walton said, he and Catena have conflicting legislative priorities. Catena, for example, was among the councilors to vote against a police review board last year – though he has since said that he was open to a different version of last year's legislation.

Committees can play a key role in advancing, or stalling, legislation. A bill introduced last year, for example, would have banned so-called “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ minors. After being referred to the health and human services committee, it never came up for a vote because the committee chose not to discuss it.

Catena made Republican Cindy Kirk, a nurse administrator for UPMC, chair of the health and human services committee on Thursday. Kirk has said she won't take a position on proposals to ban conversion therapy until they undergo a full review. She added, however, that some constituents worry an across-the-board prohibition would “completely prohibit counseling choices.”

Hallam, who backs a complete ban for minors, said she plans to reach out to Kirk to discuss the matter.

“We don’t have time to wait for this conversion therapy ban to be passed,” Hallam said. “I think that it’s important that whoever is chairing that committee has that as a priority on their list as well.”

Kirk is one of three Republicans on council, all of whom were named chairs. That means that although Republicans account for one-fifth of all council members – their smallest share in council history – they hold one-third of chair assignments. Catena said he made those selections to “be inclusive.”

“I don’t just represent Democrats. I represent Republicans as well, as well as Independents,” Catena said.

For his part, Klein predicted that progressive councilors will experience “great frustration” in advancing a progressive agenda.

The committee chairs for the 2020-2021 legislative session include:

  • Appointment Review: Bethany Hallam (D)
  • Budget and Finance: Bob Palmosina (D)
  • Economic Development and Housing: Sam DeMarco (R)
  • Education: John Palmiere (D)
  • Government Reform: Nick Futules (D)
  • Health and Human Services: Cindy Kirk (R)
  • Parks: John Palmiere (D)
  • Public Safety: Liv Bennett (D)
  • Public Works: Bob Macey (D)
  • Marketing/Public Outreach: Tom Baker (R)