Tube City Almanac

January 06, 2011

Mayor, Council Mend Fences; Pledge Cooperation


City councilors and Mayor Regis McLaughlin on Wednesday apologized for holding two rowdy, disorderly meetings one day earlier and pledged to set aside politics while working on city business.

While McLaughlin and council have not yet reached an agreement on appointing a city solicitor, both sides also promised an amicable settlement to the dispute within 30 days.

"The events of last night do nothing but damage the city I and all of you love so much," Council President Michael Cherepko said, reading from a written statement before the meeting. "It's all right to disagree, but we must settle our disputes the way rational leaders do."

. . .

For now, former city Solicitor J. Jason Elash will share duties with veteran McKeesport attorney Bert Moldovan, who has been appointed acting head of the city's law department by McLaughlin. Moldovan is affiliated with former Allegheny County solicitor Ira Weiss. The two men sat side-by-side in the front row at Wednesday's council meeting, offering concurrent legal opinions.

Cherepko set the tone Wednesday with his opening statement apologizing to city residents and employees, "many of whom have been put in a bad position as a result of the upcoming election."

"We need to focus our attention on stopping the violence in our streets and bringing new businesses into this city --- besides law firms," he said.

. . .

It's possible that McKeesport could end up being represented by two attorneys --- Moldovan for the mayor, and Elash for council --- but Cherepko said after the meeting that he hoped that wouldn't happen. McLaughlin, council, and the two attorneys will meet "as soon as possible" to reach some compromise, Cherepko told the Almanac.

"I really don't know what to expect, but I hope we can come up with some kind of amicable solution," he said. "And I hope it's very soon --- as soon as tomorrow."

Moldovan was named acting head of the city's law department --- de facto city solicitor --- under a provision of McKeesport's charter that allows the mayor to make an emergency appointment of up to 30 days. He will be paid $5,000 for the month. The law department's annual budget for 2011 is $120,000.

. . .

Several councilors made references to the last time McKeesport's mayor and council had separate attorneys --- during the administration of former Mayor Wayne Kucich, who was frequently and vocally at odds with city department heads and other elected officials.

Then as now, the attorney hired by city council was Elash, who in 2004 became city solicitor, replacing attorney Falco Muscante.

"Last night was a rude awakening," said interim Councilman Dale McCall, who was appointed in December to fill the remaining year on McLaughlin's term. "It reminded me of when I first sat up here nine years ago."

Like his colleagues, McCall also apologized for any intemperate remarks: "There were some things I said last night that I should not have said."

McCall suggested that council should consider a comprehensive overhaul of the city's 34-year-old Home Rule Charter, which arguably has ambiguous language regarding the appointment and removal of the city's solicitor. His suggestion was echoed by Councilman Darryl Segina. Changes to the charter would require approval from city voters in a referendum.

. . .

There were rumblings Wednesday --- at the council meeting and in the Daily News --- that McLaughlin's decision to replace Elash was triggered by Elash's political support of Cherepko, who is expected to run for mayor in the May primary.

One of Cherepko's opponents could be McLaughlin, who told the Almanac last month he was considering running for a full term as mayor. Both are Democrats. Several other city officials are reportedly also considering campaigns for mayor.

McLaughlin has not made a public comment on his reasons for seeking a new city solicitor, but noted that Weiss' firm would ensure that McKeesport was "ably represented."

. . .

In a letter to council dated Wednesday, McLaughlin said he was "impressed" by Weiss' firm and said they would "serve for a retaining fee of $5,000 per month, which will represent a substantial savings to the city compared to last year's legal expenses ... Mr. Weiss' office will be an independent contractor and not an employee.

"The city will save money by not incurring the additional expenses of paying for medical benefits for the city attorney (or) pension benefits, nor will we be required to pay matching withholding taxes for an employee," the mayor said.

On Tuesday, council by 4-3 vote named Elash, the city's solicitor since 2004, "special counsel" to city council at a fee of $5,000 per month. McLaughlin had vowed to veto that decision, but said Wednesday night he has stayed his veto pending the outcome of the meetings between the attorneys and other city officials.

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