Monday, May 14, 2007

America's Most "Leavable" City Claims Another Victim

A Merger Within the Burghosphere
When I first started The People's Republic, there were a lot of things that I didn't realize, and a few things that I never even imagined were possible. I never realized (although I certainly suspected) just how messed-up Pittsburgh's political scene could be. But I certainly never imagined that it could actually get so bad that we would end up with uncontested mayoral election. I hadn't realized how many hours this blogging thing would take, but I never anticipated how much this effort would sharpen my focus on our beloved city and its many problems. I didn't realize that anyone would ever want to read these long-winded posts of mine, but I could never have imagined that anyone would think them important or that they might have some effect on city government. But the biggest shock is probably how emotional this particular moment has become for me.

You see, when I first began blogging just a few months ago, I hadn't really understood just how much I really loved this adopted home town of mine. And I never imagined -- never in a million years -- that I would soon have to leave Pittsburgh behind me.

At the end of last year, my Philadelphia-based employer offered me a substantial increase in salary if I would move there. Over the past few months, this offer has been sweetened substantially, in part due to my reluctance to walk away from the neighborhood, the city, and the region that has meant so very much to me. At some point, the offer got to be too good to refuse. I have the opportunity to take on a job that could pave the way for a successful career, and I would be a fool to turn it down. Pittsburgh simply doesn't have the kind of job that I am being offered in Philadelphia, and -- no matter how much I love it here -- I owe it to myself and my family to pursue this excellent opportunity. At some point over this next summer, I expect that we will be packing up our belongings and putting Pittsburgh's breathtaking skyline in our rearview mirrors.

I'm enormously sad, but excited at the same time. It's been (and remains) very difficult coming to terms with this decision.

I continue to cling to a few strands of "hope", for lack of a better term. My boss is notorious for late and even forgotten paperwork. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other people who must sign off on my new appointment before it can become a formal reality. My wife is still nailing down some details on her future employment in the City of Brotherly Love. But my overall sense is that things will happen as planned; I've been waiting for months to see if things were going to fall through, yet, if anything, the process has picked up even more momentum as time has gone on. It's time for me to begin dealing with the thousands of smaller problems and decisions that go along with moving a family of four to a new city more than 200 miles away.

One the more important things that I've worried about was how I could continue blogging about the local issues that remain near and dear to my heart. I've long known that, at some point, the relocation would demand so much time and attention that blogging would have to become a more infrequent and irregular pursuit. Indeed, the extended absence of posts a few weeks ago was caused, at least in part, by these other demands on my time.

I'm not willing to give up on blogging altogether, but I also recognize that maintaining a single-authored blog such as The People's Republic will soon become (if it hasn't already) a lost cause. An active and vibrant blog requires a certain frequency of new posts in order to retain its readership, and I'm not sure how often I will be able to provide them. A far better solution, given my situation, is to become part of a team of bloggers who can keep a steady stream of new posts on the same issues that I really care about. My posts, when I am able to make them, will fit in nicely with those of the other authors. And their posts will keep the blog flowing and alive while I am tending to my many other responsibilities.

Luckily, there already exists a local blog which fills this niche to near-perfection. It has long been a daily destination -- on many occasions, nearly an hourly one -- for my own reading. It draws a wide readership and hundreds of comments each week. The writing is excellent, and the editorial slant largely mirrors my own. The contributors, moreover, are willing to tolerate a certain degree of dissent within the ranks. And I'm proud to say that the authors there have, in a moment of madness, agreed to let me join them as a contributor to their blog.

Starting today, and in preparation for tomorrow's primary election, I have joined The Burgher and P.V. Poplicola as one of the contributing authors of The Burgh Report. The People's Republic will still be here, and all of the existing articles will remain available for reading, but new content -- especially concerning the local political scene -- will be posted there instead of here. Just as my new job in Philadelphia is an excellent opportunity for me, so is this new arrangement with The Burgh Report. It will allow me to continue blogging, to join a team of excellent writers, and to spare myself the pain of letting The People's Republic slowly fade into irrelevance as my posting frequency diminishes over the summer months. I can't thank Herr Burgher and Pops enough for providing me with this opportunity. I can only hope that my efforts will prove a worthy addition to their excellent blog.

In closing, I want to thank everyone who has stopped by over the past six months to read my posts here at The People's Republic of Pittsburgh. I have enjoyed writing for you. I have enjoyed reading your comments. I have enjoyed our joint efforts to make Pittsburgh a better place to live. I hope that all of these things will continue without pause over at The Burgh Report. It has been great. And it ain't over yet.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Time for More Sea Pay

The People's Republic of Pittsburgh regrets to announce that the Admiral is currently underway conducting a yet another round of exercises to prepare for a future deployment. He also feels compelled to spend some time with his maternal parent on this Mother's Day Weekend. The Admiral anticipates his return to homeport in a few days' time. During this interval, new commentary may or may not appear in this space. While he plans to stay in touch with developments within the burghosphere, the Admiral cannot promise to produce posts.

Happy Mother's Day, everyone!

Update on Ravenstahl Porn Portal

Somebody has a sense of humor. Earlier this week, I did a quick post (as did PittGirl over at The Burgh Blog) concerning the fact that a cyber-squatter had registered the address, and was operating it as a porn portal. Someone with a keen gift for irony has apparently taken action to fix this situation, and the site no longer operates as a pornographic link fest. Instead, the new owner of the address (whoever it may be) has decided to point the address to a rather infamous column published in mid-February of this year by the Post-Gazette's Brian O'Neill, titled, "2 Pittsburgh mayoral candidates in search of a difference".

Those of you who can actually remember a time when Pittsuburgh's interim mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, was still facing some kind of opposition in this year's election may also remember the outcry sparked by this particular column. Local bloggers were all over the story, of course, but Mr. O'Neill's comments were actually enough to spawn a long sequence of letters to the editor in rebuttal.

And now, it's this very column, celebrating the interim mayor's mediocrity and talent for copying the ideas of others, that visiting will take you to. As I say, someone has a sense of humor.

[h/t to commenter maverick for pointing this one out.]

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

More Koch Fumbles

The Post-Gazette's Rich Lord is reporting on an ever-lengthening list of ethical problems inside the re-election campaign for Pittsburgh City Councilmember Jeff Koch. At this stage, it might actually be more efficient to ask for a list of the election laws that Mr. Koch isn't suspected of breaking so far. The latest accusations include campaign phone calls being made by city employees from Mr. Koch's city council office, and the acceptance of illegal campaign donations from corporate sponsors. The person in responsible for accepting those donations, of course, would be campaign treasurer Ray Sansone. Mr. Sansone also happens to be one the city workers photographed yesterday wearing a Koch campaign t-shirt while on duty with the city's Redd Up crew. I don't know about you, but after a while all of these tangled relationships begin to make my brain hurt.

Just to add one more thing into this already-confusing mess, Mr. Sansone is also a steward in the Teamsters union. So it's hardly surprising that the union is striking back at the city for attempting to punish the four workers involved in yesterday's incident.

"Last time I checked in this country, we still had the First Amendment, freedom of speech," said Teamsters Local 249 Vice President Joe Rossi. The Redd Up Crew, he added, had long been allowed to diverge from the city's public works uniform policy, and members of that group often wore shirts emblazoned with the name of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, who created the special unit of the Department of Public Works.

Mr. Rossi said he had spoken with Mr. Sansone, and that the steward "asked those guys if they wanted to wear those shirts" but in no way ordered them to do so. "Ray doesn't have the authority to order anybody.

"The city's past practice is that we've been allowed to do this," Mr. Rossi said of the wearing of political shirts and buttons. "If the city wants to [suspend the workers], that's fine, if they think they need to do that to keep up public perception. . . . If the city wants to suspend these guys, it'll probably cost them $15,000 in arbitration and then [the workers will] end up getting five-day paid vacations."
If I had to bet, I'd say the the union has a decent chance of winning this one. They need only point to Interim Mayor Ravenstahl's own prolific use of city property and funds to support his own election campaign, combine it with the city's past practice of allowing these kinds of mistakes to go unchallenged, and tie it all up with a nice 1st amendment ribbon. They just might pull it off.

Of course, their argument is still pure bullshit. City employees should never, ever be permitted to do anything campaign-related while they are at work. It undermines the whole notion of the civil service system, and will inevitably lead to some other employee suing the city, claiming that they were discriminated against because they refused to support one candidate over another. But labor arbitration rulings have done far stranger things than go along with a bullshit argument like this one.

Not A Machine, Right?

In an op-ed piece that appears in today's Post-Gazette, Allegheny County Democratic Committee (ACDC) chairman Jim Burn tries to argue that there is no longer a Democratic political machine here in Pittsburgh. He describes some of his efforts over the past 10 months to give his committee members "... the tools, training and technology to better engage voters on the issues and to become more involved with their communities". He tries to explain that the ACDC endorsement process exists only, "... to give the most active, faithful and engaged Democrats a vehicle to meet with candidates and vote for their favorites", and rejects the suggestion that these endorsements have any effect on the elections themselves. All of these things, he contends, mean that the days of old-style machine politics are behind us at last, despite the most obvious evidence to the contrary:

... many have attributed the fact that Mayor Ravenstahl has no primary opposition to the local Democratic Committee instead of Mr. Ravenstahl's proven popularity. Several radio talk-show hosts and news and public affairs programs have voiced concern that a small group of the city's population is deciding the outcomes of our elections. And, of course, there are cries that "the Democratic machine" is back, controlling events in local politics. Nothing could be further from the truth.
He didn't mention the bloggers of the burghosphere in there, but maybe the poor man doesn't quite understand what this whole "internet thing" is all about.

The piece itself is unconvincing. It extols a small number of rather esoteric changes made within this obscure group of political insiders, all of which are largely meaningless to the 99% of the public who don't participate (or even care to) in the ACDC. But his argument falls completely apart if you step away from the on-line version of the piece, and instead invest a couple of quarters in the on-dead-trees edition of today's Post-Gazette (which, I'm proud to say, is still delivered to my family's doorstep every single morning).

I realize that the Post-Gazette's website is exceptionally popular, and that it is accessed by a huge number of people everyday. But the print edition is still quite important, and one could rather suspect that it is the on-dead-trees version, read over the breakfast table, that finds its way in front of our city's most likely voters. The print edition is also much less correctable than the Post-Gazette's website. Mistakes made in print might be "corrected" in some obscure corner of the next day's newspaper, but most readers will never even notice them. That's why a subtle little "mistake" made by Mr. Burn, which now appears only in the print edition of today's paper, is so very illuminating.

In both circulated versions of Mr. Burn's op-ed piece, he argues that City Councilmember Bill Peduto's decision to withdraw from the mayoral primary was not caused by Mr. Peduto's failure to win the ACDC endorsement, but was instead made because he respected the many changes made within ACDC:
Bill Peduto won his first City Council election after defeating a party-endorsed candidate in the Democratic primary. This time, in running for mayor, he saw the potential added value in campaigning with the party's endorsement and dropped out after failing to win it. Perhaps he recognized the positive changes our committee is making.
For the moment, let's ignore the fact that it's completely impossible to understand what in the hell Mr. Burn is even talking about here. The important thing is that he then feels compelled to cite yet another example of the ACDC endorsement process doing great things for the people of Pittsburgh. In the on-line version that is currently available on the Post-Gazette website, Mr. Burn manages to get his facts straight (emphasis added):
Another reflection of respect for the committee's endorsement process was evident in the city controller's race. Controller Tony Pecora [sic], after losing the endorsement by one vote to Prothonotary Michael Lamb, went to court seeking to have the result overturned. He lost the case and Mr. Lamb was endorsed, but he clearly recognized the value to voters of being identified with the new Democratic Party.
But in the print edition of this morning's paper, this paragraph tells a decidedly different story:
Another reflection of respect for the committee's endorsement process was evident in the city controller's race. Controller Tony Pecora [sic], after losing the endorsement by one vote to Prothonatary [sic] Michael Lamb, went to court and ended up winning the party endorsement. Perhaps he also recognized the value to voters of being identified with the new Democratic Party.
There are only two possibilities here. On the one hand, Mr. Burn may be a buffoon and a complete failure as ACDC chairman, such that he honestly didn't know that Michael Lamb is his committee's endorsed candidate. The argument in favor of this possibility is buttressed by the fact that that Mr. Burn managed to mis-spell Acting Controller Tony Pokora's name in both versions of this op-ed piece, along with the word "prothonotary" in the print edition.

On the other hand, maybe there is a more sinister motive behind Mr. Burn's "mistake". The endorsement race for controller was a very close one. As chairman, Mr. Burn is forbidden from campaigning for anyone other than Michael Lamb, who ultimately triumphed in this contest. But perhaps Mr. Burn wasn't all that happy with the result. He may especially be unhappy with the fact that Mr. Lamb is one of the few candidates supported by local progressives who managed to secure an ACDC endorsement. Progressive candidates are never good news for the party's "machine" , but Mr. Burn is bound by the terms of his post to support one in this race.

One way around that restriction, of course, is to make a little "innocent mistake" in the print edition of the Post-Gazette, and suggest -- in a forum that more likely to be read by an older, more established, and voting demographic -- that Mr. Pokora, and not Mr. Lamb, is the endorsed candidate of the Democratic Committee. Then, once the print edition is safely out on the streets, the "error" can be corrected in the on-line edition of the paper, where younger and more progressive voters are likely to encounter it.

I admit, the sinister version of these events is a bit too tin-foil-hat for my tastes. But I also can't deny that it has a certain ring of plausibility to it, too. Dirty tricks like this aren't the sort of the thing that the leader of the "new Democratic Party" would ever participate in. But they are certainly in keeping with the history of "the Democratic machine" here in Pittsburgh. It rather sounds to me like Mr. Burn is attempting to argue against the existence of machine-style politics at the very same time that he is doing his level best to perpetuate them.

Either that, or he really is a buffoon. I can't quite decide which possibility is more disturbing.

Some City Councilman Broke the Election Laws, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

This story is all over the place. I'm not sure, in the grand scheme of things, just how important it really is. But it involves clear political misconduct and taxpayer-financed campaigning by city employees, so we can only be talking about Pittsburgh city government. And since the constant missteps of Pittsburgh's city government can only be foiled by the harsh spotlight of public attention, they must be discussed here. I say this, even though both newspapers have covered the story at least twice in the last 24 hours (Post Gazette yesterday and today; Tribune-Review yesterday and today), and the story is plastered just about everywhere you look across the burghosphere (Burgh Report #1, #2, and #3; 2 Political Junkies; The Ideas Bucket; rebuttal over at Pittsburgh Hoagie). Quite a bit has already been written, and I am many hours behind this story at this point. But I have noticed a few things that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere else.

The basic story, which you can get by clicking on just about any of those links, is that the city's famed "Redd Up" crew, staffed by city employees from the Department of Public Works, was caught campaigning on city time. They weren't knocking on doors or handing out literature, but were instead wearing dayglo-green T-shirts supporting the reelection of their former co-worker, Jeff Koch, to his District 3 City Council seat. The workers, who included Mr. Koch's campaign treasurer, Ray Sansone, were photographed at the scene of the crime wearing their illegal attire. It must have been something of a tense situation. The photographer, who is not coincidentally a staffer from the campaign of Mr. Koch's political rival, Bruce Kraus, was confronted by Kevin Quigley (the overall manager of the Redd-up Campaign), who threatened to have him arrested for "harassing city workers while on the job".

The aftermath is probably even more interesting than the incident itself. Pittsburgh's interim mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, reacted with astonishing alacrity. Four of the employees have been suspended without pay for five days, and Mr. Ravenstahl claims that he will refer the matter to the City Ethics Board. For his part, Mr. Koch denied any involvement in or knowledge about the t-shirts or the wearing of them by these city employees. He also claimed that the photographs and distribution of the story were politically motivated, which he seems to believe is an even greater sin than the illegal conduct of the Redd Up crew (and, quite possibly, of his own campaign).

Mr. Koch may not have known about this specific incident. But the design of the t-shirts themselves suggests that they were specifically made to be worn by Public Works employees. According to the Tribue-Review, Mr. Koch's campaign made the shirts about about three weeks ago. They are bright dayglo-green, the same shade of safety green that anyone who works on or near a busy street would wear to enhance their visibility. The color is so obnoxious that one wonders who else, apart from an on-duty Public Works employee, would ever voluntarily choose to wear it. As a matter of fact, Maria over at 2 Political Junkies tells us that the campaign shirts are exactly the same color as the usual city-issued uniform shirts worn by some Public Works employees. It's very hard for me to believe that the Koch campaign would hand these shirts out to Public Works employees without the full knowledge of just when and wear they would be worn. And I suppose it's just a happy coincidence that these workers were assigned to a job in District 3 on the very same day that decided to wear -- as a group -- these same t-shirts.

Interim Mayor Ravenstahl, meanwhile, is almost hilariously hypocritical with his response to this incident. While it's fair to commend him for taking prompt and bold action, that five-day suspension without pay is likely to come back and bite us taxpayers in the ass. For one thing, it's not at all clear that all four of the suspended employees were wearing these shirts by choice. Ray Sansone (the Koch campaign treasurer), who was wearing one of the shirts yesterday, almost certainly volunteered to be a walking advertisement. But he may also have ordered, pressured, or reassured the other three workers that there was nothing wrong with wearing these t-shirts on city time. They may have been innocent dupes who are now going to lose five days pay because of it.

Speaking of that five-day suspension, it's also important to realize that these four t-shirted workers are now being punished just as harshly as Pittsburgh Police Sergeant Mark A. Eggleton, who was so prominently featured in the secondary employment story earlier this year. For those of you who may not remember, Sgt. Eggleton used grossly excessive force while working off-duty (but in city uniform) at the Original Hot Dog shop in Oakland. When the incident was investigated by they city, he committed perjury under oath. A federal lawsuit filed by the victim in this case ultimately cost city taxpayers $200,000. And for all of that, his punishment was nothing more than a simple five-day suspension from duty. I bet he thanks his lucky stars that he wasn't wearing a Koch campaign t-shirt at the time, or he might have been suspended for six days instead of five.

Interim Mayor Ravenstahl is further wrapped up in this tangled web by the participation of Kevin Quigley, who heads the Redd Up crew and who threatened to have the photographer arrested for gathering evidence of the crime while it was taking place. As the Tribune-Review stories report, Mr. Quickly is also a close friend of and former council aide to Mr. Ravenstahl, along with being a Democratic committee member from Brighton Heights. It's more or less impossible to believe that he had no idea that these t-shirt were being worn by on-duty city employees. And as someone who has such lofty connections into the mayor's office, his quiet consent (if not vocal participation) to the wearing of these shirts almost certainly lent an air of appropriateness to the whole situation. This makes it all the more likely that at least a few of the suspended employees had no idea that they were doing anything wrong when they pulled on these t-shirts yesterday morning.

Finally, a bit must be said about Mr. Ravenstahl's plans to refer these workers' conduct to the city's Ethics Review Board. As I have noted before, the interim mayor seems now to be a big fan of the Ethics Board, at least when it's not his conduct that they are looking into. Assuming that the Mr. Ravenstahl is actually able -- after two earlier failed attempts -- to get the Ethics Board's members in the same room this week, it would seem that he only wants them to examine the actions of these four workers and City Councilmember Twanda Carlisle. He certainly doesn't seem too keen to have them discuss matters such as his use of city mailings to advance his own political campaign. And he probably won't even ask them to examine the actions of his personal friend Kevin Quigley, who unjustifiably threatened a citizen with arrest yesterday.

It seems that the Ethics Board is in danger of becoming the interim mayor's personal enforcement committee. At least, that's what they will turn into if Luke Ravenstahl has anything to say about it. Mr. Ravenstahl apparently envisions using them to provide political cover and, on occasion, to mete out his own personal retributions. He may find, however, that these independent board members -- some of whom have been jerked around by his administration, and asked to attend two earlier meetings which never even got started -- may have their own agenda to pursue. Let's hope so. It's about the only thing we have to look forward to.

Oh Yeah Baby, Spank Me With that Great Big Ethics Board of Yours!

The Post-Gazette's Early Returns blog is reporting that a cyber-squatting firm has registered a web address using the name of Pittsburgh's interim mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, and is currently operating it as a porn portal. As "one of America's great newspapers", the Post-Gazette has a certain degree journalistic integrity. It also takes a sensible approach to the sensibilities of its ever-graying readership. While it may provide the story, it won't come out and provide the link. You can read all about this new website in the article, but they won't tell you how to get there yourself. So as a public service, I feel compelled to provide the link to Mr. Ravenstahl's latest venture, myself.

And, since it seems likely that this address will be quickly purchased by the interim mayor's campaign (or, in all likelihood, by city taxpayers), here is a screen shot of what the site looks like today (click on the image to view it full-sized):

Then again, maybe Mr. Ravenstahl will be content to just allow this site to remain exactly as it is right now. After all, he's already slapped his name up in lights on the marquee of the north side porn theater. Perhaps it's only appropriate that someone looking to watch "Gay Movies Online" or who seeks to "Meet People Who Want Sex" would type his name into their web browser. And, after all the billboards and city-funded self-promotion, Mr. Ravenstahl's name and image already have a vaguely pornographic aura about them. The Garden Theater and this new website are just the next logical steps down what could become a quite lucrative path.

Come to think of it, maybe the city itself could get a little piece of this action. We've already paid for the porn theater and most of Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign literature. We're entitled to some kind of return on our investment. This could be the beginning of America's first municipally-funded pornographic conglomerate. If that won't solve the city's debt crisis, then nothing will.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Thoughts on Le Petit Massacre

Just over one week ago, Pittsburgh's interim mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, finally took some long-overdue steps to establish an administration that is truly his own. Ever since last September, when he was elevated to his post by the death of the previous mayor, Bob O'Connor, Interim Mayor Ravenstahl had retained the bulk of Mr. O'Connor's appointees in his office. For a brief period of time, this idea made a great deal of sense. Mr. Ravenstahl had never planned to become the Mayor of Pittsburgh. He hadn't been in office on City Council (or even out of high school) long enough to have built a cadre of supporters and loyalists for himself. It had been Mr. O'Connor, and not himself, whom voters had elected as Mayor. One could understandably expect, therefore, that the public would want to see many of the O'Connor initiatives continue in the wake of his death. And most obviously, the city -- and particularly the members of its political community -- were devastated by the unexpected death of their leader and good personal friend. Clearly, this was not the time to compound this loss by throwing Mr. O'Connor's loyal friends and advisers into the unemployment line.

But at some point, far more rapidly than Mr. Ravenstahl probably expected, it became time for his administration and our city to move on. A decent period of mourning and grieving was understandable, but the city and its problems weren't going to go away. Leadership was needed and the occupant of the mayor's office, no matter who it was, had a job to do.

It's hard to pinpoint the moment when Mr. Ravenstahl should have "moved forward" and installed his own administration. But it certainly became clear, very early on, that the retention of Mr. O'Connor's advisers was causing problems for Mr. Ravenstahl. Perhaps these troubles were caused by the fact that Mr. Ravenstahl not only kept these O'Connor appointees around, but began investing them with even more power than Mr. O'Connor himself had ever bestowed upon them. The best example of this trend, of course, was Dennis Regan. Previously Mayor O'Connor's Director of Intergovernmental Affairs (whatever the hell that means), he was quickly promoted by Luke Ravenstahl to become the city's overall Director of Operations. That was a questionable decision in it's own right, but things were about to get much worse. With just under one month in office, Mr. Ravenstahl made his worst decision to that point when he attempted to give Mr. Regan the additional title of Director of Public Safety, ignoring the fact that Mr. Regan had no public safety experience of any kind.

The ensuing firestorm would lead to the suspension of both Mr. Regan and Commander Catherine McNeilly, a decorated senior police officer who had dared to publicly question the wisdom of this nomination. Ultimately, this one unfortuneate decision by Luke Ravenstahl would bring about Mr. Regan's resignation from city government, the demotion of Cdr. McMeilly, a federal lawsuit against the city, an injunction reversing the McNeilly demotion, and a settlement of her lawsuit that will cost city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. It also cost Mr. Ravenstahl the support of city residents such as myself, and was provided one of the primary reason for the creation of this very forum.

Certainly, by the beginning of this year, it was clear that the O'Connor holdovers have overstayed their welcome in the mayor's office. While Mr. Regan was gone, several others -- including his live-in girlfriend, Marlene Cassidy -- remained in city government, many acting as Mr. Ravenstahl's most important advisers. As I commented in early January:

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. If Luke Ravenstahl wants to win me -- and other voters like me -- back into his fold, then he needs to be his own man. He needs to shed his office of all of the hangers-on from the O'Connor administration. He needs to come up with his own plans and original ideas, instead of just rehashing things that the previous administration had already accomplished.
And now, the most prominent remaining members of the O'Connor administration have been removed from the upper reaches of Mr. Ravenstahl's administration. Last Friday, the interim mayor removed Ms. Cassidy from her post as his senior secretary, and fired spokesman Dick Skrinjar, who had held the same job for Mayor O'Connor. He also got rid of his Director of Intergovernmental Relations, Anna Dobkin, who had not worked directly in the mayor's office during Mr. O'Connors brief occupancy, but who nevertheless was an O'Connor loyalist through-and-through.

At first glance, these looked like bold moves by Luke Ravenstahl. At last, he was breaking with the past and striking out on his own. But when you looked more closely at what was going on, there were a number of unexplained oddities in this pattern of events.

First, these individuals weren't truly fired. Instead, for some bizarre and unfathomable reason, Mr. Ravenstahl bent over backwards to find and offer every last one of them a lower-paying position within city government. In fact, it quickly became apparent that the positions that were offered (and, in some cases, accepted) didn't even exist beforehand. It is entirely unclear what Mr. Scrinjar will do for us taxpayers in his new job at the Parks and Recreation department. We don't even know the job title or salary that Ms. Dobkin will command in the Planning Department. And Ms. Cassidy may or may not have gone to work over at the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. According to the Post-Gazette, she visited the Parking Authority's offices last week, and PPA Director Dave Onorato (interesting last name, no?) said "... there would soon be a job opening at the agency...". But, as is true with the other two now-former mayoral advisers, the nature of that position and the duties that she would perform remain totally unclear.

The second big question mark about these moves by Interim Mayor Ravenstahl is that he fired these members of his administration without having anyone on deck to take their places. As noted by Bob Mayo in his blog, The Busman's Holiday, not only was Mr. Skrinjar not replaced as the mayor's Director of Communications, but Mr. Ravenstahl doesn't even seem to have anyone specific in mind to fill this position. Instead, the interim mayor is seeking to fill the now-vacant post by soliciting public applications through the city's website. Allowing such a key position to go unfilled for several weeks doesn't make sense. It strongly suggests that the firings were largely unplanned, and that the interim mayor didn't really think things through before he took this step.

And lastly, the third bit of weirdness is that the stated reason behind these firings makes absolutely zero sense. Supposedly, Mr. Ravenstahl has decided that the time has finally come to make a break with the past, chart his own course for the future of his administration, and rid his office of the O'Connor legacy. The Post-Gazette seems to agree with this sentiment. It would appear that the seemingly never-ending period of mourning for Bob O'Connor has at last come to an end. That's certainly good news. Seemingly everyone in our city's political life has been riding the "mourning" excuse for far too long. Luke Ravenstahl used it as the defacto reason why nobody should challenge his candidacy for mayor. Bill Peduto eventually agreed with him, using the fact that we were "still mourning the loss of Mayor Bob O'Connor" as one of the primary reasons that he dropped out of the mayoral election.

The whole "mourning" thing has gone on way too long. If the twelve apostles had sat around mourning the loss of Jesus for as long as Pittsburgh has (allegedly) been frozen in grief over the death of Bob O'Connor, most of us would still be worshiping the mythological gods of ancient Rome. Even if one accepts that common decency demanded the retention of Mayor O'Connor's favorites in the mayor's office for all this time, then we still must ask the key question, "why now?". Why was the end of April suddenly the right time to declare an end to this interminable period of mourning, when the writing has been on the wall since at least January? How could the mourning period end so quickly and unexpectedly that the interim mayor didn't even see it coming beforehand?

The whole thing stinks. Something truly isn't right here. But hey, at least we're moving forward.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Peduto, Politics, Paving and Pointlessness

There is a heck of a lot for me to catch up on. I haven't even begun to really examine all of the implications of the mini-massacre that took place in Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office last week, but there seems to be no end to the blog posts that are buried in that event. A fantastic sampling of the available topics so far can be found over at the Burgh Report, starting when the story first broke, and then continuing with some analysis of what might have led to these firings at the highest reaches of the mayoral administration. But the best developments have come about more recently, as problems with the now-dismissed workers' new positions became more clear. Herr Burgher finally reaches the disturbingly non-surprising conclusion that the interim mayor has, yet again, lied to the media about the entire situation.

It's pretty weak when you can't even fire someone without screwing it up.

Meanwhile, The Pittsburgh Comet has been going great guns during my extended absence, including (but in no way limited to) and excellent post yesterday about former mayoral candidate Bill Peduto's first post-pullout attempt to reform the city government from within by focusing on street paving. In a classically Pittsburgh moment of "plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose", Mr. Peduto managed not only to have his idea stolen by Mr. Ravenstahl, but allowed the specifics of Mr. Ravenstahl plans -- in this case, to institute some kind undefined "pavement management system" -- to go unspoken.

Once again, Mr. Peduto has attempted to put forward a concrete (pardon the pun) suggestion to make city government run better. Once again, the incumbent interim mayor bested him by saying that he planned to do something similar. Once again, the details of the interim mayor's proposal amount to little more than a soundbite and press release. Once again, the specifics are promised at some undefined point in the future. And once again, the story will essentially die on its own, and these details will never see the light of day in our public media.

As Skip over at Three Rivers Fishing Report has noted, all of this strikes a familiar chord. It sounds a great deal like the "full details" of the interim mayor's property tax abatement plan, which were promised nearly two months ago, but which still can't be found in any local news source. The Post-Gazette is still paying some attention to the story. There are apparently some public hearing going on in City Council about it. But -- in a continuation of this recurring pattern -- the public is still largely out of the loop and has no access to the "full details" of this plan.

In fact, those who might have missed an obscure little graphic accessible from a link in a February Post-Gazette article [hat-tip to commenter Rich Lord], and who haven't read the comments that Matt Hogue left in response to an earlier post here at the People's Republic, still don't even know which specific neighborhoods are targeted by the interim mayor's abatement plan. Attentive Post-Gazette readers currently have more knowledge of how tax abatement works in Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia than they have about what is being proposed for our own city. Supporters of the interim mayor may wish to blame the local media for failing to report these details. I rather suspect, however, that these "full details" haven't been released for publication. Clearly, the press in hungry to report on property tax abatement, or they wouldn't be focusing on how its done in other cities.

But this recurring pattern of grandiose generalities accompanied by a lack of specific details is not what really caught my eye as I was digesting The Pittsburgh Comet early this morning. Instead, I was drawn to something found in one of the Post-Gazette items that The Comet linked to in his post.

Buried deep within a post on the Post-Gazette's Early Returns blog, under the heading, "Kicking asphalt", was the following quote from an email sent out by Mr. Peduto's not-a-campaign staff:

On Wednesday City Council will be voting to change the way streets are selected for resurfacing. In the 1990s, Pittsburgh spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to conduct an engineering study of our streets. Several factors -- including composition, type of surface, amount of traffic, speed limit -- were analyzed, and a rating system, along with the needed software system, was created so that politics would be taken out of the process. Unfortunately, that system has been scrapped, and instead we are left with politicians deciding whose street gets paved and whose street does not get paved. Although this is a small part of a much larger problem, it is symbolic of the politics as usual that guides city hall.

If you are tired of the old way of doing things in Pittsburgh, then do something about it TODAY!

Email City Council and the Mayor, and tell them you demand that we reinstall the Paving Management System. Let them know that you support a government that is fair, equal, and transparent. Tell them that you will be watching on Wednesday and that you expect them to support legislation to reinstall this system.
Well, Mr. Peduto, let's take a closer look at what you are saying here. I certainly am "tired of the old way of doing things in Pittsburgh". I'm totally consumed with a desire to "do something about it TODAY". In fact, I really would love to do something about it, and not just today but also in a few weeks from now. My big plan for the current month, if you must know, was to try to do something about it on May 15th, when I was going to cast my vote in the mayoral primary. Hell, I was even willing to change my registration (temporarily) to Democrat just for the chance to vote for your sorry ass. But then you pulled out of the race and denied me and every other Pittsburgh voter that opportunity.

And so now you want me to get all up in arms, pick up my pitchfork and a flame-lit torch, and storm the barricades for real change here in Pittsburgh. You want me to make a meaningful difference to my city by demanding -- wait, what was that again? Oh yeah -- better data-driven pavement management! Hell, yeah, brother! Fight the oppressors! Nothing gets me fired up like the failure to properly utilize an objective evidence-based process for better determining the condition and needs of streets with respect to the application of new paving surfaces. That, my friends, is the kind of war cry that will shake even the most cynical Pittsburghers out of their stupor and have them take to the streets. Better pavement management systems now!

Don't misunderstand me. While I am certainly making fun of Mr. Peduto for choosing pavement management as the inaugural issue for his new "Progress for Pittsburgh" group (and having his idea stolen by Mr. Ravenstahl to boot), I do see his point. Political paving is clearly going on, and the needs of non-connected city residents are being overlooked. With such a limited paving budget, we would obviously be best served by prioritizing various projects based on some objective criteria. I certainly want to see city government become more data driven and less influenced by infantile Democratic-party politics.

But I'm old-fashioned. I wanted to see this kind of thing come about in the traditional manner. I wanted to throw the hacks out of the mayor's office and install somebody who would institute this kind of objective pavement management system as a matter of course. I do not, however, particularly care to expend large amounts of my focus and energy on just this one specific, rather tiny, little issue. I was looking for wholesale change, not incremental efforts that are destined to fail just as spectacularly as your now-defunct mayoral campaign.

In short, if you couldn't get Pittsburghers fired up over a big issue such as who should lead city government for the next few years, I'm frankly amazed that you expect to get them fired up over every last bit of bureaucratic minutiae that comes down the pike. You weren't all that willing to fight the big fight for us. So perhaps you shouldn't expect the rest of us to come out and fight these meaningless little battles for you.

Humble and Profuse Apologies

No, really; I am still alive. I won't go into everything that has been keeping me away from the burghosphere over the past few weeks. It started out as an innocent trip out of town for a few days, then grew longer as I spent more time outdoors hiking with my children. Then it progressed into a mountain of work for my employer. I have also been quite busy applying for and negotiating about a new position with my current employer. And after all of that, I simply felt out of touch with everything that was happening locally. I couldn't seem to find a topic that I cared or knew enough about to write an intelligent post about.

But at some stage, what really kept me from posting was, as strange as this may seem, simple embarrasment about having gone so many days without posting. It seems like some kind of blogger death spiral or something, where the lack of posting leads to an even deeper lack of posting. But the only way to break out of it is to try to find my feet again. And now that my boss has left the country for a while, I can finally catch my breath again. At least until the next time he forgets the time difference and accidentally calls me at 3:00 AM.

To everyone who has sent me emails enquiring about my absence, I can only offer my heartfelt thanks. I'm touched by the fact that you were thinking of me. I'll get back into the swing of things again. I promise!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Praying for Today's Victims

As the grandson of a former Virginia Tech faculty member -- and the son, brother, and brother-in-law of Virginia Tech alumni -- I am deeply shocked by the shooting rampage there. I spent a good portion of my childhood on that campus, and my family continues to return to it on a regular basis. My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who has been affected by this tragedy.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Few Questions Remain on Secondary Employment

Late last week, a small number of articles appeared in both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review concerning the police secondary employment. As discussed in an earlier post at the beginning of the month, Pittsburgh's interim mayor has finally decided to institute a cost-recovery fee whenever city police officers whore hire themselves out to perform security functions for private employers. Even if he was against the cost-recovery fee before he was for it, Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has now agreed to charge private employers $3.85 per hour for the use of each City of Pittsburgh police officer they hire.

At the end of last week and over the weekend, the police department released a few details about how the new secondary employment system, and its associated cost-recovery fee, is going to work.

As described in a letter from Chief of Police Nate Harper, all businesses who wish to employ off-duty police officers must fill out an application with the police department. After their application has been approved, business owners can schedule off-duty officers either by contacting the police department directly (through its Special Events Office), or by working with a small number of police officers who serve as "designated schedulers" for off-duty employment. As the Tribune-Review article tells us, most businesses are choosing to work directly with the police department:

The special events office will handle scheduling and payroll for off-duty officers for 345 of those businesses. The remaining 150 businesses have designated one officer, who will schedule other officers for off-duty patrols and receive a cut of the off-duty officers' pay.
For each officer-hour used, the city will then bill the employer directly to collect the $3.85 per-officer-hour fee.

Despite this additional information, there remain a small number of questions that are, at least from what I can tell, unresolved. For example, none of the stories about the new secondary employment plan indicate exactly how the officers will be paid. In the past, some officers worked "under-the-table" when they were off-duty, were paid in cash, and had the option of evading taxes on this income.

For the majority of secondary employers under the new system, the officers who do the work will be assigned to them by the city, and it will be possible to monitor how many hours they work when off-duty. But the businesses can set their own hour pay rates, and those who use designated schedulers must somehow account for the "cut" that comes out of the other officers' wages to pay for the services of the scheduler. Will all secondary employment pay be passed through the city's payroll system or will some officers continue to work on a cash basis? What kind of auditing is in place, especially when designated schedulers are used, to ensure that all of the hours worked by the officers are duly reported to the Special Events office? And, as posed in comment left over at the Busman's Holiday by reader Jason Phillips, how will these additional wages figure into any calculations for pension, worker's compensation, and other purposes?

Also, when a designated scheduler is used, it looks like the officers who work the detail will either have to pay the scheduler directly for the privilege of doing the work (in cash?), or will have their pay docked a bit by the private employer in order to pay the scheduler for their services. How will officials prevent this system from descending into an ordinary kick-back scheme? And how will this schedulers fee work for tax purposes; will it also be tracked through the Special Events Office? Will the officers who have to chip in to pay the designated scheduler have to pay taxes on the wages that portion of their income which the "voluntarily" hand over to the scheduler?

In general, the new Ravenstahl plan looks like a good deal for city taxpayers. But the devil is in the details, and some of those details remain unclear at this point.