When the Allegheny County Home Rule Charter Commission was formed in 1997, the members decided it was time to move away from having three full-time commissioners running the county, and instead it was time to have a single full-time executive and a 15-member county council.
“I think right now, we have a citizens council and I don’t want to make it a career thing, like a state legislature or Pittsburgh City Council,” said Allegheny County Council Member Charles Martoni who was also a member of the first council in 2000. “I think it works pretty well the way it is.”
The idea of a “citizen’s council” was exactly what the framers of the home rule charter were hoping for when they set the compensation for council members as a per-meeting stipend not to exceed $9,000 and an additional $3,000 for reimbursable expenses.
In 15 years, those numbers have not changed. And although Martoni does not think the rate needs to increase, the members of the Allegheny County Government Review Commission feel otherwise.
Review commission member Jim Nowalk said no one expects to work at the same job for 15 years and not get a raise. But, he said it's very difficult politically for a lawmaker to vote for a pay raise.
“Because it’s been so difficult, it should be done on some kind of an automatic basis so that everybody knows what the formula is and it’s not something that looks self-serving for adequately compensating elected officials,” Nowalk said.
The review commission has recommended that the home rule charter be amended to combine the stipend and reimbursable expenses into one salary and to then peg that to salary to 10 percent of the county executive’s pay.
Which takes us to the county executive’s compensation.
It also has not increased from the $90,000 salary set 15 years ago. The commission is recommending that the executive’s pay be immediately increased to $117,108.60, which is the most that would be permitted under the home rule charter's prohibition of increasing the executive’s pay faster than the average county union contract.
The commission then recommends changing the county code to link the executive’s salary, going forward, to some sort of index. The commission looked to Wayne County, Mich., which is the home of Detroit, where, according to Nowalk, the county executive’s salary is a percentage of the governor’s salary.
“When you think about the fact that county government in many ways is the administrative arm of the state for so many things … we thought that made a lot of sense,” Nowalk said.
If the council does not like that idea, the commission also suggests that the salary could increase at the same rate as the district attorney’s pay, which is set by the courts; or it could be linked to the consumer price index, which is how the state legislature receives its pay raises.
At the same time, the government review commission has made a suggestion that the clause in the home rule charter prohibiting members of council from running for another office be eliminated.
“If someone has to resign (to run for another office), county council is being denied and experienced person on the county council, merely because they made a choice to run for another public office,” Nowalk said. “They may not get elected and they’re not going to be back on again. The people are denied their representative. For what? It doesn’t make any sense.”
The League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh has been closely watching the inner workings of county government since before the home rule charter was even a dream of reformers.
“When they were drafting the home rule charter, the state legislators said, ‘Don’t give us competition,’” Annette Shimer, president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh said. “I would like to see them be able to run. Because that’s how we get them, how we move people along and I think that would be very valuable.”
Allegheny County Council President John Defazio, who is the only other original council member still serving, said he sees no reason to not let council members look elsewhere.
“In my case, I never intended to run for anything else, but I think they should be like everyone else," he said. "Everybody else has the right to run and I think they should have the same opportunity.”
Staunch supporters of the idea of a citizens council disagree, fearing council will become nothing more than a stepping stone to bigger things.
Also in the vein of elections, the review commission has called for a change in the way county council districts are drawn.
Currently the charter places that responsibility with the county council, but it does not specifically address how boundary lines are drawn after a census.
The review commission is suggesting that the administrative code be changed to require the creation of “an impartial reapportionment commission” that would be appointed by the council.
The make up of that commission is not spelled out in the recommendation, but the spirit of the suggestion is.
“For instance, the city has about four county council members elected from the city, or from a majority of the city, and it would be nice to have the city council participate in that process,” Nowalk said. He also said he sees a role for the Allegheny County League of Municipalities in making sure that the municipalities are placed into logical districts.
“The League of Women Voters was very active in terms of monitoring our meetings, and they could represent the citizens as a whole,” Nowalk said.
Not everything that was brought up to the review commission was adopted into the final recommendations. Former Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey made the suggestion that the two at-large council members on the 15-member body be eliminated.
The purpose of having at-large members was to ensure that both parties would have representation on the council.
“That’s turned out not to be necessary because several of the districts, probably five or six of them, trend to be Republican and we’ve had as many as seven Republicans on the council,” said Roddey in an interview after the report was released. “I think 15 is too large a body to begin with for that size of government, so I think 13 would be perfect. And I don’t think there’s a need for the at-large anymore."
Nowalk said a sub-committee entertained the idea, but the full commission did not think there was enough to be gained from that change and did not include it in the final recommendations.
The report was presented to the Allegheny County Executive Tuesday and will be officially presented to council next week.