Amid Confusion, City Says It Will Formally Notify Gross Of Removal From Water Board

Feb 7, 2020

A spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto says the administration will be sending a communication to City Councilor Deb Gross, notifying her that she has indeed been replaced by fellow Councilor Erika Strassburger on the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority Board.

In the meantime, confusion over Gross’ status continued Friday morning, when she attended a lengthy informational session at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority – as did Strassburger herself.

“We sat right next to each other,” said Gross. She and other board members said there was no discussion about her status on the board. “It was the same as the other meetings I’ve been briefed at.”

Gross maintains that when council confirmed Peduto's appointment of Strassburger earlier this week, it was naming her to a long-vacant seat on the seven-member board. Gross herself has been serving an expired term since 2018. 

PWSA board chair Paul Leger, a longtime veteran of local government, said the board was not going to adjudicate Gross’ status, and would take no action until it got clear communication from the city. He said that while he’d been notified of Strassburger’s appointment, he had heard nothing regarding Gross.

“We’re not the appointing authority,” he said. “We’re not doing anything.”

The mayor has broad powers to choose the leadership of city-related entities like the PWSA, which manages the city's water and sewer system. That's especially true when a board member is, like Gross, serving an expired term. Such appointees can continue exercising official duties, but they can also be replaced at the mayor's discretion.  

Leger said the PWSA is notified of any shift in board membership by the resolution which council passes to confirm a mayoral appointment. Such resolutions typically specify which seat is being filled – and who it previously belonged to. But as WESA reported earlier this week, Gross was not named in the resolution council passed this week. That caused confusion this week because the PWSA's vacant extra seat meant it was possible for both women to serve on the board — even though it would be almost unprecedented for two councilors to do so.

Leger says the appointment process can be “messy,” in part because “governments don’t keep good track of board memberships.” That’s complicated by the fact that some board members resign their posts early, while others end up serving beyond their term's expirations.

Adding to the confusion: Board appointments are typically shaped by practices that, while traditional, aren’t necessarily spelled out in the law. So while it is unheard of for an authority board to have two council members, Leger says there is no hard-and-fast prohibition against it. And the terms board members serve can vary as well, despite a state law that seems to set a hard five-year cap.

Even so, Leger said he couldn’t recall so much confusion on the PWSA board before. “This is new ground,” he said.