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Why did John Weinstein suddenly step down as president of the Allegheny County Retirement Board?

Allegheny County Treasurer and County Executive candidate John Weinstein (left) and Allegheny County Council President Patrick Catena (right) stand outside the shuttered Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.
Zoe Fuller
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein (left), during his 2023 campaign for county executive.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

The election is less than two weeks away, and no matter what happens here in Allegheny County, one thing is certain: A generation of longtime officeholders like County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and City Controller Michael Lamb will be retiring from the scene. Critics won’t even have County Treasurer John Weinstein to kick around any more.

Or will they?

Weinstein is wrapping up a quarter-century-long career as treasurer, having passed up a re-election bid for an unsuccessful run as county executive. But as he showed at the Oct. 19 meeting of the county’s Retirement Board, he’s still got a few surprises left in him.

Weinstein has long presided over the seven-member board, which oversees $1 billion in assets. But just as the meeting was ending, he made a surprise announcement: He was stepping down as president, and wanted to nominate as his immediate replacement board member Frank DiCristofaro.

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“I would like to take the next couple of months and work closely with someone else as the chairman [so] the new people that are elected have an opportunity to work with someone that has the experience,” Weinstein said, as captured on a recording shared with WESA. The goal, he said, was to “make sure there’s no problems coming into next year.”

The timing of the move raised eyebrows, partly because it hadn’t been on the agenda that evening, and partly because the board will be reorganizing in January anyway. Weinstein will be stepping down along with Fitzgerald. (Another board member, County Controller Corey O’Connor, is up for reelection but a strong favorite.)

“There’ll be a new board who will decide who they want to be the chair,” Liptak objected during the meeting. “So whatever you may want to transfer over to an individual is presuming that individual will be chair. I don’t know that it’s appropriate.”

“People that are running for our positions here have no idea that this conversation is happening because half of this board [had] no idea this conversation is happening,” said O’Connor.

The state’s Sunshine Law ordinarily requires that government business being voted on should be placed on the meeting agenda beforehand. But it also allows an agenda item to be added if a majority approves, and if the new matter is added retroactively to an updated agenda. That doesn’t happen often: Board solicitor Brian Gabriel told me he couldn’t recall a previous case. But Weinstein won a 4-3 vote to do so with support from DiCristofaro, fellow employee representative Ted Puzak, and Sarah Roka, who represents county council on the board. Fitzgerald, Liptak, and O’Connor all voted no.

The same majority then approved DiCristofaro’s ascension to the board presidency. Moments after he thanked them for their “vote of confidence” and pledged to “work with whomever comes in here,” the meeting adjourned.

No one has a bad thing to say about DiCristofaro, who has been on the board for over a decade. “Frank has been there a very long time, so I don’t think anybody is questioning that,” O’Connor told me. “I think his intentions are in the right place. … There’s no damage being done” to board assets by the move.

On the other hand, O’Connor didn’t see any benefit to it either. “For somebody to be a temporary chairperson for two meetings, it doesn’t really make sense,” he said. “I didn’t see the value of doing it, especially at the end of the meeting when three of the members had no idea this was coming.”

“This board controls the investments of almost $1 billion dedicated to paying retirement benefits to county employees,” said Erica Rocchi Brusselars, the Democrat running for Weinstein’s treasurer post next month. “That’s a serious responsibility, and when changes are made with really no opportunity for public scrutiny, that’s concerning.”

Weinstein did not return my requests for comment. So it’s not clear why, if a smooth transition was the goal, it couldn’t be put on the board agenda in advance, or raised at an earlier meeting. After all, it’s been clear for many months that Weinstein and Fitzgerald would be off the board by the end of 2023.

What is also unclear, however, is what Weinstein got out of this. Observers note that Puzak’s term will expire next June, potentially creating a vacancy. Puzak and DiCristofaro were elected to the board by county workers and retirees, and Gabriel told me that nothing would prevent Weinstein from seeking the post. But other than some goodwill, it’s hard to see what Weinstein had to gain here.

But then Weinstein is a consummate old-school politician who, as noted in this space previously, is always willing to do someone a favor. And one reason Weinstein’s actions on the Retirement Board are so intriguing is that it’s hard to imagine him ever truly retiring.

His interest in returning to another board, that of ALCOSAN, drew scrutiny this spring, as did his support for a judge who later hired staffers with Weinstein familyties. Even as recently as this summer, I was chasing down rumors about how he might still win a spot back on the ballot this fall. (Nothing came of it, obviously.) And it may be worth noting that the same four-member majority voted to hold off on an ultimately approved ethics reform plan pressed by O’Connor this year — a reform designed to rein in the ability of pension-fund management firms to offer campaign contributions or other enticements to county officials.

Then again, there really may be a sea change in local government coming. Just as I was finishing this newsletter, DiCristofaro sent out his first missive as retirement board president. Going forward, he said in a memo to the board’s consultants and money managers, “[A]ll items subject to consideration for a vote are to be provided to the Board Manager no later than the Thursday (7 Days) prior to the Board Meeting.”

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.