Controller Wagner Wants To Be An Outspoken Watchdog

May 15, 2015

Chelsa Wagner
Credit Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

Since 1999, every four years the voters of Allegheny County cast ballots for the four row offices. Those races are usually overshadowed by the race for county executive. 

However, this year there is only one candidate for the county’s top slot and the fight for county controller started early, intensified quickly and shows no signs of stopping.

The race is also unusual in that it pits two well-known political families, the Flahertys and the Wagners. On top of that, both of the candidates have held the position. Mark Patrick Flaherty was the Allegheny County Controller from 2004 to 2011 when the voters gave control to now incumbent Chelsa Wagner.

Wagner has been a thorn in the side of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald for much of the last four years, launching audits of his use of a county-owned car and publicly questioning his administration’s use of county tax dollars and staff. Since then Wagner has had difficulty in getting the information she says she needs to properly audit county spending.

Fitzgerald endorsed Flaherty at the time he launched his campaign and has helped to bankroll his efforts.  Wagner believes that affiliation would make it impossible for Flaherty to effectively run the office.

“When you look at Allegheny County government the need for an independent controller is very real,” Wagner said of the home rule form of government that is only 15 years old. 

In 2000 the county moved from the three commissioner system used in most Pennsylvania counties, to a government with a part-time council and a full-time chief executive. 

“When you look at all legislation that has passed through (county) council in the last three years, there were 272 pieces," Wagner said. "All but 10 of those were authored by the county executive. I think that is problematic. The controller’s office is really the only check and balance in county government.”

90.5 WESA’s Mark Nootbaar had a chance to speak to both candidates this week asking them a series of similar questions. An interview with Mark Patrick Flaherty can be found here.

On why the race became so intense so quickly:

“I think it really demonstrates the political landscape locally. I believe firmly that I’m up against the ‘old boys network’ here and I think you see that from the (campaign) finance reports. I expect that by Election Day my opponent will outspend me by 10 to one … If the controller was not really doing her job nobody would be worried about it, no one would be trying to take me out of this position.”

On why she should be given a second term in office:

“I have done more with less.  When you look at my spending I am still spending less than my opponent and predecessor did four years ago… and when you look at the outcomes you can measure, we are still doing more.”

On the fight over the legal authority of the office to audit county authorities and to conduct performance audits, both of which Wagner believes she has but have been contested by the Fitzgerald administration:

“We have more authorities than anywhere else in the country. And while they were set up for good reasons we have to recognize right now that’s where a lot of items are hidden in government, and when you are operating with public tax dollars that is not a luxury that you have.”

Wagner believes the law is very clear that the controller’s office has the power to conduct the audits. She sums up the law by saying, “the controller shall supervise all county monies and anyone having control of those monies.”

Responding to Flaherty’s claims she is not able to effectively run the office because she is more interested in “making headlines” than doing the “real work of the office:”

“When I look at this office I know that I have a responsibility to communicate with the tax payers.” Wagner points to her scathing audit of county jail health care provider Corizon, and the administration’s “very dismissive” response in December of 2014. “Now you see this administration saying ‘they acknowledge there is a problem and we are going to change course’ … I think that really demonstrates the difference of making things public. What they (Fitzgerald and Flaherty), I believe, are trying to say that is that all of these things should be behind closed doors and that is a key difference between my approach to this office and my predecessor’s.”

Wagner has been quick to voice her belief that “when you go into county government you step back in time.  It is far, far more archaic and there is a far greater need for us to bring many of these practices up to day.”  Wagner said she has been successful in updating many of the financial systems on Grant Street and has worked where possible to move onto paperless systems.