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Pittsburgh City Council introduces bill to stop Wilkinsburg annexation

Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council has until April 5 to determine whether or not to allow an attempt to annex Wilkinsburg to proceed. But council members seemed poised to take the matter up sooner with a bill introduced Tuesday.

The council can either vote to approve the matter and allow the process to continue, or vote to disapprove and end it. If members approve the annexation, a referendum question would be put to Wilkinsburg voters for the final say.

But Council President Theresa Kail-Smith introduced a bill Tuesday that, if passed, would terminate the effort. The bill was accompanied by sharp criticism about the speed of the annexation process.

Councilor Ricky Burgess, whose district borders Wilkinsburg, went so far as to compare the effort to a “shotgun wedding.” He also indirectly criticized the nonprofit behind the annexation, the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.

“It does interest me to notice — as always in Pittsburgh — affairs that affect disproportionately African Americans are not led by African Americans,” Burgess said. “Make no mistake, this is an African American issue that affects African American people disproportionately.”

The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation’s executive director, Tracey Evans, said she has been working with Pittsburgh City Councilor Anthony Coghill, who favors the annexation, to hold a hearing to answer council’s questions.

"Pittsburgh City Council and city residents deserve the opportunity to review objective fact-finding reports and have their questions answered,” said Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation. "Many city council members believe in this democratic process, and it's unfortunate that some council people are seeking to stop public debate. Introducing a vote before this public process takes place is not democratic."

Burgess’ District 9 could be poised to absorb most or all of the borough if the annexation were to occur. Burgess stressed that he is in favor of Wilkinsburg becoming part of Pittsburgh eventually but through a different process.

“I intend to spend the next year or so in constant communication with all the interested stakeholders to come up with an agreement,” he told WESA Tuesday. He said he favors a more “collaborative approach,” that takes residents of both municipalities into account.

Burgess said he intends to lead the conversation about the annexation in City Council as the representative for the district that would be most affected.

“I would hope since this annexation disproportionately affects my council district, that members of council will follow our lead and spend the time necessary to make the annexation occur in a way that does not make people uncomfortable,” Burgess said.

Kail-Smith has also spoken in favor of a different, more collaborative approach, but neither council member has cited precedent for a so-called “merger.” Pennsylvania annexation law does not call for a vote by citizens of a large municipality.

The ordinance introduced Tuesday also leaves room for a future annexation in its text:

“City Council does not oppose the idea of uniting the two communities after due diligence to investigate whether or not said unification(s) are the desire of and in the best interest of the citizens of Pittsburgh,” it reads. “City Council is generally interested in investigating whether or not unification(s) with other territories would be the desire of and in the best interest of the citizens of Pittsburgh.

The city council will further discuss the matter in the coming weeks.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.