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Unable To Overcome Veto, Paid Sick Days Bill Dies At Allegheny County Council

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90.5 WESA
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Allegheny County Council fell one vote short of overriding County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's veto of a bill that would mandate paid sick leave at workplaces with more than 25 employees.

As expected, in a marathon Tuesday-night meeting, Allegheny County Council failed to overturn a veto on a paid-sick-leave bill that it easily passed earlier this month, before County Executive Rich Fitzgerald rejected it. Council also argued over how much more public input was needed for a long-debated proposal to create a countywide police review board.

The attempt to override the veto fell short by one vote Tuesday, when Democrat DeWitt Walton retracted his earlier support for the paid sick time bill. The measure had originally passed 10-4. If that margin had held, the body would have maintained the two-thirds majority needed to overcome Fitzgerald’s veto.

“I am in full support of paid sick leave,” said Walton, a long-time employee of the United Steelworkers union. But he said he shared Fitzgerald’s concern that the legislation could be vulnerable to a lawsuit because it was not drafted by the county’s board of health, which has the authority to establish health-related regulations.

“If we override this veto,” Walton said, “we may have as long as two years to have this issue resolved [in court].”

The legislation would have required businesses with more than 25 employees to give full-time workers five paid sick days annually.

Fitzgerald said he has asked the health board to work with the county health department to develop sick-time rules. During his quarterly address to council Tuesday, he said he hopes that policy will be enacted by the fall.

“It’s hard to give a guarantee,” Fitzgerald said. “The health department obviously has got a lot of  things going on with COVID.” But he added, “I think by the end of the year [the policy] will be done, hopefully maybe by fall.”

Fitzgerald said the health board will take up the issue at its next meeting on May 5 and then accept public comment on its proposed regulations. The board could also hold a public hearing before voting on the rules, Fitzgerald said. He said he hopes the board will pass the rules in the summer, at which point council would decide whether to approve them as well.

Republicans Tom Baker, Sam DeMarco, and Cindy Kirk joined Walton in voting against the effort to override Fitzgerald’s veto, as did Democrat John Palmiere. The bill’s supporters included Democrats Liv Bennett, Tom Duerr, Bethany Hallam, Paul Klein, Bob Macey, Bob Palmosina, Anita Prizio, Paul Zavarella, and Pat Catena. Democrat Nick Futules abstained, saying he had a conflict of interest as a business owner.

Hallam, who co-sponsored the sick days bill, was not satisfied by Fitzgerald's assurances of speedy action on a replacement policy.

“The county executive was here tonight to give his address,” she said, “and I didn’t hear any set timeline for when this was going to happen on the health department terms. I didn’t hear a commitment to including council in the process every step of the way.”

Separately, council voted 10-5 Tuesday to hold an April 28 public hearing on legislation that would create a countywide police review board. All of the bill’s sponsors – Bennett, Duerr, Klein, Prizio, and Walton – were opposed, while Futules, DeMarco, and Kirk requested the hearing.

“The people we represent should have a voice and tell us their opinion on what they think we should do. And that is the purpose of a public hearing,” Futules said.

Walton, who has long backed a review board, noted that council has previously held hearings about the proposal. But Hallam noted that those meetings occurred more than a year ago, before the current version of the legislation was introduced.

“This current police review board legislation that we’ve been discussing in committee is not one that’s been discussed in a public hearing,” she said.

Futules also introduced a proposal to let voters decide whether to create a board by placing the question on the November ballot.

The review board would have the power to investigate allegations of police misconduct, but only the Allegheny County Police Department would be required to participate while municipal forces and the county sheriff’s department could opt in.

Council first considered the idea in the summer of 2018, when 17-year-old Antwon Rose was fatally shot by police. One proposal was defeated in 2019, and two additional versions have since been introduced. The public safety committee is currently reviewing the least sweeping of the proposals.

In other remarks Tuesday, Fitzgerald reported that more than 206,000 county residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. About 208,000 are partially vaccinated, the county executive said, and he anticipated that the pace will pick up in coming weeks with increased vaccine supply. Fitzgerald estimated that the county is almost 40 percent of the way to achieving herd immunity against the virus.

Still, there have been setbacks, even within county government itself. Council's meeting Tuesday had originally been scheduled for the previous week, but it was postponed after a council member and a staffer were diagnosed with COVID-19. Council's agenda for that meeting had included a motion to return to in-person council meetings in April. But Futules, one of the measure's sponsors, withdrew it on Tuesday.