On Tuesday, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto got City Council’s approval to remove City Councilor Deb Gross from the board of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, replacing her with fellow Councilor Erika Strassburger.
The move comes at a time when the agency, once troubled by a slew of health and administrative problems, has recovered enough that some observers fear corporate players may seek to privatize the system. But Tuesday's transition happened so quickly that Gross herself says she didn't realize it was taking place at all — even though she participated by phone in the meeting where Strassburger's appointment was confirmed.
“I have not been removed,” Gross told WESA on Wednesday evening, more than 24 hours after the vote. “I’m looking forward to working with Erika on the board. She would be a real asset.”
One of the PWSA board’s seven seats has been vacant since late 2017, and Gross says she thought that was the seat Strassburger would fill.
“I was very excited to see the appointment of Councilwoman Strassburger because we would have a full board for the first time in years.”
That was not what the mayor’s office had in mind when it sent over the appointment to council for her Strassburger's confirmation, as is required for all such transitions. Mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty confirmed Wednesday that Strassburger had been named to replace Gross.
Strassburger, he said, “is very well suited for the position given her years of environmental experience.” (Strassburger spent a decade working for environmental advocacy organizations that include PennEnvironment.) While boards often typically include one city council member, McNulty said he couldn’t think of a case in which two had served on the same body.
Council deliberated over Strassburger’s appointment — and a companion resolution naming freshman councilor Bobby Wilson to the city Parking Authority — for less than a minute-and-a-half on Tuesday. While councilors often interview board nominees before confirming them, they don’t generally interrogate each other. So there was no debate, and both appointments were confirmed unanimously by voice vote.
The resolution itself was two sentences long and didn’t mention Gross by name: It merely said the mayor had nominated Strassburger “for a term to expire March 31st, 2022.”
That turned out to be Gross’ term. Her four-year stint on the board officially ended in March 2018, and she’s been serving on an expired term since then. That practice is not unheard of, board members with expired terms can continue to cast votes and act in their official capacity, but they can be replaced by the mayor at any time.
Gross told WESA on Wednesday that she had never heard from the mayor’s office, either about renewing her term after it expired, or about replacing her.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about the future of the PWSA, but never about my role there,” she said.
Gross has overseen a tumultuous period since being appointed to PWSA in 2014. The agency was dealing with a massive breakdown in its billing system, persistent water main breaks and other distressed infrastructure, and a deepening crisis over lead contamination in water lines. The agency pinned many of those problems on a private management company Veolia, which handled day-to-day operations, and which PWSA ended up suing. (The dispute was settled in 2018, with neither side admitting wrong-doing.)
But since then, Gross said, “We’ve really rebuilt the organization. We’ve replaced 7,000 water service lines, and in seven more years we should be done with all the homes we serve in the city, so we never have to worry about lead again. We have a lot of good people in there now.”
Still, she said she worried that this is a crucial moment for public water systems in the region. She noted that state House Speaker Mike Turzai, a champion of privatizing government services in general and the PWSA in particular, recently announced plans to retire for a job in the private sector. Turzai has said he has no job offer lined up, but speculation has been rife that he plans to move to Aqua America. That firm recently gained state approval to acquire Peoples Gas – a utility that itself sought to acquire Pittsburgh’s water system.
“We should all be paying attention to the changes in these utilities, and who the players are,” she said.
Strassburger said Wednesday evening that "It was not made clear to me" which of the PWSA board seats she would be serving on. But she said that she hoped "to keep up the spirt of what [Gross] was doing." On issues like privatization, or contracting out management services, "We see eye-to-eye on that. I am very skeptical of any kind of management privatization. We've gone down that road with Veolia."
And while Peduto has previously expressed openness to public-private partnerships when it comes to operating city services, McNulty noted the mayor has “been very vocal” about opposing efforts to privatize PWSA.
In 2019, in fact, Peduto sent a letter to state regulators opposing Aqua America’s acquisition of People’s, citing “rumors” that Aqua officials in Harrisburg had been “notifying elected officials of their interest in purchasing the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.” He expressed praise for PWSA’s “great strides” in “reversing decades-long disinvestment,” and expressed concern that “a private utility may try to take advantage of PWSA’s recent successes to benefit their bottom line. “
Colleagues of both Strassburger and Gross said they didn’t expect any shift in the PWSA board's direction.
“Deb was very good on the board. She was passionate about the issues,” said City Councilor Corey O’Connor. “I know Erika is passionate about it as well, and I’m sure she’ll give it all her effort. I don’t see the function of the board changing.”
But he acknowledged he didn’t see the board’s personnel changing either – even as it happened before his eyes on Tuesday.
“I knew I was voting to appoint Erika to the board. But I also knew there was another vacancy, and it wasn’t clear if we were going to have two council members on it or not. ” When council members are appointed to board posts, he said, “We serve at the willingness of the mayor. But if you’re making that kind of switch, some clarity would have made it easier to figure out what’s going on.”
“I do believe there was some confusion” about what council was voting on, said City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith. But she said it was a simple communication breakdown. Administration officials, she said, “don’t really pull fast ones. They say what they are going to do and they listen to feedback.” Dan Gilman, the mayor's chief of staff, told her the administration’s intentions to replace Gross in advance, Kail-Smith said.
Still, she said other council members might not have gotten the message, and resolutions making appointments “need to be clearer” about which post is being filled.
Kail-Smith herself may have added to the confusion: After council's vote, she spoke of Gross’ tenure in the past tense — she thanked Gross “for her previous service” — while adding, “To me there’s no better scenario than to have Councilwoman Strassburger and Councilwoman Gross together on any board or even working separately and independently. “
Kail-Smith said she was trying to say Gross could well be appointed to a board post elsewhere. But the council president could see confusion brewing not long after the vote. “I asked [Gross] that day, ‘Did you know you were being replaced?’ She said, ‘I’m not replaced.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, this is not going to go well.’”
Gross says that as far as she’s concerned, “I still have a fiduciary responsibility to serve on the board until I get notification” from the mayor’s office that she has been replaced.
Ira Weiss, an attorney with expertise in government law, says “it’s not a legal necessity” to formally notify appointees of their removal.
“Common courtesy would suggest you do that,” he said. “But there is no statute that requires the mayor to give notice.”
It is not clear when the seventh PWSA board seat — the one that has been vacant for over two years and that Gross says she thought council was voting to fill – will be filled.
Ariel Worthy contributed to this report.