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Politics & Government

County council hopefuls in north, west suburbs share policy goals, split on progressives’ advocacy

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Courtesy of Jack Betkowski, Joe Wise
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Democrat Jack Betkowski (left) is running against Republican Joe Wise for an open seat in Allegheny County Council's 1st District, which covers the Ohio River Valley and airport-area suburbs.

Airport-area suburbs and communities in the Ohio River Valley will pick a new member of Allegheny County Council in the Nov. 2 election. Although both candidates agree that council should prioritize infrastructure needs, they differ on whether it should address more controversial topics.

Next month’s contest marks Democrat Jack Betkowski’s second run to represent County Council District 1. The two-term Ross Township commissioner lost a close race for the seat in 2017 to departing Republican incumbent Tom Baker. This year, Betkowski faces Republican Joe Wise, a former Moon supervisor.

If elected, both candidates said they would focus on ensuring the county maintains basic services such as snow removal, road repairs and parks maintenance. They are running to represent Aleppo, Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Coraopolis, Emsworth, Findlay, Glen Osborne, Glenfield, Haysville, Kilbuck, Moon, North Fayette, Ross and West View.

Betkowski is retired after a career processing payments at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which runs an office in Pittsburgh. If elected to county council, he said he would work to reduce rainwater run-off from commercial developments that encroach on green space, preventing the land from absorbing rainwater.

“Over the last few years in particular, it's been hard to get more than six months without something on the news about flooding along McKnight Road [in the North Hills], and that clearly is maybe a textbook example of [what] many places in Allegheny County are dealing with,” Betkowski said.

“It's going to take a joint effort among many communities in the county to deal with these problems,” he added, partly because run-off from some communities can cause damage elsewhere downstream. If elected, Betkowski said, he will try to help municipalities to coordinate a response to the issue.

Wise said he would support that work, too. A former UPMC Health Plan lobbyist, he now runs his own corporate communications and public affairs consulting firm.

Wise declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an email, he faulted some sitting county councilors for proposing what he called “extremist” legislation.

As examples, he cited a Democrat-backed motion that declared racism to be a public health crisis, as well as a failed attempt to stop police from using “less-lethal” weapons to disperse protests. In addition, Wise noted that a resolution pending before a council committee would encourage school districts in the county to incorporate critical race theory perspectives into their curricula.

While the legislation describes critical race theory as exploring how racism has shaped law and public policy, and thus further contributed to racial disparities, conservatives often charge that the idea advocates for discrimination against white people.

“Within the last two years, county council has seen several divisive issues raised for which the council does not have jurisdiction,” Wise wrote in a statement.

Betkowski said he agreed that “county council does have a very limited scope of power.” But he said he didn’t object to other councilors’ efforts to raise controversial issues.

“As an elected official, you have a soapbox, and that does give you an opportunity maybe to raise issues or raise awareness of issues that maybe other people hadn't thought much about,” Betkowski said, although he indicated that he would not take that approach as a councilor.

“I do think that you do have to be aware that county council … at its core is about the things that affect people's daily lives,” he added. “And when it does its job well, you don't ever think about it, and the potholes get filled. The streets get plowed when it snows. The trash gets picked up on time.”

Still, Wise noted that Betkowski has served as a close mentor to Democratic county councilor Bethany Hallam, who since taking office in January 2020 has been a frequent sponsor of polarizing legislation before council.

“A vote for Mr. Betkowski would be one more vote for chaos,” Wise warned.

“I guess I'm a little bit taken aback that anyone would have concerns about an older, experienced person wishing to try to help mentor and guide younger people,” Betkowski replied. And he dismissed Wise’s allegation that he would vote in lock-step with Hallam.

“I'm my own person. I'm quite capable of making my own decisions and doing what I think is best,” he said.