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Senate OKs changing district lines

| Friday, June 22, 2001

Over the protests of Democrats, the GOP-controlled state Senate on Thursday night approved a measure aimed at overhauling the way Allegheny County Council district lines will be drawn.

The change sought by County Executive Jim Roddey would establish a five-member reapportionment commission to decide the makeup of council seats.

Sen. Leonard J. Bodack, D-Lawrenceville, accused Roddey of making 'an arrogant political power grab.'

Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said the rules change had the effect of 'overruling the will of the people' expressed through approval of a Home Rule Charter in November 1998.

Under current rules, the county council has the power to redraw district lines.

Margaret Philbin, spokeswoman for Roddey, said the reapportionment commission was patterned on the state panel used to reshape state legislative districts. It would be made up of two majority party council members (Democrats), two minority party council members (Republicans) and a fifth member chosen by the other four, or by the courts if an agreement is not reached within 120 days.

The last-minute amendment, introduced by Majority Leader David Brightbill, R-Lebanon County, was drafted prior to the Legislature's summer recess.

It passed by a 27-20 vote. The amendment was added to a bill providing a 2 percent increase in pensions for 4,500 county retirees.

The overall bill was approved with little debate and was supported by Democrats who earlier had opposed the amendment. It was sent to the House and was expected to be considered late last night.

'It's a logical progression. It's where Allegheny County needs to be. It's good government,' said state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless.

'Mr. Roddey doesn't gain by this. The public gains by this,' she said.

Nine Democratic lawmakers charged at a news conference earlier Thursday that legislation was being prepared behind the scenes to enable Republicans to eventually grab control of the County Council.

Sen. Jack Wagner, D-Beechview, said the move would take the county from having 'a chief executive to a dictator.'

Philbin disputed that. 'It's actually being done to ensure an open bipartisan process,' she said.

The current process lends itself 'to possible new lines being drawn behind closed doors without discussion,' Philbin said.

Roddey was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

The Legislature late Thursday - perhaps through early this morning - was in its final deliberations before breaking for the summer. Lawmakers return to session in mid-September.

A shift of one vote on the council to Republicans would enable Roddey to veto legislation without fear of a successful override. Of 15 council seats, 13 are elected by district. Of the district seats, nine are held by Democrats and four by Republicans. Two seats are at-large - one held by a Democrat, the other by a Republican.

'Mr. Roddey is about to elevate himself to a czar in Allegheny County,' Bodack said.

Brad Bumsted can be reached at bbumsted@tribweb.com

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