Will Dan duck the courthouse curse?

| Friday, Jan. 2, 2004

A word of warning to Dan Onorato: Beware the curse of the county courthouse.

Not to rain on the parade of the new Allegheny County chief executive, who takes office today. Stay dry and enjoy the festivities, Dan. It's your day. But amid the inaugural celebration, bear in mind that none of the three previous county administrations survived to win another term.

It's almost as though an extremely perturbed person, tired of waiting for one of the notoriously slow courthouse elevators, placed a curse on those ultimately responsible for maintaining the things.

A curse that will remain until the elevators can get to the top of the building and down again in less than an hour.

A curse that exists to this day.

Consider the following:

In 1992, Democrats Tom Foerster and Pete Flaherty were beginning their third term together running the three-member county commission. Foerster had been a county commissioner since 1968 and was unquestionably the county's leader. Flaherty, the former Pittsburgh mayor, was Foerster's partner on the board since 1984.

There was no reason to believe the wheels would fall off their administration during that third term, but they ended up widely scattered on the highway.

There were revelations that hundreds of county workers enjoyed free county cars. A far lesser number, but still too many, lived rent-free in county-owned houses. County Maintenance Director Joe Moses, one of Foerster's closest friends, was convicted of accepting kickbacks.

Voters couldn't accept all this and ousted Foerster and Flaherty.

Their replacements as majority commissioners in 1996 were Republicans Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer. Their combustible political marriage lasted about as long as any wedding of nitroglycerin and acetylene might be expected to last before an explosion occurs.

They quarreled incessantly for about two years, bringing the county to a grinding halt. The government slowly began moving again when Cranmer dumped Dunn and aligned with Democratic Commissioner Mike Dawida, but it was too late.

So dissatisfied were voters with the three-ring circus that they approved a referendum replacing the commission troika with a single chief executive. Jim Roddey, a Republican Pittsburgh businessman and civic leader, was elected the first chief executive in 1999.

He was brought down largely because irate taxpayers blamed him for a mess not of his making -- a controversial countywide property reassessment mandated by a judge back when Dunn and Cranmer still spoke to each other.

In November, county Controller Onorato defeated Roddey and ensured the fourth consecutive change in county administrations in as many terms.

The curse lives on.

Not to rain on today's parade. Stay dry and enjoy the festivities, Dan.

When you get to the office on Monday, though, you might want to have someone take a look at those courthouse elevators.

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