Jim Burn, the state Democratic chairman and the former chair of the Allegheny County Party, has weighed in on the procedural controversy swirling around an open nomination for the county council seat once held by the late Barbara Daly Danko. Ms. Danko died two weeks before the may primary but whose name collected the most votes for a place on the party's ballot line.
In a purely advisory opinion, Mr. Burn recommends that the nomination be filled in a vote of all of the party committee members elected from each precinct in the 11th county council district. That's in contrast to the preliminary recommendation of his successor, Nancy Patton Mills, who has called for the spot to be filled in a vote of a smaller group -- the party's ward and municipal officers in communities covered by the district.
In a letter to party officials sent just before the primary election, Ms. Mils suggested that the nomination should be filled by the broader group of committee members. But in a subsequent interview with radio station WESA, Ms. Mills said that, on reflection, she believed that said that the party's by-laws indicated that the substitute nominee should be chosen by a vote limited to the ward officers, a total of 24 people. There are more than 200 committee members in the district.
Sam Hens-Greco, the chairman of the 14th ward, the largest jurisdiction covered by the council seat, protested, arguing for larger group. That's not surprising in that a committee vote would give his ward a much larger say in the process than a decision limited to the officers. He asked Mr. Burn to offer his opinion on the issue.
Ms. Mills said Wednesday that she at least tentatively, stands by her interpretation, but said again that she would consult a variety of party and outside lawyers familiar with the rules before making a final determination on the procedures. She mentioned Jack Cambest, the solicitor of county council, and Chuck Pascal, a lawyer and veteran Democratic activist.
One thing that all the parties agree on is that the party rules are something of a mess, leaving a cloud of ambiguity over the selection process.
Ms. Mills said she expected to have a decision sometime next week. But the party is not under much time pressure in that they could deliberate through most of the summer and still have time to get the substitute nominees's name on the general election ballot.
The confusion arises because the party rules, last amended in 2009, do not specifically mention county council in setting out the procedures for replacement nominees. At one point they say that the smaller group of ward officers should vote on "all vacancies that occur on the County ticket.'' But other language in the same section calls for a larger committee vote for vacancies for offices including Congress, state legislature and municipal offices.
Mr. Burn, who was chairman of the county party the last time the bylaws were rewritten acknowledges that there is plenty of blame to go around on the sources of the current confusion.
"I personally regret not amending this rule in 2009 along with the other rules that were amended in order to bring [the by-laws] up to speed with the current elected positions in Allegheny County,'' he noted in his advisory opinion.
Nonetheless, he argues that the spirit of the bylaws suggests that the larger group of committee members should determine the nomination. He also urges his successor to "finish what we started in 2009 and promptly schedule another bylaaws convention to clean up this rule ...''