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Allegheny County hires former Pittsburgh workers, leading to criticism

| Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014, 9:30 p.m.

For some Pittsburgh employees out of a job when Mayor Bill Peduto took office, help was available just up Grant Street in the Allegheny County Courthouse.

County Controller Chelsa Wagner hired four city employees — two of whom held influential positions on former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's finance team — using practices that experts say are open to cronyism and political patronage.

“That's called the old boys' network,” said Dave Baker, CEO of the Cranberry-based executive headhunting firm Human Capital Advantage.

Wagner disputed the claim, saying she hired qualified people for open positions in her office.

“The majority of people I hire have experience in government, and Pittsburgh isn't very transient,” Wagner said. “It's not a huge group of people who have government and policy experience.”

Wagner, in the past two months, hired Paul McKrell, Ravenstahl's former government relations manager, and Anthony Pokora, a former city controller and assistant finance director, as analysts. She hired Stephanie Sikora, who worked in Ravenstahl's press office, to be her spokeswoman in January.

Jim Sheppard, a neighborhood initiatives coordinator under Ravenstahl, works as a contractor for Wagner. Sheppard, a Democratic committeeman for Pittsburgh's 19th Ward, is developing an internship program for Wagner's office.

Luke Wagner, son of former Auditor General Jack Wagner, Chelsa Wagner's uncle who made unsuccessful bids for governor and mayor, is an intern. Wagner said her office has more demand for interns than they have applicants.

Wagner is not alone in hiring former city workers. Treasurer John Weinstein in April hired Scott Kunka, Pittsburgh's former finance director, to be the county's chief investment officer. Neither Kunka, who is on medical leave, nor Weinstein could be reached for comment.

Wagner said she does not advertise openings for about half of the jobs in her office. Union jobs ­— mostly accountants — are advertised, she said. She said her office does not have a formalized hiring policy.

Wagner said she relies on a network of government employees and people who serve with her on boards and foundations to recommend people for positions in her office. She receives resumes every week for open positions. Her office vets applicants and conducts a lengthy interview process.

She said she wishes the city, state and county could devise a pension-sharing system so it would be easier to share employees.

“In order to make sure you've hired the most qualified individuals, you should cast a pretty big net,” Baker said. “You're really limiting yourself if you only walk across the street.”

Moe Coleman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute on Politics, said the recycling of employees between the city and the county is common. Wagner appears to have hired some of the city's top financial advisers, not political operatives unqualified for their new jobs, he said.

“Most of us hire people that somebody knows because that gives you a sense that you're not hiring a pig in the poke,” Coleman said.

Peduto worked with Talent City, a foundation-driven search firm, to hire key positions in his administration and to avoid looking at the usual pool, said Leigh Halverson, Peduto's deputy chief of staff for economic development. Halverson, who worked at the Pittsburgh Foundation and with Talent City, said after Peduto won the Democratic primary, campaign contributors started calling.

“Many were requesting hiring favors, and that was not how he wanted to run his administration,” Halverson said.

Halverson said Talent City did not find the talent pool small. It had more than 1,700 applicants apply for 32 jobs.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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