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O'Connor seeks full term as county controller, pledges independence as leadership changes

Corey O'Connor is running for a full four-year term for Allegheny County Controller
O'Connor campaign
Corey O'Connor is running for a full four-year term for Allegheny County Controller

Corey O’Connor is formally launching his bid for a full four-year term as Allegheny County controller today, but he’s already trod a lengthy campaign trail — one that stretches all the way to Harrisburg. And while O’Connor has held the job for just over half a year, he says he’s already charting a course for the future at a time when county government is poised to take a new direction.

“This position actually has the ability to help shape the future of this county,” O’Connor said. “Finding out problems, working together to solve those problems and holding whomever our new executive is accountable — and obviously our current executive accountable.”

The former Pittsburgh city councilor, and son of a beloved late Pittsburgh mayor, was nominated by then-Gov. Tom Wolf to fill out the remaining term of former Controller Chelsa Wagner last year. And while Senate confirmation was tied up by the dysfunction of Harrisburg’s budget season, O’Connor resolved to hit the ground running.

“I don't like to sit behind the desk,” O’Connor said.

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The controller’s office handles county payroll and compiles financial reports, while also conducting audits of county finances and functions. It also tracks performance and wage compliance on public-works projects — a task O’Connor says has gotten him out into the field to monitor bridge maintenance and other projects. “A lot of people don't realize we do that stuff in our office,” he said.

More broadly, he says the office has already undertaken a number of audits, with results of some of them due in the coming weeks. One review concerns the region’s tourist agency, Visit Pittsburgh, and its use of taxpayer dollars. Another is an effort to ensure that projects which receive tax subsidies are paying a prevailing wage — “And what we’re seeing is the tracking of that is a problem right now.”

O’Connor has also undertaken two audits concerning the county jail: one of staffing levels (“We know it's going to say that the staffing is low [and] we're paying an exorbitant amount of overtime”) and the other of support services offered to families. That’s as many jail audits, he said, as were done in the previous seven years. And O’Connor said he’s also made two surprise inspections of the jail in his capacity as a member of the Jail Oversight Board.

In addition, O’Connor said, the office has held a series of countywide meetings on property tax appeals.

“We're going to hold people accountable,” he said. “We're going to make this office more accessible. We've taken it to the residents. And that's what you're going to see from this office.”

Going forward, O’Connor says he intends to assess the county’s progress toward environmental goals, like gauging investments in hybrid and electric vehicles, and ensuring money earmarked for green initiatives is spent properly. “Too many times we hear fluffy [promises] that we're going to do something,” O’Connor said. “We just want to set goals and show that you're working towards them.

O’Connor has drawn a Democratic challenger in political activist Darwin Leuba. Leuba argues that O’Connor has often been a go-along-to-get-along politician on Pittsburgh’s City Council, citing O’Connor’s joining a council majority to approve a UPMC expansion of Mercy Hospital without attaching community-benefits provisions sought by some.

In response, O’Connor noted that the hospital took place in City Councilor Daniel Lavelle’s 6th District, and Lavelle “took the lead with neighborhood groups” in negotiating that deal. “His residents got job opportunities, training and funding.”

And O’Connor, who served 11 years on council representing the 5th District, said he’d proven his ability to fight for residents. His support for stricter gun-control laws in city limits was bitterly opposed by Second Amendment absolutists (some of whom tried to derail his controller appointment), and he opposed a $40 million proposal to move city workers to a new building Downtown. He joined other council members in pushing back on former Mayor Bill Peduto’s efforts to change governance at the city’s water authority.

In fact, while Leuba has made UPMC’s tax-exempt status a centerpiece of his campaign, O’Connor said that when it came to challenging nonprofit tax exemptions, the fight needed to be larger. “You have to take on all the nonprofits, because if you only take on one, you’re leaving tax revenue out of the coffers.”

The county is also struggling through a treacherous political and legal debate about how to fairly assess the value of property, which O’Connor said would be “a long, tough conversation” for the next executive. The controller’s office doesn’t control the assessment process, but O’Connor said it had provided community meetings with experts to help residents appeal valuations.

“Our office was already at the forefront of this conversation,” he said, and if the next county executive “wants to take it to another, larger discussion, we already know what to do [to] talk to those residents.”

Leuba has worked directly on the election campaigns of some of the county officials whose offices he might be overseeing. O’Connor said voters would have to decide whether that was significant: “It's up to county residents to see who's going to be the most independent.

“I am the checks and balances for whoever that individual may be,” he said. And whatever else happens this election cycle, O’Connor points out, change is coming.

“You are going to elect a new county executive,” he said. “You want somebody that has the knowledge, the experience, the expertise to hold whoever that is accountable and work with them to better the future of this region.”

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.