Home delivery: Allegheny County's reform government is a winner

Written by Susan Mannella on .

This may be the end of the first decade of the 21st century, but more important for Allegheny County is that 2010 marks the first 10 years of its home-rule government.

That won't set hearts aflutter as the ball drops on New Year's Eve, but it's been a positive change for a calcified political system that dates to the 1700s. For an old county, one decade of reform is just the beginning.

With a slim margin of victory, 564 votes out of 200,000 cast, county residents in May 1998 chose to replace the three-commissioner system with a county executive, 15-member council and an appointed county manager. In November 1999, they elected their first council and first county executive, Republican Jim Roddey. Next time, voters went with Democrat Dan Onorato.

Today's skeptics and naysayers can debate whether the home-rule structure lived up to expectations, but the system that dawned in 2000 was fundamental change for the better.

First and foremost, it replaced the three-headed hydra, the county commissioners, with an elected executive -- one person, in the state's third-most-powerful position, chosen to be the leader and spokesman for the county.

The 15-member council, with 13 chosen by district and two elected at large, serves the legislative function and remains the point of contact for individuals and municipalities seeking county action on a local problem. The fact that some see it as a weak body is due less to its structure than the impotence of the Republican Party, which today holds only four seats during the tenure of a Democratic executive.

Another factor is that council members, by design in the home-rule charter, are citizen legislators, with no salary or staff. Unlike Pittsburgh City Council, the members of County Council are retired or hold a day job while juggling their council duties. If they were paid to be on council full time, the public might see more engagement but at the price of more politics.

One of the unsung aspects of the reformed government is the county manager, the appointed day-to-day overseer of Allegheny County's programs and services. While the executive sets and directs policy, the manager presides over the county's day-to-day function.

Finally, home rule has given citizens the ability, through petition, to put proposals for consideration before County Council and to have questions placed on the ballot for voters to decide. The public made the most of that in May 2005, by voting to pare the 10 elected county row offices, longtime beds of patronage and nepotism, to four. This change would not have occurred without a home-rule government.

To malign the new system because it has not yet accomplished a bigger, thornier reform like city-county consolidation is to lose sight of the improvements it has delivered in 10 years. Home rule has streamlined, focused and improved Allegheny County government. What it does next is up to the people.

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