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Allegheny County Council rejects Shuman board nominations amid tensions with Innamorato

Zoe Fuller
/
90.5 WESA

In a move that reflects ongoing controversy surrounding the county’s Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, Allegheny County Council Tuesday rejected all five of County Executive Sara Innamorato’s proposed appointments to an advisory board meant to oversee the detention facility.

In a nearly unanimous vote, council rejected the nominations of Allegheny Court of Common Pleas Judge Tiffany E. Sizemore, Gwen’s Girls CEO Kathi Elliott, Reimagine Reentry executive director Richard Garland, FISA Foundation executive director Kristy Trautmann, and Mica Williams, a senior program manager at the Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities Center for Health and Justice.

Only DeWitt Walton voted against council’s rejection, while other council members made it clear they were sending a message to the administration.

Suzanne Filiaggi, one of council’s two Republicans, said Innamorato had proposed the appointments in a “hurried and uncollaborative way,” weeks before council goes on a summer recess for more than a month. The meeting Tuesday was the last before council is set to reconvene Aug. 20.

“An old adage that comes to mind here is that poor planning on the administration’s part does not constitute an emergency on council’s part,” she said. She noted that Shuman’s reopening was a key issue in last year’s election for county executive, but that Innamorato’s appointments came as “a complete surprise to my colleagues on council.”

She and Democrat Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis both indicated that the rejection was in part an attempt to encourage more collaboration between the administration and council. Filiaggi also urged Innamorato to seek out council input when seeking nominees, rather than pursuing what she called a “needle-in-a-haystack” approach.

“We 15 members of council were elected to represent the 1.2 million citizens of Allegheny County,” she said. “You don't need to go out and pluck people from the community.”

Democrat Dan Grzybek echoed those concerns after the meeting.

“I think it's really important to take the requisite amount of time and make sure that we're being really deliberate and collaborative with our decisions surrounding this advisory board,” he said. “We've already waited this long in order to bring these appointments up. I don't think it would hurt to wait a little bit longer and make sure that we're going through this process together.”

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Prior to the vote Tuesday evening, County Council member Bethany Hallam said the rebuke was meant to send a message: that there are objections to the “process by which even the current county administration is operating.”

At issue is a lawsuit the council filed last year against Innamorato’s predecessor, Rich Fitzgerald. Council alleged that Fitzgerald and the courts violated the county’s Home Rule Charter when they signed a$73 million contract with the nonprofit organization Adelphoi to run Shuman. Lawyers for the body said council should have voted on the deal before it moved forward, as uses of county property fall under its purview.

The county’s legal department argues that Adelphoi is providing a service, which the county executive has the sole authority to manage. The dispute is still making its way through court.

It also continues to divide Innamorato even from Democrats, including at-large member Hallam. Although Hallam and Innamorato both hail from the party’s progressive wing, Hallam has a more expansive view of council’s powers.

Hallam has, in fact, proposed creating a new oversight panel for Shuman, some of whose members would be selected by council itself. And Hallam told WESA before the vote that she holds Innamorato responsible for continuing the court fight.

“As much as Sara acts like her hands were tied, she could have very much not fought the lawsuit … if she really agreed that this was wrong,” Hallam said. “She is now the county, and her team is the county. Like, that’s who we’re suing. And they are not acting in good faith.”

Abigail Gardner, a spokesperson for Innamorato, said that since Shuman reopened last week, “it was a priority for the County Executive to put in place a committee of community leaders and experts to provide input on operations.”

“An existing State statute grants the authority for the County Executive to appoint such a committee, and we believe we put forward a slate of appointments with excellent credentials for Council’s consideration. Over the last several months, there have been conversations with County Council and their legal representative about reestablishing a strong advisory committee to compliment the oversight already outlined in the contract with Adelphoi. The obvious opportunity for collaboration is through a settlement of the pending litigation, which we remain very open to and willing to consider.”

The Juvenile Detention Board of Advisors is responsible for compiling an annual report that recommends a budget for detention facility maintenance. But it otherwise has no formal power to intervene should there be concerns about how Adelphoi manages the facility. (That power belongs to the Court of Common Pleas and the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.)

Administration officials have said the board will facilitate community input about the facility and help Innamorato keep her campaign-trail promise to create a more rehabilitative detention center.

State law gives the county executive the power to appoint five of the advisory board’s 10 members, subject to council’s approval. Innamoratoannounced her appointees in mid-June, and they include a number of well-known names. Sizemore, for one, is a Common Pleas Court judge who ran as part of a “Slate of 8” that had the backing of many county progressives. Garland and Elliott have long been part of violence-prevention and youth-empowerment initiatives.

But there were signs that council’s approval might be hard to obtain. In June, a committee that reviews such appointments elected to send on the appointments for a full vote with neutral recommendations — a relatively rare move.

Naccarati-Chapkis, who chairs the committee, cited “several concerns raised by members regarding the active lawsuit”council brought against Fitzgerald and the county courts late last year.

“I would like to make it clear to the nominees … that this is in no way necessarily about them or reflection of any of their qualifications to serve, but rather being caught up in issues that are simply beyond and out of our control — and your control, rather,” Naccarati-Chapkis said.

Naccarati-Chapkis did not say how the nominations are connected to the suit. And despite the legal fight, Shuman reopened last week with 12 beds for newly arrested juveniles. Shuman will have a full capacity of 60 beds, though a timeline for when those will open has not been set.

Updated: July 9, 2024 at 7:34 PM EDT
Updated to include comment from the Innamorato administration.
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 jzenkevich@wesa.fm.