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County Council members wrangle over ethics code

| Wednesday, April 4, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Allegheny County lawmakers wrestled with a proposed ethics code Tuesday, with Republicans trying to tighten it and majority Democrats agreeing to some changes and blocking others.

Council members were to debate more than 20 proposed changes to the code, which regulates the conduct of more than 6,000 county officials and employees. Final action on the law had not taken place last evening, although lawmakers had agreed to some key provisions.

Lawmakers agreed to limit the hiring of relatives by county officials and officers and expanded the list of affected relatives.

But Democrats turned back a GOP proposal that would have required officials to report gifts of $75 or more, saying a reporting limit of $250 was adequate.

The meeting got off to a rocky start.

Amid concerns by some Democrats that Republicans were going to give long speeches to push through their ideas, Councilwoman Eileen Wagner offered a rule to limit debate.

That prompted Republicans to accuse Democrats of trying to muzzle them.

Wagner, a Scott Township Democrat, withdrew the motion when fellow Democrat Charles Martoni of Swissvale warned it could poison public perception of the ethics law.

One of the sharpest debates centered on a GOP-sponsored measure to bar anyone related to a county employee from being hired by the county.

'This would result in less patronage,' said sponsor Dave Fawcett, an at-large Republican from Oakmont. 'I propose one county job per family in the future.'

Councilman James Simms, a Democrat from Schenley Heights, called Fawcett's proposal 'a sham ... pandering to the lowest expectations of the public.' Simms said the days of hiring politically connected relatives are over.

'We don't have people hiding out in all these jobs,' Simms said.

Mike Crossey, a Mt. Lebanon Democrat, said the rule was too broad and would bar someone related to a maintenance worker from getting a county job.

Lawmakers agreed to a compromise proposed by Councilman Tom Shumaker, a Republican from Pine Township, to apply the hiring ban only to relatives of county officers and officials. That would include County Council members, the county executive and the row officers.

Shumaker said the watered-down rule would still prevent officials from hiring each other's relatives as a way of trading favors.

Democrats also agreed to a compromise that put more relatives under the patronage provisions of the code. Affected relatives would include parents, spouses, the parents of a spouse, children, stepchildren, brothers, stepbrothers, brothers-in-law, sisters, stepsisters, sisters-in-law, grandchildren and grandparents.

But Democrats blocked a proposal to reduce from $250 to $75 the amount of a gift required to be reported on annual ethics forms.

Councilman Richard Olasz, a Democrat from West Mifflin, said he feared that doing so would provide political opponents with more information to 'smear' lawmakers. At $75, 'a dinner and a couple of tickets to the ballgame' would have to be reported.

'And what if you are picked up in a limousine?' he asked, to some laughter by his fellow lawmakers.

'If you are being lobbied, it is important for people to know that,' Fawcett said.

Brian Nearing can be reached at bnearing@tribweb.com or (412) 391-0927.

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