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There must be a better way!

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By Jim Roddey
Thursday, March 28, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
 

Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald is hardworking, cares about the community and its families, and is forging a productive and cooperative relationship with the region's business leaders. The agreement he negotiated for natural gas drilling at the Pittsburgh International Airport has the potential for significant economic development. Nevertheless, all of these positive aspects of his job performance are in sharp contrast to his method of appointing volunteers to the boards of county authorities and agencies.

Our many authorities and agencies are important cogs in the wheel of county government. We need competent and dedicated citizens as members of these important boards. One would assume that when considering a prospective appointee, the county executive would be seeking men and women who are intelligent, have a record of exercising good judgment, are trustworthy and will have the best interest of the public always in mind.

Aside from whether or not the practice is illegal, asking for an undated letter of resignation prior to an appointment announces: “I'll appoint you but I don't trust you.” I'm not sure why anyone worthy of consideration would sign such a letter. Serving on a board with an ax held above your head is hardly a formula for independent and creative thought. There must be a better way.

In 2000, the Allegheny County Appointments Commission was created. The commission was the brain child of Dan Booker, a prominent Democrat.

Dan served as the commission's co-chair along with the late Evans Rose, a prominent Republican. Membership on the commission included representatives of business, labor, academia and neighborhood organizations and was balanced by gender, race and age.

The mission of the commission was to fill county board vacancies with the best people available and match the needs of the authorities and agencies with the skills of the board nominees without regard to political affiliation. Three names were submitted to the county executive for each vacancy. The commission limited nominees to only one board membership, thus maximizing the number of citizens given the opportunity to serve.

A wonderful example of the value of this system occurred when there was a vacancy on the Port Authority board. It had pioneered a system (Access) for riders with disabilities. In the dozen or so years Access had operated, no person with a disability had served on the authority board.

The commission nominated, and the county executive selected, a young woman who had lost her vision. Ironically, when she was informed of her nomination she was riding a bus. She became one of the authority's best board members. Unfortunately, the appointment commission was dissolved in 2004.

I am sure there are many other examples of best practices for choosing board members. Perhaps appointments could be for a one-year term with the county executive having the option of reappointment for up to three additional one-year terms.

I would hope that Rich Fitzgerald will explore other ideas and reconsider the requirement for undated, presigned resignation letters. There must be a better way!

Jim Roddey, a former Port Authority board chairman, was Allegheny County's first elected chief executive.

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