Allegheny County Council is often overlooked. After all, its main responsibilities typically consist of routine matters like approving budgets and political appointees named by the county executive. But that pattern could change after three new members are sworn in Thursday.
Democrats Liv Bennett, Tom Duerr, and Bethany Hallam will take office after defeating incumbents last year. All three ran on relatively progressive platforms, defeating two more moderate Democrats and a Republican. As a result, council will consist of 12 Democrats and three Republicans in the new year. Hallam, who will serve as the Democratic at-large county councilor, predicted the incoming members will shift the body to the left.
“I think it’s going to be a culture shock for a lot of the more senior council members who are maybe used to things being done a certain way,” she said.
Hallam added that, because she and Bennett won their primaries and were unopposed in November, they have had months to prepare for their new role.
“We have had all this time to build coalitions with other council members, other county organizations, different nonprofits," she said. "We’ve been able to kind of start building our foundation so that when we take office January 2, we can hit the ground running."
The Ross Township resident said she will propose legislation to expand oversight of police, liberalize jail management, and scale back the use of "fracking" to drill for natural gas.
In addition, Hallam said she hopes the new council will challenge Democratic County Executive Rich Fitzgerald more forcefully. Aside from proposing more legislation, she said, councilors should scrutinize his budgets and appointees more closely.
“County council has always been seen as a rubber stamp," she said. "Nobody paid much attention to it because, aside from congratulatory proclamations and approving appointments from the county executive, there wasn’t really much business to be done in meetings. That’s all going to change.”
Fitzgerald declined to comment. But the Republican at-large county councilor, Sam DeMarco, said the part-time body has limited capacity, and can be more effective by cooperating with the executive branch.
“I appreciate the enthusiasm my [new] colleagues have” for addresings such issues, DeMarco said. But he added, “Our job is not to cure all social ills.”
“The overwhelming majority of legislation that comes before us is routine,” he said, citing matters such as the approval of grants, budgets, and public works projects.
Even so, he said, councilors have “tremendous power we can use” over Fitzgerald’s appointees. DeMarco chaired the Appointment Review Committee last session and said members can discreetly secure the withdrawal of nominations they oppose. And he said council could amend the executive's budget, citing his own successful efforts to secure funding for police technology in the North Hills.
The regulation of law enforcement and business, meanwhile, are left to state and federal lawmakers, DeMarco said.
Hallam challenged that notion, however. She noted that last year, the 15-member county council took up bills to create a civilian police review board and ban so-called “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ minors. Neither measure passed, but Hallam said she was ready to try again in the new term.
“It will take eight votes – myself and seven others council members – to pass any substantive legislation,” Hallam said. “We’re ready to try.”