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Tracy Royston will seek to replace Michael Lamb as city controller

Tracy Royston, who served as acting County Controller earlier this year, plans to run for the job of being the city's financial watchdog in 2023
Royston campaign
Tracy Royston, who served as acting County Controller earlier this year, plans to run for the job of being the city's financial watchdog in 2023

It was only on Wednesday that Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb announced he would not seek re-election next year — but already a candidate has announced a bid for his seat.

Tracy Royston, who recently served as the acting controller for Allegheny County after the departure of Chelsa Wagner from the post, says she will seek to be the city’s financial watchdog in 2023.

“I have done the job as acting Allegheny County Controller for eight months, I have a unique skill set, and I want to provide that leadership for the greater good,” she said.

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Wagner promoted Royston to be her deputy shortly before leaving the office to become a Common Pleas Judge. That put Royston in line to serve as acting controller until July, when formerCity Councilor Corey O’Connor was named as the permanent replacement to fill out the remainder of Wagner’s term.

Royston says that while working with Wagner, “one of the big things I worked on is the UPMC town halls that we did” to discuss the impact of a potential split between UPMC and rival healthcare giant Allegheny Health Network. “That, to me, was really about getting public input and using that to make sure the public had a voice.”

After Wagner’s departure, Royston joined with Lamb himself ona report that sought to quantify the fiscal impact of non-profit tax exemptions on local government.

Requiring big nonprofits like UPMC to support the city “is definitely something I want to pursue, and I know Mayor [Ed] Gainey has indicated he wanted to have those conversations as well,” Royston said. While she acknowledged that nonprofits do engage in charitable activities that benefit the community, “When you talk about the day-to-day resources that they utilize that are part of local government, I think a [payment in lieu of taxes] agreement needs to be reached.” Such agreements involve a transfer of money to government coffers to help pay costs.

As acting controller, Royston also filled Wagner’s slot on the Jail Oversight Board, where like Wagner, she often joined with critics of the jail’s management. In some quarters, “Speaking out was seen as very negative for me, but I don't regret that,” Royston said. “My intention was not to align with one person, rather it was just to do what was right.”

If elected next year, Royston said an early move she would make was to hold a series of town halls so she could use community concerns to help prioritize her efforts.

“I would spend some time in the community doing almost a listening tour to hear from people what their issues are,” she said. “I think you can’t sit in an office and do the work without understanding what issues are important to people.”

But one key area that she already believes needs more oversight, she said, is the Pittsburgh Public Schools. District spending and performance used to be tracked by the state Auditor General, and such reviews have unveiled worrisome habits in the past. But the Republican official running that office, Tim DeFoor, has said it will no longer do so.

Royston calls that move “hugely significant” and said the “city controller’s role is going to have to be altered to compensate for the work that isn’t being done by the auditor general.”

The city controller’s office does have limited oversight over the schools, though Lamb says it has neither the authority nor the staff to replace the work of the Auditor General. As things now stand, he said, “You can’t really audit the performance of the district without its invitation, and how are you going to get that? The legislature should either mandate this as part of the auditor general function or mandate at the local level and find a budget for us to do it.”

Royston acknowledged that there were challenges and that the state might need to act to enhance a controller’s oversight power. But in the meantime, she said, there may be novel ways of analyzing district performance even with those limitations.

And she said her background in government and civic groups would help her negotiate such terrain. Royston has worked in economic development for former mayor Tom Murphy and for civic groups like the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where she headed up corporate giving efforts. That background would be her biggest advantage, she said — along with her ability to work within organizations while challenging them to be better. “You have to work with everyone, and you have to have a lot of patience,” she said. “And when there is something that is important to you, you have to stand your ground and really advocate for it.”

So far, no other candidates have announced their intention to run, though more are expected to do so.

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.