Calling out ‘clandestine mini-governments’

Calling out ‘clandestine mini-governments’

“The deeper one delves, the more temptation there is to throw up one’s hands in despair.”

That’s how Clark M. Thomas, a former senior editor at the Post-Gazette, characterized Pennsylvania’s public authorities in a long-ago 43-page treatise titled “Invisible Governments.”

“Clandestine mini-governments” was how one state legislator at the time defined authorities to Thomas.

This trip down memory lane is sparked by word that Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald has nominated Lance Chimka, his economic development director, to the county Airport Authority board of directors.

The nod-nod, wink-wink about these authorities is that while they are supposed to be independent agencies, they tend to do the bidding of the politicians whose board members they appoint. And the results can be disastrous.

As but one example, think of the mess decades of such behavior created at Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, a mess that will take decades and billions of dollars to remedy.

Think, too, of the Allegheny County Airport Authority. It’s coming off a year in which attempts to command the marketplace with public subsidies predictably failed. And failed miserably.

But in the process, serious ancillary questions were raised about authority operations.

Among them – giving authority head Christina Cassotis plenary power to grant subsidies of any amount to any airline, multiple board members having blatant conflicts of interest by investing in now-bankrupt OneJet, one of the subsidized carriers, and a solicitor who had the audacity to see nothing wrong with the practice.

As we’ve said many times before, the Airport Authority is ripe for a review by the state Attorney General’s Office, which, in a quirky scenario, has auditing purview over it.

Such a review is critically important given that 2019 could offer fertile ground for more machinations with work on a $1.1 billion re-do of Pittsburgh International Airport picking up steam. It was a plan, by the way, sprung upon the public with little or nothing in the way of public input.

A “clandestine mini-government,” indeed.

Back to Clarke Thomas’ long-ago monograph:

“Given the questions raised about authorities, even if only a few culpable ones, it certainly is not amiss to suggest the advisability of some touches with cautious hands … .

“Basically, the goals should be greater accountability and ‘transparency.’ That is, not only doing things right but accomplishing them in an open way so as to be convincing to the general citizenry.”

Not to mention parking a brand of hubris endemic to such authorities that make them think the fundamental laws of economics somehow don’t apply to them.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).