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Hallam sues county officials, asks court to compel attendance at jail oversight meetings

After advocating to strengthen a police review board bill pending before Allegheny County Council, Democrat Bethany Hallam supported the measure in a committee vote Tues., April 20, 2021.
Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
After advocating to strengthen a police review board bill pending before Allegheny County Council, Democrat Bethany Hallam supported the measure in a committee vote Tues., April 20, 2021.

Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam has filed a lawsuit demanding that Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and two other county officials attend meetings of the county Jail Oversight Board in person rather than sending a surrogate.

That practice, she tells WESA, violates the state law that created the board.

“No one should be above the law, especially the most powerful elected official in Allegheny County,” she said.

Fitzgerald’s absence, she added, insults members of the public who have concerns about conditions in the jail and may have loved ones inside it.

“The one person who could fix the things that they’re talking about doesn’t even bother to show up," she said.

The lawsuit, filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, escalates a long-running dispute on the board. Hallam, who was formerly incarcerated herself, has often sharply questioned jail operations and management, and she has been critical of the Fitzgerald administration and, at times, other board members.

The suit also names County Controller Corey O’Connor and Sheriff Kevin Kraus, both of whom have themselves sent designees to board meetings in the past.

The complaint seeks a writ of mandamus — in which a judge orders a public official to fulfill a legal responsibility — that would require Fitzgerald, O’Connor, and Kraus to appear at future oversight board meetings themselves. It also asks the court to issue a declaratory judgment finding that they were wrong not to do so.

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The complaint asserts that the law “is binding on even the most powerful political actors in the society, whether kings, presidents, prime ministers, or even county executives."

It cites a litany of complaints about the jail, including staff shortages, inadequate health care and mental health services, and a number of deaths at the facility. And it lays blame on Fitzgerald, whose absence it says “has fostered a culture [in which] the board, literally, does not believe in the statute which created it.”

That statute, it points out, requires that the board include nine members, including the county executive, the sheriff, and the county controller. It also includes “the president of county council or his designee” — Hallam, in this case — as well as two judges, “one of whom shall be the president judge, or his designee who shall be a judge.” (Three other board members are “citizen members” selected by the executive and confirmed by council.)

Citing an opinion drafted by county council’s own attorney, Fred Frank, and other laws and precedents to assert that when “a statute explicitly provid[es] that certain members of the Board may designate someone to stand in and vote for them, but does not explicitly so state for others … those others are not permitted to designate an alternate.”

The filing is not a total surprise: Hallam, who has squared off with Fitzgerald on a number of fronts, has complained about Fitzgerald’s use of a designee for some time, only to be told that the practice is not new. And she has warned during previous oversight board meetings that she might take the issue to court.

Brad Korinski, the attorney who filed the suit, has previously attended Jail Oversight Board meetings and during public comment has challenged Fitzgerald to do the same, even offering to pay $10,000 to the charity of Fitzgerald’s choice if Fitzgerald attends.

At a news conference Thursday to discuss the suit, Korinski said that offer no longer stands.

In the past, Korinski himself has appeared in the place of then-County Controller Chelsa Wagner — the very practice the lawsuit contests. Hallam said Korinski “realizes if he was part of the problem, he wants to be part of the solution.”

It may seem unlikely that any elected officials would vote any differently on the board than a staffer they delegate to attend. But in Hallam’s view, sending a stand-in allows officials to dodge accountability for conditions at the jail, she said.

“When we’re sending unelected people who are not voted on by the people of Allegheny County [so that] their bosses wipe their hands clean of it,” she said.

In response to the suit, current Controller O’Connor said he takes his role on the board “very seriously.”

“I've done two surprise inspections. We've completed one audit, and we are about to complete a second audit on the jail,” he said.

O’Connor has been on paternity leave since the spring and sent a representative to the past three oversight board meetings. His representative hasabstained from voting but has asked questions during the meetings. O’Connor noted that his executive staff also attends every meeting.

Mike Manko, a spokesperson for Kraus, said, “Neither Sheriff Kraus nor the office has been served with any legal process at this point.”

Hallam’s suit comes less than half a year before Fitzgerald, who is finishing his third and final term will leave the office anyway.

But she said, “It seems like I have no other remedy. And even if it isn’t resolved until after the current county executive is out of office, it should be a precedent not just for the new county executive but also the other members of the Jail Oversight Board.”

In response to an emailed request for comment, Fitzgerald spokesperson Amie Downs declined to comment, writing, “We’re not interested in commenting on her latest stunt.”

In any case, it’s hard to imagine relations on the oversight board getting worse if Fitzgerald and other officials did attend. Hallam has often tangled repeatedly with Fitzgerald’s designee, be it chief of staff Jen Liptak or deputy county manager Stephen Pilarski.

“I don’t believe that Rich Fitzgerald would act as disrespectful as his designees do,” she said, noting that she and Fitzgerald serve together on the county’s Board of Elections, where they have differences but express little rancor.

But while Hallam is seeking to have Fitzgerald and others appear at future oversight board meetings, one gets the sense that her critics wouldn’t mind seeing a little less of her.

In the past, they have sought to censure her for an insult directed at the oversight board’s chair, Common Pleas Judge Elliott Howsie. And a county-commissioned study faulted her (though not by name) for allegedly “driv[ing] a negative narrative about everything” going on at the jail.

Howsie, who attended the news conference Thursday, called the lawsuit “ridiculous” but ultimately declined to comment.

Hallam remains unbowed. Her rival in this year’s Democratic Primary, Joanna Doven, criticized her sharply for her comportment at the board, but Hallam won reelection easily.

“They talk about how I’m the one causing all the trouble, but I’m the only one on that board who is trying to do my job,” she said.

And, she added, “There are more lawsuits to come.”

Updated: August 3, 2023 at 3:23 PM EDT
This story has been revised to include comments in response from county officials named in the lawsuit.
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.
Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at