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County controller Wagner, executive Fitzgerald not seeing eye-to-eye

| Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, 10:27 p.m.

A spat between Allegheny County's top two elected officials over holiday parties may lead to more than revoked invitations.

The feud between county Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Controller Chelsa Wagner, which escalated from professional disagreements to personal attacks, could hamper the county's financial position and make governing difficult, political observers said.

Others say this is politics as usual in Western Pennsylvania.

“The only way government works is for people to be able to talk civilly about ideas. We're always going to have differences, and I think this is very unfortunate,” said county Councilwoman Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, who confronted Fitzgerald and Wagner.

Fitzgerald on Friday ended the workweek by uninviting Wagner from his Christmas party at his courthouse office. Last weekend, he kicked her out of his PA Society party in New York, prompting the two to attack each other publicly.

Nancy Patton Mills, the head of the Allegheny County Democratic Party, said no one talked about the parties and invitations at events she attended during the week. Clashes between members of the county's Democratic Party have little bearing on committee politics, she said.

“I think the personal differences don't always cross over into public service,” Mills said. “That has not affected any of our elections. That has not affected the business of the party.”

Fitzgerald and Wagner clashed early in their tenures. Their offices are roughly 30 steps apart on the first floor of the courthouse. Fitzgerald runs the county, and Wagner, as auditor, serves as watchdog, overseeing the county's books and departments.

The two won elections in November 2011 and took office at the start of 2012.

Fitzgerald accused Wagner of nearly causing the county's financial ruin by backing out of support for raising the county's millage rate, refusing to sign documents to refinance county debt and deserting him during pleas with credit-rating agencies to maintain the county's credit rating.

Wagner denies ever supporting a millage increase. Because Fitzgerald did not fully inform her of his financial plan for the county, Wagner said, she didn't sign off on restructuring the county's debt and didn't participate in meetings with Moody's and Standard & Poor's.

“Obstructionism for the point of obstructionism is bad for this region,” Fitzgerald said.

The two have clashed about how to handle the property reassessment and the county's Bureau of Weights and Measures. Fitzgerald thought Wagner, a former state House member, derailed efforts to strike a deal with Harrisburg over money for the Port Authority when she held a news conference to criticize the governor's funding priorities.

Wagner contends her millage rate was appropriate for the new values set by the countywide reassessment. Despite Fitzgerald's objections, she kept the Bureau of Weights and Measures, which inspects gasoline pumps, among other functions, under her office. She said she can call a news conference to challenge the governor if she wants.

“The different actions that he has taken, I believe, have been attempts to censure me and really just punish me,” Wagner said. “And they are really not going to deter me.”

Fitzgerald tried to slash Wagner's budget last year.

Collaboration on audits of Shuman Juvenile Detention Center and off-book accounts, money that is kept separate from general county finances, pointed to a potential thawing of tensions between the two.

Then their feud got personal.

Fitzgerald said Wagner did not understand the finances of the county, rarely comes to work and does not do her job as controller.

Wagner has called Fitzgerald's actions petty, childish and indicative of a man who sees friends as people he can control.

“I don't think it's detrimental to county politics, simply because of the nature of the post,” said Frank Gamrat, a senior researcher at the Castle Shannon-based Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, referring to Wagner's watchdog role. “Infighting in Pittsburgh politics has been around for quite some time, and somehow, it seems to move forward.”

Robert Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said Wagner and Fitzgerald's public “tiff in New York City” could catch the attention of rating agencies. Moody's and Standard & Poor's could lower their ratings of the county, resulting in higher interest rates on debt, Strauss said.

“When elected officials in populated areas show instability or worse, capital markets notice,” he said, adding that Fitzgerald and Wagner should “kiss and make up, even if she wears poisoned lipstick.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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