Amid annexation talk, Wilkinsburg voters to weigh creation of government study commission
Wilkinsburg residents will consider a referendum to create a government study commission this November. If passed, the seven-member commission would evaluate how the borough is governed and give recommendations for how it should be governed going forward, potentially derailing efforts to merge Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh City Council nixed a plan earlier this year that would have allowed Wilkinsburg residents to vote on the merger, but some council members said they would reconsider the plan next year.
Proponents of the government study commission said it will strengthen Wilkinsburg and help residents determine the best course of action going forward. But those opposed said it’s just meant to slow down annexation efforts.
“A study is not a vote for or against combining Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh. Rather, it is a vote to learn with transparency and share with accountability before making a choice,” Keywanda Ballard-Battle, a candidate for the commission, said at a press conference on Tuesday. “There is no harm in a community having more knowledge before making a decision as important and as irreversible as this.”
The commission would have 18 months to research Wilkinsburg’s current form of government, consider other government models and hold public hearings to get community input.
At the end of the process, the commission could recommend that the borough create ahome rule charter, which would give Wilkinsburg more power to control local legislation, governing and grant-seeking. It could also recommend no change to how the borough is run.
“This has the chance to restructure the borough’s government if a home rule charter happens, to make it more responsive to community needs. And the whole process is aimed to be in public, with public input,” said Jacquet Kehm, another commission candidate.
Some commission candidates said they’re not necessarily opposed to annexation, but they want more information.
“As someone who is a firm proponent of research, I am open to what the research tells us,” said commission candidate Kim Kaplan. “I don’t think annexation could directly be studied as an option, but what we might find is that within the legal realm of what we can change through the home rule process, that might not be as favorable an option as something like annexation.”
Others were more vocal in their opposition.
“I do not believe annexation is the only and certainly not the best route to produce a once again successful, viable, thriving borough,” Ballard-Battle said.
Janet Harris, Beverly McCoy, Paul O’Hanlon, and Ruth Kittner round out the slate of candidates who would serve on the proposed commission. Voters will choose to accept or reject the ballot referendum and will also vote for the seven committee members.
Tracey Evans, the executive director of the nonprofit Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, which hasspearheaded the annexation effort, said her organization believes the government study commission is meant to delay a potential annexation.
“I really don’t believe that it’s a good-natured ‘let’s do this’ study,” Evans said. “The borough of Wilkinsburg has had so many studies… But that hasn’t helped keep the borough from losing 10% of its population.”
Wilkinsburg Action Committee, the WCDC’s political action committee, sent out a mailer this fall urging residents to “vote no” to home rule.
Evans also shared concerns that the study was promoted by Wilkinsburg Future, which opposes the annexation process. Commission candidates said that while Wilkinsburg Future has supported the study, the candidates are not formally affiliated with the group.
The two sides have conflicting ideas about what would happen if Wilkinsburg voters were to approve the commission.
“We don’t believe that [the government study commission] would preclude us from having the [annexation] referendum annexation on the ballot, should the judge approve our petition that’s in his hands right now,” Evans said.
Commission candidate Kaplan said that should voters pass the government study commission, during the 18 months when they conducted their work “all other actions would be placed on hold.”
Kehm said the commission isn’t meant to slow annexation efforts. He noted that Allegheny County and Pittsburgh have their own home rule charters.
“This government study commission is separate and independent from that issue,” said Kehm.
The process has also been complicated by the fact that thestate law allowing annexation was repealed this summer.
Evans and the WCDC argue that the repeal was unconstitutional but said that the signature collection process was complete, and a judge is expected to make a decision on their annexation petition later this month.
Kehm said the repeal could mean that annexation would not be legal.
“The way we’re looking at it is, if the annexation is no longer legal, which is quite possible, or if Pittsburgh City Council voted it down like it did last time, or if it lost an election if and when it finally got there, then Wilkinsburg is still stuck with the same government, same status quo,” he said. “This is a positive opportunity to change the borough through its own processes.”
The referendum question will appear on Wilkinsburg voters’ November ballots.