How many times have we scratched our heads in disbelief when an idea that seems to make so much sense – an idea that has strong public support, no less – simply cannot get enacted? Lots of people support extending tax cuts for the middle class, but just can’t seem to get it done. Lots of people in Pennsylvania support privatizing the Liquor business (Pennsylvania is the last state since the end of Prohibition to still have a totally state-run liquor business), and yet it has failed every single time the issue has been raised in the legislature.
And in Pittsburgh, lots of people support the idea of merging the City of Pittsburgh with Allegheny County to create a new, larger, more efficient Greater Pittsburgh Metro Area, with one Mayor and one council. And yet since the issue was first raised in 1929, it has not been successful. Why? You guessed it – the lack of the right civic leadership!
First, a little background. The City of Pittsburgh, though its population has been cut in half over the last 50 years, is still the primary hub for the entire southwestern Pennsylvania region. Allegheny County, with Pittsburgh at its center, has seen a population decline as well. However, both Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have been successful in transforming themselves over the past decades, and much of their successes can be attributed to efforts to reform local government with strong support from voters.
First, in 1998, a civic campaign with strong public support was launched that asked Allegheny County voters to radically change the form of county government, transitioning to a single executive and part-time council. Strong civic leadership and a diverse, powerful citizens’ committee launched into action. And the voters said yes.
Second, in 2005, another campaign with strong civic leadership was launched asking voters to take a second step in transforming local government: eliminating the political “patronage haven” of elected row offices. Again, the voters said yes.
Third, examples abound of how southwestern PA is already behaving like a region (see this article I wrote on the subject). So taking the next step is not only logical, but easy. Survey after survey and study after study say merging Pittsburgh and Allegheny County is the
right thing to do. Even the Mayor of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Executive, the top elected leaders for both entities – and those with the most at stake, mind you – agree that the two regions should be joined. And yet the proposal has not moved from square one. Why? Once again, you guessed it –the lack of strong, committed, private sector civic leadership. Plenty of study committees and many dedicated staffers have tried to advance the issue. But without the guidance of a strong civic leader, efforts to enact major change like a governmental merger will not be successful.