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Roberts for the Dems: She understands best the role of the controller

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Name recognition won't be a factor in the primary race for the Democratic nomination for Allegheny County controller -- all three contenders should be well-known to voters.

What separates Valerie McDonald Roberts, Chelsa Wagner and George Matta is their experience and attitude about just what the job as the county's fiscal watchdog should entail. The winner of this contest will face Robert Howard, who is unopposed for the Republican nomination, in the fall.

Mr. Matta, 54, of White Oak is a Penn State graduate with a master's degree from St. Francis University. He touts his government experience as controller and mayor of the city of Duquesne, as well as Allegheny County clerk of courts. In addition, he operated a floral business and now is director of business development and community relations for the Rivers Casino.

Despite his resume, Mr. Matta's past performance does not commend him to voters. He waged a deceptive ad campaign in an unsuccessful run for the state House of Representatives in 2006, he resisted efforts to move the county from its system of 10 elected row offices and he is linked through his brother Gary J. Matta to an old-boys-style network of powerful individuals who exercise influence over local government contracts. In 2007, he pulled strings to have the judge switched on a case in which a relative of Mr. Matta's had been raped, and in 2003, the county paid $150,000 to settle a racial and political discrimination complaint filed against him, although he denied all the allegations.

Ms. Wagner, 33, of Brookline has been a breath of fresh air in the state Legislature since her 2006 election to the House, where she has been an advocate for library funding, tightening restrictions on smoking in public places and allowing retired police officers to work part time because it would save money for municipalities.

Before going to Harrisburg, Ms. Wagner, a graduate of the University of Chicago and the University of Pittsburgh law school, was a policy consultant in three states for American Management Systems, a firm that helps government agencies reform how they provide services. She enters this race with the endorsement of the Democratic committee and most of the big labor unions in the county.

She is very well informed on local issues, but her view of what the controller can accomplish, as articulated during a meeting with Post-Gazette editors, seemed broader than the tasks that are the statutory responsibility of the officeholder.

It is the third candidate in this race who has the most grounded notion of what it means to be county controller.

Valerie McDonald Roberts, 55, of Churchill has an extensive background in private industry, in elected office and as an administrator. She holds a bachelor's and a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh and has worked as a chemist in the petroleum industry, a medical technologist and a community college instructor. She was a member of the Pittsburgh school board for five years, then served for seven years on Pittsburgh's city council before winning election as county recorder of deeds.

She held that office from 2001 to 2008, then, after it was eliminated, she was appointed manager of the county's Department of Real Estate, which includes the functions of her former office. Like Mr. Matta, she also opposed row office reform, but her other skills and qualities override that position, which was misguided in our view.

During an interview with Post-Gazette editors, Ms. Roberts said she does not believe it is the controller's role to try to act as either county executive or county council, but to ensure through fact-finding and analysis that tax dollars are used as intended. In doing so, she said she would not be "friend or foe" of government officials, but an advocate for taxpayers and consumers.

Valerie McDonald Roberts is an experienced manager with a broad background that has prepared her to be county controller, and the Post-Gazette endorses her for the Democratic nomination.

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