Allegheny County Executive Fitzgerald uses appointment power to set direction
By Aaron Aupperlee
Published: Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, 11:24 p.m.
On a wall inside Allegheny County Manager William McKain's conference room hangs a framed quote from retired Adm. Grace Harper:
“The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We've always done it this way.' ”
The sign is the first thing department heads see when they walk in to discuss county matters.
“That's actually a requirement,” McKain said of the sign. “We want a new lens and new view of how we deliver services in our county.”
Nearly two years into his term as county executive, Rich Fitzgerald has wielded his political appointment power to recast 14 of the county's 23 top paid positions and reconfigure volunteer boards. Critics contend Fitzgerald asserts too much control over authorities and fires people who disagree with him.
“My way or the highway, that's the way he was,” said Jack Brooks, former chairman of the Port Authority's board who accused Fitzgerald of micromanaging. “I said, ‘Why the hell do you have a board for if they can't make decisions?' They're not going to make decisions against him. Whatever he wants, they're going to do.”
Fitzgerald, a former County Council president, said his leadership shored up the county's $800 million budget, led to a deal with transit workers, brought natural gas drilling to Pittsburgh International Airport and installed “optimism that is now part of our DNA,” Fitzgerald said.
Unless appointed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to the final spot on the reorganized Port Authority, Brooks, a Democrat, will leave the board. Brooks blames disagreements with Fitzgerald over the firing of transit CEO Steve Bland, the appointment of former Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier to the board and a failed attempt to install Brimmeier as interim CEO. Brimmeier was indicted in March on corruption charges.
Fitzgerald fired leaders at the jail, juvenile detention center and the Public Defender and Public Works departments. He orchestrated the ousters of Bland and Dr. Bruce Dixon, longtime director of the Health Department.
“My directive to the county manager, to my chief staff and on down is, we've got to run government right,” Fitzgerald said. “Maybe the style is different. If it's not run right, we'll find people who will run it right.”
County Councilman Matt Drozd, R-Ross, said although Fitzgerald picked some good people — including McKain — he fired qualified ones.
“He was not fair to Dr. Dixon,” Drozd said.
Dixon, who died Feb. 20 at age 74, sued Fitzgerald and members of the Board of Health, alleging wrongful termination. Dixon's attorney said the lawsuit is pending.
It is common for a politician to stock his administration with allies, said Pat Dunham, chair of the political science department of Duquesne University.
“It's usually considered ‘out with the old and in the with new,' ” Dunham said. “You want people you can trust. You want people who view politics the same way you do. And just in general, politicians have a lot of people they owe something to.”
Gerald Shuster, professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh, said Fitzgerald acts professionally when choosing administrators. National searches led to hiring Health Director Karen Hacker from Massachusetts and Warden Orlando Harper from Washington. Fitzgerald said he did not know Hacker or Harper until search committees recommended them.
He made other appointments in consultation with McKain and Chief of Staff Jennifer Liptak, who worked with him during his council tenure.
“He believes in having a lot of experts,” Liptak said. “He's not just, ‘I want this one gone, and I want to hire this one.' ”
Months after Fitzgerald took office in January 2012, he took heat from council members for requiring appointees of boards and authorities to sign undated resignation letters. Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, has said such letters counter “having an independent board member.”
Fitzgerald yielded to pressure and destroyed 57 signed resignation letters because publicity about them became a distraction, he said.
“I've been much more deliberate and much less fire-happy than my predecessors,” Fitzgerald said, referring to former executives Jim Roddey and Dan Onorato.
Onorato declined comment. Roddey said Fitzgerald has “demonstrated pretty clearly that he likes to control things.”
“Almost to a fault, I think,” Roddey said.
Fitzgerald does not see it as a fault but as an occupational hazard.
“I'm in charge. I'm accountable. I'm responsible. So if something doesn't get done, the taxpayers aren't going to yell at the superintendent or director or whoever it might be,” Fitzgerald said. “Their displeasure is going to be with me at the ballot box, as it should be.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or email@example.com.
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