An Allegheny County judge dealt a significant blow to those seeking to annex Wilkinsburg into Pittsburgh, ruling that a consolidation procedure dating to 1903 is invalid. The decision stops an annexation petition in its tracks and boosts the borough’s odds of remaining independent in the long term.
Tracey Evans, who leads the group that filed the petition and has pushed for annexation publicly for more than 18 months, did not respond to inquiries about whether she would appeal the ruling. Her attorney, Cliff Levine, declined to comment. Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp., said at an Oct. 18 hearing that she would consider an appeal if the judge halted the petition.
The old annexation law required petitioners to gain majority support on Pittsburgh’s city council and then get a majority of votes in a Wikinsburg ballot referendum. The judge ruled that the law outlining this process, passed in 1903, was actually repealed when Pennsylvania amended its constitution in 1968.
Common Pleas Judge Joseph James wrote that Article IX, Section 8 of the constitution directed the legislature to set procedures for consolidations and mergers within two years of the 1970 ratification. The legislature failed to do that, which James wrote means that any annexation must use the only procedure set forth by the constitution: a ballot initiative in each municipality.
(The legislature later set up different rules for consolidation with a 1994 law that specifically excludes Pittsburgh from its jurisdiction, so the constitutional path remains the only option relevant to Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg.)
Under James’ ruling, people in favor of consolidating Wilkinsburg into Pittsburgh would need to get a majority of voters to support a ballot question in both Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg, rather than only in Wilkinsburg. And unlike in the previous process, the process would not need Pittsburgh City Council’s blessing.
James’ ruling comes after a group of objectors, represented by attorney Chuck Pascal, argued during an Oct. 18 hearing that the 1968 constitutional amendment invalidated the 1903 law. They also argued that the legislature repealed the 1903 law just a few months ago, along with a number of other old pieces of legislation — essentially arguing that the law has been repealed twice.
“We are pleased with Judge James’ ruling today,” Pascal said in a statement to PublicSource Friday. “We continue to believe that if the annexation moves forward that the voters of both the City of Pittsburgh and the Borough of Wilkinsburg should have their voices heard on the question through the ballot box.”
Those who intervened in the case to try to block annexation came from both Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg. The group included a current and former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member (Pam Harbin and Moira Kaleida, respectively), the Wilkinsburg borough solicitor, Angel Gober of the activist group 412 Justice and Wilkinsburg activist Renee Haynes-Johnson, among others.
The effort to make Wilkinsburg and its more than 14,000 residents part of Pittsburgh received tepid interest from city leaders. One of only two council members who strongly favored it in 2021 has since left the council. Mayor Ed Gainey has refused to take a stand on the issue.
If James’ ruling stands, annexation would require majority support in an election among Pittsburgh’s 230,000-some registered voters, in some ways a much steeper task than getting five city council members on board. And that’s to say nothing of the Wilkinsburg voters’ support, which has never been assured.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @chwolfson.
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