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City Controller Michael Lamb says he will not run for re-election next year

Michael Lamb smiling while giving a speech.
Lamb campaign
Lamb campaign

Michael Lamb, who has served as City Controller through three mayoral administrations and four terms of office, will not seek another four-year stint next year.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now,” Lamb told WESA. But he announced the move with a statement Wednesday — months before attention will turn to the 2023 municipal elections — saying “This is an office that does a lot of good work that I certainly want to see continue. It was important for me to give potential candidates a chance to think about it and mount a campaign.”

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“I’ve been honored to serve the residents of Pittsburgh for 15 years, making the controller’s office more effective in protecting taxpayer dollars,” Lamb said in a public statement announcing his decision. “We’ve been able to make local government more transparent and efficient by being an independent voice for Pittsburgh residents.”

Lamb’s next step won’t become apparent for some time. He is widely rumored to be pondering a run for Allegheny County Executive next year — current County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is term-limited and cannot run again — but he also has a license to practice law outside government.

“I plan to spend the next few months helping to elect Democrats in our statewide and local elections,” Lamb said in an interview. “What I do next, I think, will wait until after November.”

In any event, Lamb still has more than a year left to serve in his current office, which acts as a financial watchdog for the city and related agencies, as well as having some oversight of the city school district. Controllers can audit city operations both financially and in terms of performance, and Lamb said some important reviews are underway. One is focused on the city’s Land Bank, which Lamb said “has yet to get off the ground. And we’ll want to take a look at how we can actually start dealing with blight in the city.”

Lamb also said he isn't giving up on other causes for which he’s fought, such as an effort to secure more financial support from large nonprofit organizations. After years of frustration spanning multiple mayoral administrations, Lamb said, “I think we are close. I’ve had very positive conversations with a number of the large nonprofits … and I do think that there is a bit of coming together,” though he cautioned that the interests of health care giant UPMC and other institutions did not necessarily align with each other.

Lamb, who this spring helped conduct a joint city-county analysis of the cost of tax exemptions, said it was possible that an agreement could be worked out before he left office. Ideally, it should be to make up for financial support that will disappear when federal coronavirus aid dries up, he added.

But he noted that the city’s financial prospects already have improved dramatically since he took office during Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s administration in 2008.

“When I came in, we were a distressed community. We had massive debt,” he said. “And our ability to right the ship in those early days led to what we see now.”

As the leader of the office that handles contract requirements for city agencies, he said, “I’ve signed more contracts in the last eight months than I think I signed in the prior eight years for projects.”

Lamb’s own political career has tracked the ongoing revival of the region since the outset of the 21st century. A Democrat from a prominent political family — Congressman Conor Lamb is his nephew — he began serving in 2000 as the county’s prothonotary, an elected record-keeping position for the county’s court system. But he cultivated a reform-minded approach, campaigning to dissolve his own elected post as part of a successful effort to overhaul county government. After the first of two unsuccessful runs for mayor, he won the City Controller’s job in 2007 and has held the position ever since.

In that office, Lamb played a key role in heading off an effort by Ravenstahl to shore up the city’s depleted pension fund by privatizing parking assets. Lamb and members of City Council cobbled together an alternate approach that pledged parking tax revenues to replenish the fund.

“Saving that parking for the public while improving our pension system is probably the thing I'm most proud of,” said Lamb. And it paid dividends in ways no one expected: “During the pandemic, when we had all these restaurants wanting to take parking spaces for outdoor dining, we would have been paying [the firm that wanted to purchase the parking assets] for that. We saved our communities in a lot of ways.”

Lamb said he also hoped part of his legacy in the city “was to make this office and the city much more transparent.” As examples, he cited a Popular Annual Financial Report, a plain-English version of financial statements prepared annually, along with Open Book Pittsburgh, a searchable online database of city contracts and vendors, lobbyists and other information.

“Those opportunities that we've had to improve access to information and get people engaged in the issue of public finance — those are the kind of things that I hope will continue," he said.

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.