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State bill would strip most power of county exec to appoint Port Authority board

JC Schisler | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

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By Tom Fontaine and Brad Bumsted
Monday, June 10, 2013, 3:00 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG — A bill to restructure the Port Authority of Allegheny County's board of directors set off a war of words between one of the state's most powerful legislators and the county official who would be affected most by the changes.

The Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday approved a bill 16-10 along party lines that would take away all but one of the Allegheny County executive's appointments to the Port Authority board and give Republicans multiple appointments. The executive appoints all nine members at present.

“This is (Senate President Pro Tempore Joe) Scarnati screwing up the Port Authority,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Squirrel Hill Democrat, said of the bill's sponsor.

Fitzgerald accused Turnpike Chairman William K. Lieberman — who supported former county Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty's unsuccessful campaign for county executive two years ago — of lobbying Scarnati for the legislation, calling the senator “a puppet.” Lieberman did not return calls.

“His terminology is insulting at the very least, let alone outrageous,” Scarnati said. “The statements reflect the real immaturity of his thought process.”

Scarnati said he took issue with Fitzgerald initially requiring appointees to sign undated resignation letters he could use to remove them should they go against his or county council's policy wishes, a practice he scrapped amid growing criticism. Scarnati expressed concern over Fitzgerald's appointment of former Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier to the Port Authority and his failed attempt to install him as interim CEO; Brimmeier was indicted in March on corruption charges.

Fitzgerald said the Port Authority has moved in the right direction under the current leadership.

Under Scarnati's proposal, 11 appointments to the newly constituted board would be spread out among the governor, legislative leaders from four caucuses, county council's at-large members, the mayor of Pittsburgh and the county executive.

The county council's two at-large members, John DeFazio, D-Shaler, and Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, would get a total of four appointments; Fitzgerald, the county's highest-ranking official, would get just one.

An effort by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, to water down Scarnati's proposal and leave Fitzgerald with four appointees lost along party lines. Costa would have kept the governor and four caucus leaders among those making appointments, but excluded the mayor.

Scarnati's bill would take effect 60 days after final approval. Costa tried unsuccessfully to extend that to 180 days.

Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, called Scarnati's bill “overreaching.”

Scarnati said Costa and Fitzgerald “refused a compromise on the makeup of the board,” so he reverted to his earlier proposal.

“I can't negotiate with myself,” Scarnati said.

Fitzgerald, however, said Scarnati canceled at least five scheduled meetings in the past six weeks.

“He doesn't even have the guts to meet with me,” Fitzgerald said, saying he was open to giving state leaders appointment powers.

Scarnati denied he canceled any meetings.

Tom Fontaine and Brad Bumsted are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Fontaine can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com. Bumsted can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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