County council candidates in Pittsburgh’s east suburbs debate what council has the power to do
Some of Pittsburgh's east suburbs will choose a new Allegheny County councilor in the Nov. 2 election. And while the candidates agree on some things — like the need for more investment and health services in parts of County Council District 8 — they disagree about how council should use its power.
Democrat Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, who leads the nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment, said it’s important for council to take action on issues that impact public health. A resident of Plum and the chair of that borough’s zoning hearing board, Naccarati-Chapkis was pleased when county council passed a paid sick leave mandate last month.
“The county has an obligation to do what's best, and to be the voice on behalf of the residents,” Naccarati-Chapkis said. As the county’s legislative body, she added, council has “a unique opportunity … to review and address policy gaps and policy needs across the county.”
Council's ability to enact such measures, however, is an open question: The sick-time measure had been held up for months due to concerns that the county's health board needed to approve it first.
The Republican in the race, Eric Casteel, said council legislates too often in areas where it doesn’t belong.
“The primary focus of the council is to make sure that we've got balanced budgets, that we have appropriate ordinances,” said Casteel, a Westinghouse cybersecurity engineer who also lives in Plum.
He faulted sitting council members for approving an ordinance in April to create a police review board.
There has been “more of a focus [for] some council members on social-justice issues — not that there aren't social justice issues, but that shouldn't be your primary focus,” Casteel said.
Both he and Naccarati-Chapkis said, if elected, they will work with Democratic County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to provide resources to their district, which includes Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Monroeville, North Braddock, Pitcairn, Plum, Rankin, Swissvale, Trafford, Turtle Creek, Wall, Whitaker, and Wilmerding.
They’re vying to fill a seat vacated by Democrat Paul Zavarella, who isn’t running in November. Thanks largely to Zavarella's predecessor, the late Charles Martoni, Democrats have held the district since the 15-member county council was established in 2000.
If Casteel breaks that streak, he said, he would prioritize funding for law enforcement, fire departments, emergency medical services, and road maintenance. He said he’d also push for more council oversight over the process for soliciting bids for county projects, to make sure they’re competitive.
In addition, he said he would be open to investigating the county jail, which has been sued for allegedly using excessive force against incarcerated people, mishandling the coronavirus pandemic and mistreating inmates with psychiatric disabilities. The facility also came under fire this summer for contracting with a controversial training firm and purchasing "less lethal" weapons.
“Investigations may … need to take place to find out what's going on,” Casteel said of the jail. “There needs to be humane treatment of individuals when they're in there. But [the warden] also needs to be able to manage the facility. So there needs to be a balance.”
Naccarati-Chapkis agreed she would need more information before drawing conclusions about the jail and said she would rely on the county’s Jail Oversight Board to lead any inquiry.
As a councilor, Naccarati-Chapkis said, she would seek to expand access to housing, transportation and health care. She said she would also work to promote business in her district while protecting the environment.
“Those are the things, when we think about the social determinants of health, that I have particular expertise in [and] that I can help address at the county level,” the Democrat said.
East Liberty-based Women for a Healthy Environment, where Naccarati-Chapkis serves as executive director, aims to prevent environmental exposures such as lead poisoning and climate risks, which disproportionately impact low-income areas and communities of color.
Casteel similarly cited his district’s deteriorating housing stock, inadequate mental health services, and lack of job opportunities as top concerns. And he said municipalities need more economic development dollars to respond to those challenges.
While council does not directly distribute those funds, Casteel said he could act as a “bridge” between communities in his district and the county agencies that dole out the money. He said he brings “business experience [that] can be leveraged to help bring those things in.”
Prior to working at Westinghouse, Casteel said, he ran several companies, some of which focused on renewable energy. Most recently, he sold mobile generators that run off solar and wind power. He said he had to close the business in 2018 due to health issues.