Rich Fitzgerald
Rich Fitzgerald. Photo courtesy of Allegheny County.

Rich Fitzgerald first got involved with government as a young father when his kids’ elementary school needed a new playground. Later, he and his neighbors petitioned to make their street one-way to keep drivers from speeding across to Beechwood Boulevard.

But he never imagined leading the region for 12 years as Allegheny County’s third executive, even after he won a seat in 2000 on the newly formed part-time County Council, where he served three four-year terms, including as its president. 

“It surprised me that I did this,” he confesses, “and it probably surprised my family, my parents. Nobody in my family was in government, not even as a committee person. But this new form of government was coming about and I thought I might be able to do something to stem the loss of young people. I thought my ability as a business person, and a pretty good salesperson, could help market this region and some of the great things we have.”

It’s why 63-year-old Fitzgerald, a Democrat, now counts as a high point of his public career the day when 2020 Census figures were released, showing the county gained 27,230 residents in the decade since 2010, bringing its population to 1,250,578.

A 2.2% gain may not be much, but it was the first growth in 60 years — and more significantly, Fitzgerald says, the county’s young adult population grew by 20% and its overall population diversified with more Asian-American, Latino and mixed-race residents.

“It’s a younger, more diverse population and a lot of that is the growth of the economy and quality of life,” he says. “Jobs are much more diverse now, things like robotics and [advanced] manufacturing. It’s a broadened-out job force.”

Praise for his team

Rich Fitzgerald
Rich Fitzgerald poses with his family after being presented as the 2023 Pittsburgher of the Year. L-R: daughter Caroline, daughter-in-law Maddie, son Tanner, wife Cathy, Rich, daughter Madeline, daughter Jocelyn, daughter Erin, and son Jackson. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Magazine.

Still, in 2021, the Pittsburgh metro area registered the highest natural population loss — more deaths than births — in America, losing 10,838 people. But up against such a challenge, Fitzgerald prefers to remain positive and energetic, two aspects of his personality that others say have contributed to his steady leadership.

“He’s worked harder than anybody as county executive, and I thought I worked hard,” says Jim Roddey, the county’s first executive and a Republican, who gives Fitzgerald an A grade for his tenure. “He is everywhere. He goes to every function; he doesn’t say no to people. That’s a compliment to him.”

Most importantly, Roddey says, Fitzgerald has a personality that melds Pittsburgh grit with an easygoing manner and enables him to maintain essential relationships with Democratic Party officials, state officials, County Council, labor unions and the business community.

“There’s a lot of places that you have to put emphasis [in the job] and we haven’t ever had anyone who was successful in office in Pittsburgh if they didn’t have a good relationship with the business community, who are made up largely of Republicans,” Roddey says.

“I think he’s been honest and has served with integrity. All of those things add up to a successful career. He’s relatively calm, doesn’t have tantrums. You never hear him criticize people, and that’s an art.”

Fitzgerald credits much of his successes to his chief of staff, Jennifer Liptak, who handles most of the day-to-day oversight of 20 departments, 4,500 employees and a $3.015 billion budget, and to his longtime county manager, Willy McKain, who recently left to join the Allegheny Conference on Community Development as its chief operating officer.

Having the same team in place for so many years helped to accomplish Fitzgerald’s goals, says McKain: “We kept the trains running but he had to go out and sell the county to all those people who would ride the trains.”

County government is unwieldy, with a massive human services department; nine parks and 408 miles of roads that require maintenance; an international airport; a public safety department that assists many of the 130 municipalities with investigations; a jail that is under investigation for the deaths of 17 incarcerated people since 2020; and a health department charged with helping to mitigate air pollution, the region’s most pressing health challenge.

“Rich would point to a building in a park and say, ‘Fix it or knock it down’ — that’s a symbol of his approach to problem-solving, I think,” McKain says. “He wants data-driven decisions but he doesn’t want to study something for too long. He wants to get things done. And that, in turn, gives the employees pride in completing projects.”

Criticisms

Rich Fitzgerald
Rich Fitzgerald speaks at the rededication ceremony of the county’s police and fire academy on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. L-R: County Police Superintendent Chris Kearns, then-Police Academy Director Lt. Robert Synan, County Executive Fitzgerald, then-Chief Deputy Sheriff Kevin Kraus, then-Sheriff William Mullen and Glenn Kopec, administrator of the Fire Academy. Photo courtesy of Allegheny County.

The jail problems may be seen as one blemish on his administration, Roddey says. But he and McKain both say the jail is a “complex, challenging issue.”

Fitzgerald has tapped the National Commission on Correctional Health Care to review fatalities and practices at the jail and, according to McKain, also hopes the state will establish a task force to oversee inmate deaths, similar to the way Pennsylvania handles infant deaths.

Among Fitzgerald’s most vocal critics is Allegheny County Councilperson Bethany Hallam, D-North Side, who has pushed back strongly against his handling of deaths at the jail, and his willingness to allow fracking on county lands. Last year, she urged her colleagues to override his veto of a fracking ban bill she co-sponsored, saying they should “stand up for what is right and combat the extreme executive overreach council has endured for years.”

When the override vote passed 12-3 in July — Fitzgerald’s first — Hallam tweeted: “Not gonna lie — this one feels REALLY good. Thank you to everyone who showed up in favor of this bill to #protectourparks!”
 
That same month, in an op-ed in the Post-Gazette, the text of which she later posted
to Facebook, Hallam, who is council’s designee to the Jail Oversight Board, accused the administration of misrepresenting the jail’s statistics, writing: “I’m running out of words for the ongoing tragedy that is unfolding daily. Neither County Executive Rich Fitzgerald nor Warden Orlando Harper seem to be particularly worried about the deathtrap over which they have direct authority and direct responsibility. Instead, their focus has been to use county tax dollars to shut down any attempt at investigation, transparency and accountability. Meantime, legal fees and settlements keep adding up for county taxpayers, and conditions continue to worsen for those inside.”

Fitzgerald prefers to talk about achievements. Last April, the Allegheny County Health Department announced that the county met federal air quality standards for fine particulates, the tiny soot particles that can cause health problems, for the second year in a row. It was a milestone when, in 2021, the region’s eight air quality monitors met standards for carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone and particulate matter for the first time in history.

Critics tell Pittsburgh Independent, however, that Fitzgerald “cherry-picks” statistics to show that air quality has improved. And that while air quality has improved, it is not yet healthy for residents.

Fitzgerald is also proud of stabilizing the county’s finances. When he took office, the county’s “rainy day fund” balance was about $5 million and the county was about to be downgraded by Standard & Poor’s rating agency. Now, that fund balance is more than $50 million and the county’s bond rating has been upgraded four or five times, the highest it’s been in 40 years, Fitzgerald says.

And, when he took office in 2012, the median sale price of a house in Allegheny County was around $100,000 and “you paid $388 in county property tax,” he says. “Over the last 12 years, on average, that house [price] has gone up to $250,000 but that homeowner is still paying $388 in county property tax — we haven’t reassessed and haven’t raised the millage.”

But reassessments are probably coming and have just been delayed.

Asked whether there’s a need to reassess to make the tax burden fairer, Fitzgerald says, “That will be up to the next county executive to take a look at how the books are balanced. With respect to inflation, $388 today buys a lot less than it did a few years ago.”

Challenges ahead

If his overall goal is to attract and keep residents and improve quality of life, then Fitzgerald finds some measure of success in the fact that Allegheny County is “still a relatively affordable place to live and raise a family. … We’ve made some real strides,” he says.

Term-limited, Fitzgerald cites one thing that he’ll try to accomplish during this last year in office: convince the legislature to pass a disincorporation bill that would allow municipalities, by referendum, to become a part of county government. It can be a tough sell with local officials who might not want to give up their turf, but “the fact that we have 130 municipalities is not healthy in so many ways,” Fitzgerald says. “Many of them do not have the tax base to provide basic services.”

A bill to allow voluntary disincorporation passed the state Senate in 2017 but didn’t come up for a vote in the PA House.

“Had it been up for a vote, it would have passed,” he says. “It had bipartisan support. So that’s something, I think, for the next county executive — to help some of these small municipalities.” 

Transit funding and transportation projects loom large in the near future as well, Fitzgerald says. Money for transit comes through the state but Act 89, signed into law in 2013 to fund road projects, bridge repairs and mass transit, is expiring and lawmakers will need to allocate money through PennDOT with a new bill, he says.

“There are some challenges now with ridership because so many people work from home and office buildings Downtown don’t have workers coming in five days a week, as they traditionally did,” he says. “That’s going to affect the fare box.”

What the future holds

Rich Fitzgerald
Rich Fitzgerald speaks at his first inaugural gala at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank as his wife Cathy looks on (January 2012). Photo courtesy of Allegheny County.

Fitzgerald grew up in Friendship and attended Catholic schools before earning a mechanical engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon University. He met his wife Cathy, a pharmacist, on a blind date in the late 1970s. After graduation in 1981, he briefly took a job with a chemical company in Illinois but he missed home. He returned and started his own company selling water treatment services — something he doesn’t see himself returning to.

“What I would like to do is stay engaged, with respect to the things that got me involved in government in the first place — economic issues, workforce development issues. That might happen with a nonprofit, a university, a foundation,” he says. “I like to think I have another 10-year run, maybe — a third career, I guess. Something that excites me like this job has, where I wake up every day excited to go to work.”

He and Cathy still live in the Squirrel Hill home where their eight children grew up, though the silence is notable now that they’re empty nesters. Fitzgerald is counting on grandchildren to fill that void.

He and Cathy bought a riverfront property in Armstrong County, a place to escape to where the couple can fish, bike and spend time relaxing outdoors. 

On Friday nights in warm weather, they can be found seated to the right of the stage at South Park or Hartwood Acres for concerts, says McKain. Fitzgerald talks with anyone who approaches, often taking note of any problems they mention to fix later.

The Fitzgerald family
The Fitzgerald family tailgating before a Penn State football game at Beaver Stadium. L-R: Cathy, Mara, Caroline, Jocelyn, Jackson, Tanner, Louisa, Erin, Madeline and Rich. Photo courtesy of Allegheny County.

In his letter of resignation, McKain says he thanked Fitzgerald for setting the tone to get things done. “I said, ‘It’s amazing how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit,’ quoting John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach,” McKain says. “And that’s Rich — he’s the humble public servant. The average guy. He’s a Pittsburgher.” 

The executive’s job is to bring together stakeholders, Fitzgerald says. Moving forward, that constituency will change as younger people express their views and concerns about how to live, work and recreate differently. Equity issues, homeownership, housing affordability, climate change, environmental justice — these factors will become more important, he predicts.

“And as technology changes and other issues come about, there are going to be challenges that future policymakers are going to have to deal with,” he says.  

Several Democrats — former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Theresa Sciulli Colaizzi, State Rep. Sara Innamorato, former Allegheny County Councilor Dave Fawcett, City of Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb, entrepreneur Will Parker, and Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein — have announced campaigns for county executive, as has Republican Joe Rockey, a retired PNC executive.

Voters will select party nominees for county executive on May 16 with the general election slated for Nov. 7. 

Fitzgerald hopes that whoever wins is, first and foremost, a hard worker.

“There are a lot of communities to go to; people want to see their county executive if they’re having an event in their community, and they want to know their county executive is taking their issue seriously,” he says. “It also needs to be somebody who can represent all people, not just one political group, whether right, left or center. It has to be somebody who’s willing to communicate with people and think about making the best decisions for taxpayers.

“You wear a lot of different hats in this job and you need to be flexible. This job touches everything; it’s literally a full-time endeavor. It’s been an honor for me.”

Candidates campaigning to be the next Allegheny County executive will participate in a town hall debate on Tuesday, April 18 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. The forum, which can be attended in person or watched via livestream, is hosted by NEXTpittsburgh and PublicSource.

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.