Sunset Review Still Hasn’t Seen Light of Day

Member Group : Allegheny Institute

Back in March of this year (Policy Brief Volume 10, Number 16) we inquired as to the whereabouts of Allegheny County’s mandated periodic sunset review. Under language in the Home Rule Charter-"the constitution of Allegheny County" according to its drafting committee-the County’s departments, agencies and functions are to be subjected to periodic review to determine if the needs of County taxpayers are being met. The long overdue review was not available then and is still not ready. The County’s Charter and Administrative Code call for such reviews to be carried out every four years. However, to date, the only sunset review completed was published in July 2003. That means the second review is now three years overdue and work on the third to be published in 2011 should be well underway.

Sunset review is a vitally important task for governing bodies. And lest we forget that is why the drafters of the County Charter put the sunset review requirement in the Charter. Allegheny County government has an operating budget of more than $770 million and employs close to 7,000 people (6 per 1,000 County residents) so when it comes to scrutinizing what the County does, how the County does it, and whether some other agency or entity should do it, no stone should be left unturned.

So who’s to blame for this Charter mandated duty not being performed? The Manager’s office is tasked with compiling information, talking to department heads, and evaluating whether County government is the most effective entity to carry out the function. It is this office that commences the sunset review process, so the blame for the delay must lie in large part with the Manager’s office.

But the County Executive cannot be absolved of responsibility. After all, the
Executive appoints the Manager and has the responsibility of seeing that the Charter is upheld, and that includes completing sunset reviews. Overseeing the executive branch means making sure all Charter mandates are carried out in a timely fashion.

Likewise, County Council is bound to uphold the Charter. It is the body that must act upon the recommendations of the Manager as to whether the department should continue, be abolished, or the service provided in some other manner. With no sunset review recommendations available from the Manager since 2003, Council should have long since asked questions about the progress and status of the sunset review.

Not completing the sunset review within the specified time, such as is now the case, entails no prescribed Charter or Administrative Code punitive measures or sanctions.

Presumably, a citizen lawsuit for failure to abide by the Charter and Code could
produce a court order forcing Council and the Executive to abide by the provisions of the Charter. No other home rule county in Pennsylvania has a sunset review provision in its Charter, so there are no examples of failure to perform a review or what happened as a result.

Given the lackadaisical attitude of elected government officials toward their oath of office and the absence of any sanctions thus far, it is doubtful they fear any negative consequences in the matter of sunset reviews. Consider that when County Council violated terms of the Charter in 2008 by placing their own drink tax question on the ballot (the Charter says Council can only take action to place referenda that would amend the Charter, which the drink tax question would not do) the courts tossed the question but no punishment or admonishment accompanied the decision even though Council’s referendum was a clear and direct violation ofCharter language.

Then too Council was all too willing to violate state law in passing a County
smoking ban-a ban that was summarily overturned by the court. And Council blatantlyignored a judge’s unambiguous ruling requiring the County to produce an updated, accurate real estate assessment. There were no consequences for that action.

Furthermore, County government attempted to divert drink tax revenues to road
projects only to be thwarted in that effort by a quick and decisive court order.

The point is that the County government has demonstrated beyond any doubt that it is more than willing to ignore the law, court orders and the County Charter if doing so promotes its agenda. All done with no negative repercussions for elected officials-not even for wasting the County taxpayers’ money on lawyers and the court’s time.

Here’s a suggestion. If elected officials are not interested in doing sunset reviews then why does Council not show some vestigial respect for the Charter and Allegheny County citizens and place a referendum on the ballot that would strip the sunset review requirement from the Charter? Could it be they are afraid the referendum vote would go heavily against repeal of the sunset review mandate and Council would be forced to continue ignoring the Charter with a more vigilant and skeptical public looking over their shoulders?

Whether a County voter was for or against the Charter when it passed by referendum in 1998, it is unlikely that voter condones elected officials thumbing their noses at requirements in the Charter. That’s especially true given the fact that if residents and businesses don’t follow the laws there are penalties. Fines are levied for those who are late paying property taxes, drink taxes, hotel taxes, etc.

Residents wishing to petition Council to consider legislation have to follow the
letter of the law in excruciating detail or risk having their work tossed out on a technicality. Why shouldn’t we expect fealty from elected leaders to the laws they have taken an oath to obey?

Is it too old fashioned or does it reflect an excessive naiveté to expect government officials to abide by the laws and regulations that apply to them?


Eric Montarti, Senior Policy Analyst
Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President