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O'Connor to leave City Council and take County Controller post

Maggie Young
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Councilor Corey O’Connor has been confirmed by the state Senate as Allegheny County Controller and will fill out the year-and-a-half remaining in the term of former controller Chelsa Wagner.

“I’m honored that this could happen,” O’Connor, said Friday after spending several days keeping tabs on Senate proceedings during a hectic series of budget negotiations and debates over issues like abortion. He resigned from City Council and was sworn in during a private ceremony, according to a statement his staff released Sunday.

But while the timing of the Senate's confirmation was up for grabs, the move itself came as no surprise: WESA reported in May that O’Connor was likely to be named to the post, and rumors of the move started not long after Wagner won a seat on the Allegheny County Common Pleas bench last fall. Gov. Tom Wolf nominated O’Connor to the position on June 13. The Senate confirmed him unanimously.

In a similar move, Andrew Szefi, who has served as Allegheny County's top lawyer for a decade, was confirmed for a judgeship on the county's Common Pleas Court bench. Szefi had run unsuccessfully for a judgeship last year.

Wagner’s term will end in 2023, and O’Connor is eligible to seek the seat again in what could be a competitive race: Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, for one, is widely expected to run, though she has not confirmed that.

O’Connor was always a favorite to win the seat, though his nomination came with some controversy. On City Council, O’Connor had been a vocal supporter of efforts to regulate gun use, especially after the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in his district. That prompted some gun-control opponents to urge senators to reject his bid.

As controller, O’Connor’s ability to press for such regulations would be limited, though he said, “If there is an opportunity to talk about gun safety, I’m not afraid to fight for what’s right. If I had the opportunity in council again, I would do the same thing.”

In the meantime, O’Connor said he has been gearing up for the position for some time and already has priorities in place that focus on “making government more transparent.”

“There are things we've done in the city, and I’m looking at transferring those good practices to the county,” O’Connor said. As an example, he cited the city’s budgeting process, in which City Council deliberates and votes on a municipal budget that runs hundreds of pages: The budget the county’s legislative body votes on is far less detailed. “We don’t have a say in crafting the budget, but we could roll out a budget process to the public and make it more transparent by line-iteming expenses like we do in the city.”

O’Connor also said an early focus would be on reviewing the county’s human-services department and its efforts to facilitate a less punitive approach to criminal justice, as well as progress on the county’s climate action plan. He also said he wanted to review whether employers who receive county tax dollars were living up to requirements such as paying a prevailing wage to workers.

As controller, O’Connor will have a seat on the Jail Oversight Board, which has been the forum for a long-running debate about practices at the Allegheny County Jail. His predecessor was often a critic of jail management. O’Connor said a top priority for staffing the office on his watch would be hiring someone with expertise in the area to advise him.

“There’s someone from [Washington], D.C. who is an expert on criminal-justice reform we’d like to bring in,” he said.

During her tenure as controller, Wagner was often at loggerheads with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. O’Connor’s relationships in city government have been less adversarial, but he said, “Just because I supported Mayor Peduto doesn’t mean I didn’t hold him accountable.”

He noted, for example, his opposition to a costly plan to relocate some city departments from an aging building on Ross Street to a newer facility. In any case, he said, “I’ve always been able to work with everybody, but I think that would be beneficial as a controller because you can get information.”

He noted that he had familiarity with ALCOSAN, the county’s wastewater-treatment agency, where he sits as a board member representing the city. “I’ve been able to work with a lot of people, which will open a lot of doors at the county level.”

ALCOSAN’s board has members selected by the city and county, with Pittsburgh’s mayor traditionally choosing a council member to sit on the board. It is not clear what will happen with O’Connor’s seat.

O’Connor’s departure will create a special election opportunity in the 5th Council District, which includes eastern city neighborhoods including Squirrel Hill, Hazelwood, Greenfield and Lincoln Place. In a special election, nominees for the parties are chosen by committee members rather than in a primary. One candidate, Barb Warwick, launched her own campaign last month, and Democratic committee members say she has been active in reaching out for support.

Updated: July 10, 2022 at 2:51 PM EDT
This story has been updated to reflect O'Connor's resignation from City Council and swearing-in as County Controller.
Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.