Donald Gates Proved Adept at Politics of Counsel

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C. Donald Gates has a simple explanation for why he was able to serve for 22 years as legal counsel to the often-divided Ross board of commissioners.

"There wasn't another lawyer who could get five votes," he said. The board has nine members, and five votes are needed for approval of most actions.

While reappointing Mr. Gates to the solicitor's job has been a formality in recent years, that was not always the case, he said.

"Some years I wouldn't get any votes on the first run," he recalled. "But when no other candidate could get a majority ... the commissioners would say 'Let's take Gates again.' "

Mr. Gates, 75, retired as township solicitor at the end of last year. The event was marked by presentations of plaques from local and state organizations and by words of praise from the commissioners he had served.

When he gave up his post, he had been with the township longer than any of the current commissioners and Ross Manager Tom Lavorini.

"I never took sides in political disputes," Mr. Gates said. "I didn't make any enemies, and I tried to maintain friendships with all members of the board. I'm a friendly kind of guy."

Commissioners President Daniel DeMarco said Mr. Gates was being modest.

"Don was a true political and legal mentor to me," said Mr. DeMarco, a lawyer. "I've read so much written by Don over the years, and I use a lot of his writing techniques and legal approaches to issues."

"He has an uncanny ability to offer practical advice based on experience and sound legal opinions," Mr. DeMarco said.

An attorney for 50 years, Mr. Gates said he planned to continue his private law practice in Ross.

"It was getting to the point where I couldn't devote proper attention to both," he said. "And it was time to pass the torch to younger people."

His private work is limited to estate planning, real estate and corporate law.

Ross commissioners in October picked Bonnie Brimmeier to replace Mr. Gates. She lives in McCandless, but her law firm, Bonnie Brimmeier and Associates, is in Ross.

Mr. Gates grew up in Bridgeville and graduated from Grove City College. He went to work in the trust department of Mellon Bank and began night law school at Duquesne University.

His class of 1958 was small, he recalled, but the dozen graduates included two men who became Allegheny County judges, I. Martin Wekselman and the late Richard Zeleznik.

"Classes were all taught by practicing lawyers and judges," Mr. Gates said. "It was five nights a week and very intensive."

His work at Mellon Bank gave him a practical foundation in working with trusts, estates, wills and guardianships. After graduation, he went to work for the North Hills law firm of Brandt, Riester, Brandt and Malone.

One partner, Carl Brandt, was solicitor for West View, and another partner, Paul Brandt, was solicitor for Ross, Mr. Gates said. Other lawyers from the firm represented other government agencies, enabling him to get wide experience in municipal law.

He first attended a Ross meeting in 1959 as an associate solicitor. His memory is that rezoning on McKnight Road was a hot issue that year.

About that same time, he began to represent his firm as solicitor in Kilbuck. Over the years, he provided legal advice to a variety of communities, including South Park, Bethel Park and Pleasant Hills, and to school districts, including North Hills and Northgate. "I would attend meetings as backup for whoever the solicitor was," he said.

In 1976, his firm was reorganized, and he and several other partners were let go.

He became a solo practitioner in a building he now owns on Babcock Boulevard, very close to where he had been practicing. He shares the space with another lawyer, David Tyree, and he has had the same secretary, Pat Finley, for more than 30 years.

Local government, he said, remains the bedrock of democracy. People can come to municipal meetings and know their voices will be heard, he said.

Providing legal advice on development and code-enforcement disputes has been at the heart of municipal law, he said.

"Look at the difference over 50 years in places like Ross, Peters or Bethel Park," he said. "They've gone from quiet suburban or rural communities to places where development has exploded."

"It's hard for neighbors to accept that the owner of vacant land has the right to develop it," he said. "Sometimes a solicitor has to tell the board [of commissioners or supervisors] and citizens that a certain development can't be prohibited if the owner follows zoning and subdivision rules."

Ross officials have learned practical lessons about the balance between property rights and community rights over the decades.

At the direction of the commissioners, Mr. Gates led the ultimately unsuccessful legal efforts to have the Beverly Hills Hotel -- once a township landmark, but in disrepair for two decades -- torn down.

"Once a structural engineer ruled that the place was sound, that inhibited our rights to demolish it," he said.

The township, however, was able to persuade representatives of the hotel's late owner, Constance Costa Schaefer, to reduce dangerous conditions at the site and perform basic maintenance, such as grass cutting, he said.

Mr. Gates also led the township's legal battle in both county and federal court against an adult book store on McKnight Road. The township lost the fight to close the store but won concessions regarding conditions and hours of operations.

The township has since revised its zoning ordinances to limit where such businesses can operate.

"As obnoxious a use as it is, our police will tell you they never get called to the store," Mr. Gates said. "Those people know how to run the operation."

He and his wife, Marsha, a retired flight attendant, lived in Ross until about two years ago when they bought a one-floor patio home in Richland.

They also have a home in Florida. Mrs. Gates spends most of the winter there, while Mr. Gates flies back and forth every few weeks during the colder months.

While on vacation in Florida several years ago, Mr. Gates stopped shaving and grew an Abraham Lincoln-style full beard. "My wife likes it, and I have to keep it," he said.

His daughter Rebecca, from a previous marriage, is superintendent of schools in Buena Vista, Va.

His mother, Hallie, lived to be 93, and his father, also named Charles Donald, was 84 when he died. Mr. Gates was called by his middle name, Donald, partly because he had an older cousin named Charles.

"I do enjoy the practice of law and enjoy people," he said. "My health is good, and I anticipate doing this work for quite a while yet."

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