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Lawmakers approve bill to alter Port Authority’s board of directors

Tom Fontaine
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Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald listens to a reporter's question while visiting the Tribune-Review on Wednesday, January 23, 2013.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has flashed a bulldozer leadership style in orchestrating sweeping changes at county departments and agencies, and in landmark deals with labor unions and state leaders.

Sometimes, even when he loses, he wins.

Last week, Fitzgerald blistered Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, over Scarnati’s proposal to cut Fitzgerald from nine appointments to Port Authority’s board of directors to just one. The men haven’t spoken since, Fitzgerald said.

Yet, on Tuesday, the Senate passed a compromise bill giving Fitzgerald four appointments.

“If I was writing the bill, I would change it a little bit, but it’s better than it was. It’s close enough,” Fitzgerald said during a 50-minute meeting with Tribune-Review reporters and editors, adding that he believes it’s important to maintain local control of the agency.

Fitzgerald said the county is more financially secure than when he took office in January 2011, with its reserves growing from $5 million to $12.1 million, or 1.5 percent of the county’s $799.4 million budget. He wants reserves to reach 5 percent of budget.

Fitzgerald said the county needs to act on deals to tap county parks for natural gas, noting that companies are moving to drill surrounding properties. He said he is encouraged about working with Pittsburgh’s next mayor on economic development initiatives in the city — something he didn’t do with lame-duck Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

As for a federal investigation that appears to be getting closer to Ravenstahl, Fitzgerald said, “It’s sad for the city to have to go through this.”

Fitzgerald said he relishes being in what he considers the most influential political office “west of the Susquehanna River,” or Harrisburg. “It’s the one office that can bring the entire community together,” he said.

Scarnati and Fitzgerald were far apart a week ago, trading insults over the bill to reshape Port Authority’s board and give Fitzgerald just one of 11 appointments. Under current rules, the county executive appoints all nine members.

Fitzgerald had called Scarnati a “puppet.” Scarnati said Fitzgerald’s comments “reflect the real immaturity of his thought process.”

Both men credited Sens. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, and Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, with helping broker the compromise.

“(Fitzgerald) wanted to make sure he was involved in what’s going on with Port Authority because in the end, if it messes things up, he feels like it all lays on him,” Vulakovich said, adding that he and Scarnati are committed to requiring regionalization and privatization studies as part of the bill.

Of the county executive’s four appointments, two would have to come from recommendations from two of four community groups: the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, Allegheny County Council of Governments and the Committee for Accessible Transportation. Allegheny County Council would need to approve the appointments. County council members in the opposite party of the county executive would appoint two Port Authority board members from recommendations by the other two community groups, ensuring that both major parties get to make appointments.

The remaining five appointments would come from the governor and legislative leaders from each of the four caucuses. A new board would be seated 60 days once Gov. Tom Corbett signs the bill.

A reconstituted board could choose Port Authority’s next CEO. The existing board interviewed three candidates, but a search is ongoing — just as one is for an airport authority chief, another top post vacated at Fitzgerald’s behest.

“I would say it’s not imminent that we’re going to hire someone at this point, but it’s moving forward,” Fitzgerald said of the Port Authority post. “It’s important to get it right.”

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or [email protected].

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