The History of Allegheny County Government

Allegheny County CourthouseThe concept of county government was founded more than a thousand years ago in England. It was brought to America's shores and improved to meet the challenges of the new world. In Pennsylvania, the county concept is a creature of the State, and unless the residents of the county would elect to have a home-rule charter, counties have no inherent right to self-government beyond what the State Constitution and the General Assembly may grant.

The exact relationship between state and county governments is defined in the Constitution, and various state laws exist to describe in more detail the powers and duties given to counties, according to classification by population.

Allegheny County, with a population of approximately 1.3 million, is the second largest county in the State, and until December 31, 1999 was guided exclusively by the Second Class County Code adopted by the Legislature in 1935 and modified in 1955. The functions delegated to the county under this code included: the administration of elections and the registration of voters; assessment of property for tax purposes; administration of justice; care of prisoners; recording of deeds; execution of wills; construction and maintenance of roads and bridges; care of the aged, dependent and indigent ill; planning; civil defense; the administration and direction of airports; sewage disposal; and management of parks, recreation and public health.

Consolidation of certain elective offices, including the Clerk of Courts Prothonotary, Register of Wills and Recorder of Deeds, is provided for by state law.  In May 2005, Allegheny County voters approved the consolidation of six elected row offices, including Coroner, Jury Commission, Prothonotary, Clerk of Courts, Register of Wills, and Recorder of Deeds.

On January 1, 2006, the elected County Coroner became an appointed Medical Examiner, and the Jury Commission responsibilities were assumed by the County Courts. On January 1, 2008, the Department of Court Records combined the offices of the Prothonotary, Clerk of Courts and Register of Wills. County Executive Onorato appointed Kate Barkman as Court Records Director.

There are 130 municipalities within the 731 square miles comprising Allegheny County, and each has its own governmental structure. Pittsburgh is a Second Class city, and Clairton, Duquesne, and McKeesport are Third Class cities. There are 82 boroughs, 24 First Class townships, 16 Second Class townships and four municipalities. In addition, 17 of these governments have voted to establish home-rule charters.

Municipalities with populations greater than 10,000 may choose to become Third Class cities. A First Class township must have a population density of at least 300 people per square mile. Townships failing to meet this requirement, or which do not choose by referendum to become First Class townships, are classified as Second Class townships. There is no population requirement for incorporation as a borough.

On May 19, 1998, the citizens of Allegheny County voted to enact a Home Rule Charter for the county to take effect in 2000. The new government abolishes the three-commissioner system in favor of an elected chief executive, a 15 member county council (13 elected by district, 2 at-large) and an appointed county manager. The new system maintains the general duties of county government while separating legislative and executive functions and transferring substantial authority over our government from the Commonwealth to the citizens of Allegheny County through the process of initiative and referendum.

The Apportionment Plan to determine the Council districts was drafted and approved in Fall of 1998 by a five-member appointed committee. The plan divided the county into 13 districts, each having approximately 102,000 residents. Every effort was made to keep individual municipalities from being divided; however, the City of Pittsburgh had to be divided into four districts because its population exceeds 330,000. So that the entire Council would not need to be voted upon every four years, six of the districts - 1, 3, 4, 8, 9 and 12 - were selected by lot to have Council members who serve an initial two-year term. The at-large and remaining members will serve four-year terms.

The Charter went into effect on January 1, 2000.