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Allegheny County Council votes to sue county executive, courts over juvenile detention contract

Zoe Fuller
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Council plans to sue County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and the Court of Common Pleas — the latest development in an escalating dispute over the county’s shuttered juvenile detention center.

At a meeting Tuesday, nine members voted to direct council’s solicitor to file suit against the executive and judicial branches for contracting with Latrobe-based nonprofit Adelphoi to run the center. Democrat DeWitt Walton and Republican Suzanne Filiaggi abstained, while Republican Sam DeMarco joined Democrats Tom Duerr, Nick Futules and Bob Macey in objecting to the motion.

“I don't object to obviously having a juvenile justice detention center. I believe it's needed,” said council president Pat Catena. In fact, he noted that council won’t seek an injunction to halt the contract, meaning that Adelphoi could operate the center, even as the legal fight continues. Still, Catena said, “the process was less than informed.”

The Court of Common Pleas announced earlier this month that it hired Adelphoi to run the former Shuman Detention Center. The facility has been closed for the past two years, but is slated to reopen after renovations are complete this fall.

Council was not involved in the decision to contract with Adelphoi. Some members claim that the courts and county executive overstepped their power by bypassing the legislature, and they complained that they have not been given details about the deal.

Sources with knowledge of the contract have told WESA that it’s worth up to $73 million over five years, not including the cost of ongoing construction and renovations. That’s somewhat above the $11 million per year a recent report from the county controller’s office estimated it cost the county to operate Shuman before it was shut down in 2021.

A spokesperson for the courts declined to comment after the vote. But in an unusual move, President Judge Kim Berkley Clark spoke on behalf of the contract during the public-comment period at Tuesday’s meeting.

Clark, who has stressed the need for a local juvenile detention center, asked council not to file a lawsuit. She said the courts have “struggled and been unable to keep our children and community safe.”

She also attempted to assuage concerns that a private operator might have incentive to warp the juvenile justice system, leading to the kind of “Kids-for-Cash” scandal that occurred in Luzerne County more than a decade ago. She said that Adelphoi will not be paid per child detained, and said Allegheny County judges are not “corrupt.”

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The motion to file a suit was introduced by council Democrat Bethany Hallam, who has clashed with Fitzgerald in the past. In an interview, Hallam noted that the county’s Home Rule Charter gives council the power to “lease, convey, vacate or abandon, or permit the use of County land, buildings or other real or personal property.”

“If the county wanted to sell the building to Adelphoi, it would have to come in front of council,” Hallam said. “ Any use of that facility has to come through council. I'm interested to hear the county executive and the court's arguments for why they thought this was an exception.”

Catena and other council members have vocally opposed allowing a private company to run the center. Sara Innamorato and Joe Rockey, the Democrat and Republican candidates running to replace the term-limited County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, have also said they oppose the plan.

But at Tuesday’s meeting, Hallam insisted that the impending legal battle is separate from arguments about whether the facility should be publicly or privately run.

“What this is about is the county executive and the courts conspiring together to attempt to supersede the authority that is given to us as council members under the county charter,” she said.

DeMarco countered that the county was retaining control of the center, because the courts would use the facility and contract with Adelphoi to manage day-to-day operations. He compared the set up to the food service vendors contracted by the Allegheny County Jail.

“This isn't us turning this over to a private entity,” he said. “We're having a food fight with the administration over county properties being used by another government entity.”

He argued that because a government entity would ultimately be in charge, council did not have to approve use of the building.

Prior to the vote, council spent about 30 minutes in a closed-door executive session to discuss the potential lawsuit.

A spokesperson for Fitzgerald declined to comment on the vote, citing the pending litigation.

The suit is just the latest front in an ongoing legal battle between the county executive and council members about their respective powers. Hallam has already sued Fitzgerald and two other county officials, demanding that they attend meetings of the county Jail Oversight Board in person rather than sending a surrogate. In June, Fitzgerald asked a judge to weigh in on the legality of a minimum wage increase passed by council. He argued that the county’s Home Rule Charter gives the executive branch the legal authority to set wages and salaries.

Both of those disputes are still making their way through the Court of Common Pleas. Catena did not offer a timeline on when the latest lawsuit might be filed.

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