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Michael Lamb announces run for Allegheny County executive

Michael Lamb smiling while giving a speech.
Lamb campaign
Lamb campaign
Lamb has served as Pittsburgh's city controller since 2008.

Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb, a fixture of local politics for more than two decades, hopes to add to his resume by becoming Allegheny County’s next county executive.

Lamb is announcing his bid to replace incumbent Rich Fitzgerald, who is term-limited and cannot run again, Monday morning. The post is arguably the most powerful local public position in western Pennsylvania, and Lamb was an avid supporter of a government restructuring effort that created the office more than two decades ago.

In a WESA interview, Lamb said that “Everything that I've done has pretty much led to a job like this” — including his efforts to create the post itself as part of a home rule charter change that scrapped the county’s previous three-commissioner form of government.

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“I've demonstrated, I think, something that a lot of public officials don't, and that is the perseverance and the persistence to get something done, which is hard to do,” Lamb said. “Going from press conference to practice isn't easy. Implementing change is hard. But it's something that I've done throughout my career.”

Lamb’s interest in the seat has been widely known in political circles for months, and he set the stage for his run in late August when he announced that he would not seek another term as city controller. He will now be part of a Democratic field that already includes former Congressional candidate and social-services manager Erin McClelland, and that is widely expected to include attorney and former County Councilor David Fawcett and state Rep. Sara Innamorato.

Lamb said that one of the things that sets him apart from other potential entrants is his ability to negotiate the often treacherous waters of local civic life.

“We live in really divisive times, and that’s affected our community as well,” he said. “Through my whole career, I have been someone who builds bridges and advances. My ability to unite different interests is something that I think is important.” Both within the Democratic Party and outside it, “I've had a foot in all those factions and not just been present, but engaged with everyone.”

Over his career, Lamb has been the rare politician who travels easily in Democratic Party circles while also having been an outspoken government reformer. And though he’s not necessarily a political firebrand, his campaign for county executive seems likely to incorporate some progressive concerns with county government, especially on matters of criminal justice.

Asked about ongoing controversies surrounding inmate deaths and other concerns at the Allegheny County Jail, Lamb offered a blunt assessment of Warden Orlando Harper: “I don't think it's any doubt that there needs to be a leadership change with what's going on down there.” He also agreed with criticism of Fitzgerald — with whom he has long had a wary relationship — for sending a representative to meetings of the Jail Oversight Board, rather than attending himself.

While Lamb broadly praised Fitzgerald as “a guy who everyone knows puts in a lot of time — you don't go anywhere and you don't see Rich,” he said, “I don't agree with the way that he decided not to go to jail oversight meetings. I think that's something that's part of the job.”

More broadly, though, Lamb said “part of the problem with the jail is that we have a lot of people in jail who shouldn't be there” — and wouldn’t be without bail decisions that punish the poor and people of color awaiting trial. Lamb said he did a stint as an intern in the public defender’s office handling preliminary hearings — where bail decisions are made — and he called the experience “the place in my career where I first witnessed real institutional racism because some black defendants were treated differently than others.”

While the county has limited ability to dictate such decisions to the courts, Lamb said it could pursue broader changes to make criminal justice more humane, like paying public defenders and lawyers in the district attorney’s office better. “We can’t continue to not attract the best talent in our public defender’s office,” he said.

Lamb’s public career began in 2000 as the county’s prothonotary, an elected position with oversight of civil court records. But the government overhaul he backed included phasing out his own position. And while he ran for mayor of Pittsburgh twice unsuccessfully, he has served as city controller since 2008.

In that capacity he has audited, and sometimes criticized, three mayoral administrations — especially for their failure to bring large tax-exempt nonprofits to heel — but with little of the grandstanding that can attend such positions. While in office, he sought to make city governance less opaque, publishing a plain-English “people’s budget” to explain city operations, and posting contract and campaign contribution information online.

Some of those interests carry through into his current bid. For example, Lamb laments that for all the reforms brought to county government, officials still produce a bare-bones budget document that provides little more detail than it did 30 years ago. “There's been no increase in transparency.” He says as executive he would produce budgets that disclosed more detail about individual line items. “Opening up the financial process gets you to, ‘Hey, why are we doing this? Why is this money being spent here?’ For the broader public, that hasn't been available.”

Lamb also said county government can play a more active role in encouraging the county’s 130 municipalities to consolidate services, and perhaps the governments themselves. (Lamb helped establish CONNECT, a coalition of local leaders seeking better regional partnerships.) “When you think about the fractious system of local government that we have … there’s a key role for county government to facilitate discussion about making services better,” he said.

Lamb’s interest in challenging large nonprofits like UPMC, Allegheny Health Network, and other large nonprofits also remains — though he says that these entities cast a smaller shadow over the county than they do in the city where their holdings are clustered. "I think there's a key role for for the large nonprofits to assist the county in some mission-driven work that that they and the county need. And my guess is that that's going to come somewhere around education and working with our community college.”

And the amount of land held by tax-exempt entities is just part of a broader problem with the implementation of the county’s property tax, he said. The issue has bedeviled Fitzgerald throughout his tenure, with court-ordered property-value reassessments roiling the county. The assessment process is currently mired in another court fight, and Lamb predicted that “If we don’t do something on our own, we’re going to be court-ordered again, so I think we need to think about real solutions,”

He didn’t provide an answer during his interview, saying that such proposals will be rolled out over the course of the campaign. But he said that “to me, the solution lies somewhere in creating a system that fairly values property but then recognizes long-term homeowners” and protects them from sudden leaps in their tax bill.

In any case, he said, in the months ahead, “We're going to be out in the neighborhoods talking to voters. You learn so much. When you get to May, it's almost like you know everything that's going on in the world.”

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.