There’s 203 days until someone new takes over as the chief executive of Allegheny County for the first time in 12 years, and not a moment to lose.
As the two major party nominees — State Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Lawrenceville, and Republican businessman Joe Rockey — begin courting voters ahead of the Nov. 7 general election, they also will make plans on how to run Pennsylvania’s second-largest county. The winner will have less than two months after Election Day to make their last preparations before getting sworn in on Jan. 2, 2024.
The county employs roughly 6,300 employees, with a $3 billion budget spread across two dozen departments. The county executive can play a major role in setting the county government’s agenda on issues such as air quality, property taxes and the county jail; proposes the annual budget; and fills seats on dozens of important boards, authorities and commissions.
Rich Fitzgerald, who will leave office at the end of the year after serving three consecutive terms as county executive, told the Union Progress that he is committed to having “as smooth a transition as we can.”
“I’m going to be cooperative; they’re going to be the ones to set policy in the coming four years for county government,” he said. “We will probably provide some sort of briefing materials for each department, letting them know some of the projects we’re working on, letting them know some of the things we’re doing. I’m figuring out how to do that.”
Fitzgerald, who already has met with both candidates, added that he is looking to keep appointed positions open so the next executive can pick their own staff. For example, Patrick Dowd is serving as acting health department director after Dr. Debra Bogen left earlier this year to become the state health secretary.
“I plan on doing that in whatever positions where people may decide to leave,” he said. “We’ve done national searches in those types of key positions. I don’t plan on doing that now because that would be unfair, both to the next person coming in but also unfair to somebody who might move their family from another part of the country to take that kind of a position not knowing what might happen a few months later.”
Fitzgerald said it would be premature to have county staff meet with the candidates before a winner is decided in November, but he is happy to meet privately with them and assist in any way.
“I certainly have always left myself available to talk to people and give them advice on what they can do,” he said. “As they have ideas about what they’d like to do in various departments and various initiatives, I’m sure they’ll reach out if they want to get my advice, whether they take that advice or not it’s going to be up to them. They’re the ones that are going to be putting their policies forward and … becoming the next county executive.”
The region’s philanthropic community has aided past transitions of power, such as when Ed Gainey became the mayor of Pittsburgh in January 2022. The Heinz Endowments and The Pittsburgh Foundation created the Pittsburgh Government Guidebook, a comprehensive look into city government, with the cooperation of Bill Peduto’s outgoing administration.
Fitzgerald said he would have no problem with doing a similar study of county government, while noting the next executive may decide to reorganize some departments and their responsibilities.
Scott Roller, a spokesperson for the Heinz Endowments, said the organization would consider replicating the document for county government, but added that “it is still a good distance away from the November election so there are no solid plans in place yet.” Pittsburgh Foundation spokesperson Doug Root did not respond to a request for comment.
Innamorato told the Union Progress that she’s putting her style of governing, which she terms co-governance, to work by meeting with elected officials at all levels, as well as nonprofits and leaders in the community.
“Governance is a team sport, which means that we need to be working at all levels so that we can have a shared vision for our region so we can be the most impactful,” she said.
Innamorato is continuing to represent the 21st state House District while campaigning for higher office, and her potential win and resulting resignation would have implications for state politics. She previously said she’d work with party leaders to “be as strategic as possible” with leaving her current position, given Democrats only hold a one-seat majority in the state House.
A third-term state representative, Innamorato also serves on the boards of the city Urban Redevelopment Authority and Allegheny County Housing Authority. She said those board appointments give her additional insight into development and housing priorities.
“We know a lot of those players and have deep relationships,” she said.
Rockey, who retired two years ago from a top position at PNC Financial Services, told the Union Progress that he has managed organizations larger than the county in his corporate career and wants to bring that experience to Grant Street. He’s on a “journey to dig in deep” to the county’s budget and operations, and running for office as a full-time job.
The candidate is beginning to meet with leaders at the Airport Authority and Pittsburgh Regional Transit, as well as former department directors and regional business leaders, to understand what they will need from the next county executive.
Rockey added that he is approaching the job of county executive as letting him give back to the community, but just “on a more dramatic scale.” He has served stints on the boards of Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh and Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh and Morgantown.
“I’m taking every minute of that year,” he said, “to make sure that I am prepared and will do the right thing by the county citizens, who need a leader who understands business, understands operations, understands process, understands strategy and is capable of bringing all of that together and executing it in an effective way.”