Vignola Steps Down From Controller's Chair

Posted: December 16, 1987

City Controller Joseph C. Vignola resigned yesterday, taking the first step in an expected run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Pittsburgh Republican John Heinz.

Vignola's resignation automatically removed him as chairman of the city Gas

Commission, opening the possibility of a leadership fight on the five-member board.

The question of who will succeed Vignola as controller, a hot political topic in recent weeks, was left unanswered by day's end. It falls to Mayor Goode to choose one of Vignola's three deputies, two of whom - Robert Barnett and John Smithyman - are being promoted by feuding political factions in the Democratic Party. The third deputy is Thurman Bullock.

In the meantime, Vignola said yesterday, the 150-member controller's staff headquartered in the Municipal Services Building is officially without a leader.

Deputy City Solicitor Kathryn Lewis said yesterday that "until a successor is appointed or designated by the mayor, the deputies (as a group) have the authority to assume the functions of the office . . . but they cannot hire anyone."

Barnett has been Vignola's choice for interim controller, an opinion he reiterated yesterday during a news conference he called to announce his resignation. Last week, according to political sources, there was pressure on Vignola to replace Barnett as deputy with Jonathan Saidel, a lawyer and accountant.

"I've made it clear that I hope the mayor will choose Bob Barnett," he told reporters yesterday.

The move to promote Saidel, sources said, was led by Northeast ward leaders and state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, a South Philadelphia adversary of Vignola's. Asked yesterday whether Fumo had threatened to run a Senate candidate against him, Vignola skirted the issue.

"When I started testing the waters (for Senate), one of the first persons I spoke to was Vince Fumo," he said. "I enjoyed his support then; I enjoy his support now."

Democratic Party Chairman Robert A. Brady said last week that he preferred an interim controller who would not run for the office when Vignola's term expires in 1989. Smithyman reportedly would fill that bill, though he has not been available to comment on the subject publicly.

The political battle over the succession in some ways has obscured Vignola's effort to call attention to the accomplishments of his four years as the city's chief watchdog. His contention yesterday that his fiscal recommendations had saved the city $567 million will be the foundation of his bid to win support across the state.

Vignola has said he will need to raise $2 million to $3 million to run a credible campaign against the wealthy two-term Republican, the scion of the Heinz food industries in Pittsburgh.

Vignola is, so far, the only Democrat to express a serious interest in the race. Although he did not officially announce his candidacy yesterday, he said, "It is no secret I am interested in running for the United States Senate."

As Gas Commission chairman, Vignola went out with a parting shot from city consumer activist Max Weiner, head of the Consumers Education and Protective Association.

"We're glad to see him go," said Weiner, who has battled often with Vignola. "He displayed the most anti-consumer attitude of any chairman in recent memory."

Others, though, praised Vignola's work as the city's official watchdog over finances.

"I think the city's losing an excellent controller," said former District Attorney Edward G. Rendell, who took note of Vignola's recommendations for city fiscal improvements during his spring mayoral campaign. "He ran a good office. He wasn't shrill or always trying to grab headlines. The stuff he put out was substantial."

Weiner, a close student of Gas Commission politics, said City Councilman John F. Street appeared to be "the front-runner" for the chairmanship.

"Right now it seems John Street is the logical front-runner in the race to be chairman," Weiner said in an interview. "He's been the most aggressive, articulate and involved member of the commission."

The selection of a new chairman will also be determined to a great degree by Goode. Because the mayor will appoint the interim controller, he conceivably could line up the votes of his appointees on the commission, Laurence Reaves and Henry Nicholas, to ensure the election of his controller appointee as Gas Commission chairman.

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