It’s a muggy August evening Downtown. Commuters hop in their cars, prepping for a bout of rush hour traffic from the Golden Triangle. But in the Pittsburgh City-County Building, things are just getting started. The Allegheny County Council is ready to kick off its first session of the month.
The gallery is sparse, with just a few citizens taking seats, though all 15 members of the County Council are present. This meeting flies by; council members run through the agenda quickly, and just four people step up for brief public comments.
Some of the most important legislation for Allegheny County residents is taking place.
At the previous meeting of the County Council, the scene was a stark contrast. So many people showed up to the late-July meeting that they were spilling into the halls. The three-hour meeting that night was a spectacle to behold — the council members voted to override a veto by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald for the first time ever.
Fitzgerald had vetoed a measure approved by the council that banned fracking activity in Allegheny County’s public parks. The initiative — and the campaign to defeat the veto — is perhaps the most noteworthy event in the Council’s history at least as far as its relationship with the public.
The lengthy meeting saw plenty of public comment and deliberation. The vote to override Fitzgerald’s veto even secured another “yes” vote atop the 11 who voted for the measure in the first place, bringing the vote total to 12-3.
Unfortunately, the electricity of the late-July fracking meeting is not the norm. Typically, seating for the public remains empty, agendas are run through at lightning speed and sometimes council members don’t even make it to the meetings. Efficient? Certainly. But does this make for the best policy for Allegheny County residents?
The fracking ban touches on only one aspect of the types of legislation the council debates. In addition to the Parks and Sustainability committees that headed the anti-fracking measure, the council’s 15 members head or participate in such committees as Government Reform, Health, Public Safety and Economic Development.
Councilwoman Anita Prizio, chair of the Sustainability Committee, helped to spearhead the fracking vote with the ordinance’s sponsor, Bethany Hallam.
But Prizio, like her peers, is not a single-issue legislator. She names off a laundry list of policies she wants to pursue with her seat. “I believe abortion is healthcare, and healthcare is a human right,” she says. She also supports a trigger law by County Council member Tom Duerr to protect abortion rights in Allegheny County. “I have been working on [the issue of] tenants’ rights to legal counsel. I’ve met with folks regarding voting in jail. I’m working with the Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America on school-based, partial hospitalization programs.”
Council member Bob Macey has his own plate of issues to work through. “We’re severely lacking resources with our volunteer fire services,” he says. Macey is at the forefront of a county-wide FireVEST campaign outfitting residents with scholarships to the Community College of Allegheny County in exchange for participation in volunteer fire departments. He also acknowledges challenges among council members regarding its Jail Oversight Board. Until early September, council members had been unable to come to terms over the details of this board. “We need to come to an agreement, or at least to some common ground,” Macey says.
There are several roadblocks that keep the council from acting on legislation at faster rates. For starters, council members are part-time workers — most hold full-time jobs on top of their positions in the legislature. They also lack many resources that other local bodies do not; the council has only three staffers to serve more than 1.2 million residents.
“Our staff is very limited,” Prizio says. “We have a budget manager, a chief clerk and a chief of staff.”
The council’s budget is a constant source of headaches for council members, mainly because it comes in the form of a lump sum, which the members must divvy up themselves.
“We tried to pass some ordinances to improve the [budget] transparency,” says Prizio, “and there’s always that debate; ‘We shouldn’t micromanage.’ But how can we vote on the budget if all we have is a line item that just says ‘salaries?’”
There’s one huge factor that council members largely agree on regarding how to solve these hang-ups, and it all goes back to the fracking meeting: constituent turnout matters. That monumental council session in July was such a big deal, according to members, because there were so many constituents who showed up and supported the legislation.
Macey flipped his vote on the fracking measure from a “no” to a “yes,” but not because he is a fan of the bill.
“[Natural gas] is a fuel source that’s safe, clean and has the power to fuel the economy,” he says. He says it was the outpouring of phone calls and public comments in the wake of the veto that inspired him to change his vote. “People need to reach out, let us know what they want, not what we think they want,” he says.
The anti-fracking legislature moved relatively quickly through the ladder. It was introduced in January, and the veto was overridden in July.
“It was [because of] the outcry of the public,” Prizio recalls, “we saw true democracy in action. It was great that everybody was there.”
The Allegheny County website has resources for attending meetings, providing public comment, viewing legislative agendas and finding one’s district and corresponding representative. Upcoming meetings are Tuesday, Oct. 11 at 5 p.m. and Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 5 p.m. Meetings also available via livestream.