County Council Elections Could Set New Tone In Police Oversight, Conversion Therapy Debates

Oct 24, 2019

Allegheny County Council often doesn't attract much attention, but lately it’s been consumed by debates over police oversight and LGBTQ identity. So far, councilors have been tied down by ideological divisions. But contested elections in three of county council’s 15 districts next month could change council's direction next year.

Democrat Tom Duerr seeks to unseat Republican Sue Means in District 5, which covers part of the South Hills.

Duerr is a campaign staffer by trade and has worked as an organizer for U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and state Sen. Pam Iovino in recent elections.

The Bethel Park resident says he contrasts sharply with Means on issues like a review board that would investigate alleged police misconduct.

Means has opposed a bill that would have created the board because, she said, it would not have allowed officers to cross-examine their accusers. While Duerr said he shares that concern, he supports the proposed board: He said it would give both the police and members of the public a forum to state their case.

“And I believe it will strengthen the ties between our community and our police forces here in Allegheny County,” Duerr said.

County councilor DeWitt Walton, a Democrat, introduced the legislation after the fatal police shooting of black, unarmed teen Antwon Rose. County council voted down the proposal in a 9-6 vote in August, but Walton says he’ll re-introduce it next year.

“There’s not a problem with the legislation,” the councilor said. “There’s a problem with the people that are voting for it.”

For the bill to pass, Walton needs to flip two votes from "no" to "yes." A Duerr victory could provide one vote, and fellow Democrat Christine Allen could provide another – if she wins the North Hills and Ohio River Valley communities that make up District 2.

Allen, who works for the health care company Aetna and serves as a Sewickley Borough councilor, is challenging Republican Cindy Kirk.

While Kirk voted against the police review board, Allen said she’s open to the idea. Like Duerr, though, she does cite a few concerns, including the fact that the board wouldn’t have subpoena power to compel testimony.

“It just lacked teeth,” Allen said, “so I would want a stronger bill.”

Allen also has a personal stake in another council debate: whether to regulate so-called conversion therapy for minors. The approach purports to change a child's sexual orientation or identity, although professional medical organizations say the treatment causes severe mental health problems.

“This issue is personal to me,” Allen said. “I am out. I’m lesbian, and I know what it’s like to be hated for just, for who I am.”

Both Allen and Duerr support legislation that bans all forms of conversion therapy for children. But another bill currently before council would allow conversion programs if a child consents, and if the treatment doesn’t cause physical pain.

Means, Duerr’s Republican opponent, co-sponsored the latter measure. She noted that some cities, including New York City and Tampa, Fla., have rolled back all-out bans amid concerns that they violate patients’ rights to privacy.

“You don’t want the government to police people’s conversations,” Means said.

Allen’s opponent, Kirk, said she won't take a position on either bill until both go through a full review. But in a statement, she wrote that some constituents worry an across-the-board ban would “completely prohibit counseling choices.”

The only other competitive council race is in the southern suburbs of District 6, and it doesn't present such strong contrasts. Republican Michael Freedman is challenging Democrat John Palmiere.

Both candidates oppose the police review board, with Freedman saying civilians aren’t qualified to judge police, and that there’s already enough oversight.

“You have the Department of Justice. You have the FBI. And we have our local district attorney,” the retired advertising salesman, and Pleasant Hills resident, said. “Between those three organizations, I think they’re more than qualified to handle any kind of a review.”

On conversion therapy, Freedman agrees it should be legal as long as it doesn’t cause physical harm. Palmiere said he’ll wait to form an opinion, pending further review.

Overall, though, this election cycle could move council more to the left. Democrats Olivia Bennett and Bethany Hallam already defeated more conservative Democrats in the spring primary. Duerr and Allen will have their chance to join them Nov. 5.