[Allegheny County] Council staffer listed concerns in gas deal

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

February 22, 2013 12:15 am
By Andrew McGill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Allegheny County Council approved a $500 million drilling deal despite concerns raised by a senior staff member that weren't shared before the vote.

Three of council's 15 members, including the president, received a memo over the weekend from director of legislative services Jared Barker that posed serious questions about the contract with Consol Energy to drill for natural gas at Pittsburgh International Airport.

In a version of the memo forwarded among council members the day after the vote, Mr. Barker listed 27 questions he'd want answered before giving further advice. Among other concerns, he questioned the length of the lease, who would control the contract and how the land would be taxed.

None of those questions had been addressed publicly, he wrote.

"The draft lease agreement raises a number and variety of questions relating to the wisdom of proceeding," he wrote. "To my knowledge, Council has received little or no information relating to any of the 27 subject areas raised above."

Problem was, only a few on the board knew of his questions until after the $500 million vote was already cast Tuesday. One council member says he would have changed his mind.

Matt Drozd, R-Ross, who voted in favor of drilling, said had he known of Mr. Barker's questions, he would have voted to send the contract back for further review. He immediately sent an email to county Executive Rich Fitzgerald after the vote, pleading with him to veto the bill and allow council to take a second look.

Mr. Fitzgerald refused.

"We've been working on this for five years," the executive said. "We already went through all this." He signed the bill Wednesday, effectively finalizing the contract.

Proponents say the Consol deal could bring $1 billion to the airport and spur development in the surrounding area. Consol won the bid to drill over competitor EQT, but the company's modest offer ballooned to $500 million over the next 20 years after negotiations with the county and the Airport Authority.

The Airport Authority stands to receive a $50 million signing bonus from Consol.

Mr. Barker wouldn't say who received the original written memo, citing professional confidentiality. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has learned they are council President Charles Martoni, D-Swissvale, Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, and Amanda Green Hawkins, D-Stanton Heights.

Ms. Green Hawkins and Ms. Daly Danko voted against the bill, along with James Burn Jr., D-Millvale, and William Russell Robinson, D-Hill District. Mr. Martoni voted yes with eight others. Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, abstained.

By custom and policy, staff members like Mr. Barker only give their opinion when asked. And since they give advice to members of both parties, they never share what they've advised with other council members.

Nonetheless, Ms. Daly Danko faulted Mr. Martoni for not distributing Mr. Barker's memo to the whole board, saying a $1 billion deal deserved a break with custom. Though she also had a memo, she didn't feel it was her place.

"If I were president, I would have," she said. "It would carry much more weight coming from council president."

Mr. Martoni disagreed, saying anyone could have emailed Mr. Barker for his opinion.

Mr. Fitzgerald said a draft version of the contract has been available for council's inspection since September. He called Mr. Barker's concerns "inaccurate" and said they had been vetted by county lawyers.

"It's not like we just dismissed them," he said.

In his 10-page email that took care not to endorse a decision, Mr. Barker tore through the minutiae of the contract, asking questions about how long the contract would last, how the land would be taxed and how much control the county would retain over the lease.
There are plenty of questions still out there, Mr. Barker wrote.

"Some of those members may say that the county needs to proceed, and rely upon the Authority to resolve the issues," he wrote. "Others may say that the county is essentially giving away a $400 million county asset, and the council therefore has a duty to thoroughly explore what will happen to that asset once it's out of our hands."

Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.

First Published February 22, 2013 12:00 am