Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Experts Say Fitzgerald Runs Risk of Being Cited for Contempt of Court

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Experts Say Fitzgerald Runs Risk of Being Cited for Contempt of Court

Article excerpt

In defying a court order to implement property reassessments, Democratic Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has put himself and the county he represents at risk of being cited for contempt of court, legal experts say.

Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr., who ordered the reassessments, has the power to send someone to jail or issue hefty fines for contempt.

Two days after taking office and less than two weeks after the first round of new assessments were mailed to Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver residents, Mr. Fitzgerald called a halt to the process. His predecessor, Democrat Dan Onorato, also disagreed with the need to reassess property in Allegheny County when other counties have gone decades without reassessing, but he began implementing the program after exhausting court appeals.

Mr. Fitzgerald's position that he met the law by certifying assessment numbers from 2002 has little chance of winning, said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University. Mr. Fitzgerald believes it is unfair to make Allegheny County reassess property when other counties have not done it in more than three decades.

"It may well be a popular position politically, but ultimately this is a game of chicken because the judge has all of the power," Mr. Ledewitz said. "[Fitzgerald's] only argument is that nobody else has to do it. That is not going to fly."

Since the state Supreme Court ordered Judge Wettick to oversee the reassessment, the judge is in "an incredibly strong position," Mr. Ledewitz said.

It is easy for the state to defy a court order because the court has no power to force the state to follow it, Mr. Ledewitz said.

"When you have a county, you almost always have the court in a strong position and the court ultimately wins," he said. "The state court will absolutely stand behind [Judge Wettick]."

Kerry Fraas, a former county solicitor who represented former Republican commissioners Larry Dunn and Bob Cranmer before Judge Wettick after they illegally froze assessments in 1996, said that Mr. …

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