1. Local
Albrecht Powell

Politics are Local, Loyalty is Personal

By August 8, 2006

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Most people in and around Pittsburgh are aware that Mayor Bob O'Connor fired three people from his team: city Solicitor Susan Malie, his chief of staff, and his finance director. Such a change in top-level political players would be unusual under any circumstances, but given that the mayor is currently undergoing difficult cancer treatment this announcement was quite a shock for most people. Why did he do it? The answers aren't very comforting.

According to O'Connor, the three people were fired for "failing to carry out his policies." Obviously a mayor should only be surrounded by staffers who carry out his policies - after all, that's why he was elected by the people, in order to carry out the policies he promised to promote. There's something odd about this, though, since the "City Solicitor" actually carries a higher obligation to the law, not just to Bob O'Connor's political agenda. The person who has this job technically works for the city, not the mayor, and thus serves the interests of the city as an independent entity rather than the campaign promises of the mayor. In theory, a City Solicitor might be called upon to do things which have nothing to do with any particular mayor's policies.

News reports indicate that Susan Malie's political sin was to write a legal opinion about who would succeed the mayor and wield executive authority if he becomes incapacitated. Given his medical status, it's hardly surprising that people might want to know this - but apparently not everyone liked Malie's answer. It appears that there are two factions within city government and Malie's opinion agreed with one side rather than the other. Even worse, Bob O'Connor's side must have been the losing one, thus leading to Malie's dismissal. This may be the origin of reports that the reason for her firing was her failure to show "loyalty" to the mayor.

When I first heard that report, I was confused - what sort of "loyalty" issue could there be in this situation? My initial though was that perhaps O'Connor didn't appreciate people talking about what to do if things didn't go well for his cancer treatment. That might be understandable, but it's very short-sighted and isn't in the interest of the people of Pittsburgh. O'Connor may not have his finger on the trigger of nuclear weapons, but a smooth transition of power in the event of his incapacitation is still in everyone's best interests.

Rather than simply short-sighted, though, the news reports suggest that he was simply being selfish: he didn't like a legal opinion written by the city Solicitor so he fired her. The next Solicitor will presumably write the opinions which O'Connor is looking for and wants; indeed, ensuring that may even be part of the job interview process for all we know. This should be very disturbing not only to the people in Pittsburgh, but to anyone who cares about good government.

To understand why, we must keep firmly in mind that the law is the law - no one is above the law and the requirements of the law cannot be subject to anyone's whims or agenda. A mayor cannot violate or ignore the law because they find it inconvenient. A mayor also cannot insist that the law be interpreted in whatever way is most convenient for their political goals - no more than I can twist the law to serve my own personal aims.

It is this which the news reports suggest Mayor Bob O'Connor has undermined. We should presume that Susan Malie wrote a legal opinion which she sincerely thought was the position best supported by the law. It's always possible that she was the one who actually twisted the law to suit personal aims, but if that were clearly the case I suspect we'd have heard by now. We should also presume that she made a good case for her position based upon law and precedent. If Bob O'Connor thought that Malie was wrong on the law, he should have made his case to her - or had someone else do it, if he didn't feel up to the task.

What he should not have done is fire her and remove her from her position simply because he didn't agree with her or didn't like her conclusions. Even if he had good legal reasons for this, it's wrong to send the message that unless you agree with O'Connor on how to interpret the law then you'll lose your job. That only allows the mayor's office to attract spineless sycophants who will say whatever they think those in charge want to hear.

If he didn't have good legal grounds for his disagreement and only fired her because he found her conclusions to be personally or politically inconvenient, then that's even worse. That would send the message that the substance of the law and sound legal reasoning are less important than arriving at pre-determined political conclusions. This attracts not only sycophants, but the ethically corrupt who are happy to subvert the public good for personal gain.

I'm not saying that Mayor Bob O'Connor acted illegally. He has the power to hire and fire the City Solicitor. He should do so, however, on the basis of neutral criteria related to job performance - how well they understand the law, follow the law, and serve the interests of the city generally. At no point should "loyalty" to any political agenda, political party, or politician come into play. Loyalty is intensely personal and the law, to function well, must function impersonally. If Bob O'Connor is putting personal or political loyalty above neutral interpretations of the law, then it's hard to see how anyone will be able to trust that future actions of city hall are fully in compliance with legal and ethical requirements.

-- Guest Blogger, Austin Cline


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