Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Oh Sweet Lord, Please No!

This simply cannot be happening. Somebody please wake me up and tell me that this is all an exceptionally bad dream. Let me awaken to a Pittsburgh where former police chief Dominic J. Costa really isn't thinking about running for mayor.

The only way that this notion could ever work out for Mr. Costa would be if the majority of voters are as brain-damaged as he is. Then again, we are talking about the same electorate who gave us Pete "The Macer" DeFazio as sheriff and Darlene "Astroturf" Harris on City Council. Maybe brain damage isn't too much for Mr. Costa to hope for.

Like DeFazio and Harris, Dom Costa has consistently been on my "Top 10 List of Pittsburgh Public Officials Who Make Me Cringe With Embarrasment". He vaulted onto the list in 2002 with his grandstanding self-important heroics during a hostage standoff in Homewood. Then a district commander with the Pittsburgh Police, Mr. Costa did just about everything wrong that day, and ended up with a bullet in the brain for his trouble. It would be one thing if he was the only one affected by his mistakes. But his "all about me" attitude also got another police officer wounded, which is really what makes his failure unforgivable instead of merely tragic.

He then dropped off the list for a few years after he left the Pittsburgh Police on disability and departed from the public eye. Then Mayor Bob O'Connor managed to erase every shred of goodwill that I may have had for his young administration by nominating Mr. Costa to be our Chief of Police. Right up until that moment, I had held onto such enormous hope that Mr. O'Connor would do good things for Pittsburgh. But when he nominated Dom Costa for this position, I immediately knew that nothing was going to get any better.

I would love, at some point, to have somebody explain to me just why it is that we can't look outside of the city limits when we are shopping for a new police chief, but I'll save that issue for a later post someday.

In the wake of Mr. O'Connor's death and the ascendency of Luke Ravenstahl to the Mayor's office, the one bright spot amidst all that darkness was the (suprisingly sensible) decision by Mr. Costa to resign. Officially, we were told that he was departing for medical reasons due to his old bullet wound. But given the timing, the subtext was pretty clear. Without Mr. O'Connor's around to be his champion, Mr. Costa recognized that almost nobody else thought that his appointment as Chief of Police was an especially good idea.

And so, after two months where I didn't have to cringe every time I heard the words "Police Chief Domininc Costa", this story comes out:

"Every day, people come up to me and say 'You should run for mayor,' " said Costa, of Stanton Heights. "I feel humbled and flattered people in the city and in Allegheny County are urging me to run for public office.

"It would be remiss for me if I didn't look into it."
To borrow a bit from the Burgh Blog for a second, just who in the hell are these people who are urging Mr. Costa to run for mayor? I mean, who could possibly look at Mr. Costa's history and think that this is a good idea?

Then again, much like what we saw with Darlene Harris' election to City Council, having connections to the Democratic Machine could be the fuel that is feeding this delusional inferno. According to the Tribune-Review:
Dominic Costa's sister, Debra Costa, is a Penn Hills councilwoman. He has two cousins in the state Legislature -- Sen. Jay Costa, of Forest Hills, and Rep. Paul Costa, of Wilkins. Their brother, Guy Costa, is Pittsburgh's Public Works director. Another cousin, Ron Costa, is a district judge in Bloomfield.
So in other words, all of Pittsburgh's problems would somehow be fixed by having yet another Costa -- one with a bullet in his brain, no less -- in office? Yeah, that sounds like an excellent idea!

Oh please, let this all be a bad dream!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Electing to Fail

And the really sad thing is that I didn't even notice this disaster until today, after she was sworn in as our newest City Council member. In case you missed it, we have a new city council member. Somebody had to fill Luke Ravenstahl's old seat now that he has become our mayor. So a special election -- and oh, how special it must have been -- was held earlier this month, and the winner was someone whom I had hoped and prayed to have seen the last of when she got booted off the School Board in 2003.

None other than Darlene Harris, former President of the School Board and bomb-thrower extraordinaire, was sworn in on Monday to fill Ravenstahl's old seat until the next election. Given her disgustingly abysmal record on the school board, and her crushing defeat in the May 2003 primary, I really thought that we were forever safe from her style of "leadership". But the Pittsburgh Democratic Machine simply loves to churn up the same people (and families) over and over and over again, confident that the majority will always -- always -- vote for whomever the Machine tells them to vote for.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ms. Harris, pull up a chair. It is really an excellent story.

Ms. Harris was first elected to the School Board in the late 1990s. She instantly proved to be the biggest pain in the ass that anyone there had ever seen. And remember, we are talking about the School Board here. She had some real competition for the title of "biggest pain in the ass", but she won, hands-down, without even breaking a sweat.

Consider this little gem from the days when Dale Frederick was our Superintendent of Schools, as reported in the Post-Gazette at the time:

In the year since Dale Frederick became superintendent of Pittsburgh's 40,000-student school district, he has become, in his own words, ''the world's greatest expert on AstroTurf.''

And that is not necessarily a good thing.

In May, Frederick found himself spending almost a week boning up on the arcane world of fake grass after Pittsburgh school board director Darlene Harris questioned a $1 million contract the district had signed with a Texas company to install new turf at South Vo-Tech High School's stadium. Only after dozens of phone calls and research into different grades of blades was Frederick able to convince Harris that the district had made the right choice.

Today, he keeps a 6-by-12-inch sample of artificial turf under his desk as a reminder never to do that again. This year, he vows, he will spend more time focusing on improving educational achievement than trying to placate nine squabbling bosses -- the directors of the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education.
Now admittedly, this was a $1 million purchase that we are talking about here, and she was new to the school board at the time. You can almost understand why she would be concerned about this one. But clearly, it went far beyond reasonable oversight when the issue metastasized into something that took up a full week of the Superintendent's time.

And it's not just this one issue. It happened again and again and again. My favorite has to be when she wasted a good 15 minutes of the entire board's time arguing about whether a large group of student musicians, who had been invited to perform at the State Capitol building in Harrisburg, really needed to eat lunch that day, and whether the lunch should consist of peanut butter sandwiches or something else. And after all that time, she never even addressed the far more important issues of jelly selection, crust removal, and whether the peanut butter should be spread in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction.

You see, Darlene Harris is the kind of person who is just an absolute nightmare within any deliberative body. In her self-appointed role as a micromanaging little harpy, she focuses on meaningless little details instead of the bigger and more important picture. She forces the rest of the members to waste countless hours drilling down into the smallest matters, while the core issues are left unaddressed. She takes every little thing personally, convinced that everything really is all about her. And she sows division and discontent with such relish that one can only believe that she truly enjoys it.

And this is the kind of person that we just put on our City Council. Nice move, Northsiders. At least it will prove to be entertaining.

To get an idea of what we are likely to see at City Council meetings over the next few years, consider some of the delightful events that took place while she was a member of the School Board. We had meetings that descended into endless bickering between the board members. We had the board members descend into childish name-calling and profanity while in private session. These two events actually took place when Ms. Harris was serving as the Board's President, and was supposed to be in charge of keeping the meetings orderly and on task. We also had near-chaos when then-President Alex Matthews proposed a fairly common-sense smoking ban in and around school property. Ms. Harris and her buddy Jean Fink, both of whom are smokers, took the proposal as a personal attack and launched into a minutiae-laden counter-attack. That's right, Darlene. It's all about you!

But, of course, the grand-daddy of all boneheaded moves during Ms. Harris's tenure on the School Board -- the one that ultimately got her booted out of office -- was her racially-tinged interference in the closing (and later re-opening) of Bon Air and Spring Garden elementary schools. By the time that ugly spectacle played out in public -- with all the decorum and respect one can expect from members such as Ms. Harris and Ms. Fink -- all confidence was lost in the School Board. The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and the Grable Foundation, which together had awarded the district $11.7 million in the previous five years, suspended all of their funding until the such time as the Board managed to get its shit together.

This was a huge embarrassment that was felt city-wide, and Darlene Harris was (arguably) the primary reason for things reaching such a very low state.

In the wake of these mortifying events, a band of more than 120 private citizens -- most of whom played no role in local machine politics -- got together one snowy evening to pick (and unite behind) a single candidate to go against Ms. Harris in the 2003 election. Patrick Dowd was chosen by this informal group, and ended up defeating Ms. Harris in the May primary. Once she finally left the School Board, civility returned, a new Superintendent was hired without excessive rancor, a sensible school-closing plan was quickly approved, and the three charitable foundations restored their funding to the Pittsburgh Public Schools, noting that the Board had "learned its lesson".

"Relations among school board members and the administration have become more collaborative and mutually respectful," Maxwell King, president of The Heinz Endowments, said at a news conference announcing the restored funding. All we had to do was get rid of Darlene Harris.

So, given the disaster that she was on the School Board, just how on earth did Darlene Harris end up on City Council? The simple answer is that the Democratic Machine simply rolled over the rest of us, trampling our best interests at the same time.

To really see just how myopic the political machine can be in this town, we have to go back to the May 2003 primary that cost Ms. Harris her seat on the School Board. Ms. Harris was decidedly unpopular at that point. The community had come together to find a different candidate in Mr. Dowd, and had largely rallied behind his campaign. And yet the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsed Ms. Harris over Mr. Dowd by a vote of 83-4.

Getting such a landslide endorsement from the party machine was child's play for someone like Ms. Harris. As Judy Wertheimer wrote in the Post-Gazette at the time, the fix was in for Ms. Harris:
It turns out, District 2 is comprised of voting districts from eight city wards. Each ward has a chairperson, and the chairpeople run the endorsement vote. Of the eight chairs in District 2, one is Darlene Harris, one is her campaign manager, John Morgan, and one is Len Bodack Sr., who employed Harris in his office for years when he was a state senator. Not surprisingly, when Dowd asked to address the committee on the morning of the vote, his request was denied.

One thing people involved with the endorsement process seem to agree on: It's important for candidates to connect with committee members prior to the vote. One way to do that, in addition to phone calls and personal visits, is for candidates to attend committee-sponsored candidates nights typically held by individual wards.

Unfortunately, Dowd didn't learn of the 26th Ward event until after the fact; Harris chairs the 26th Ward. As for the 11th Ward event, Dowd learned of it too late to personally address the gathering.
So what does this glimpse into the inner-workings of Pittsburgh's machine politics from 2003 have to do with Ms. Harris' recent election to City Council? As it turns out, it has everything to do with it.

You see, this was a "special" election. There was no primary election held. The party committees simply got together in the classic smoke-filled room (literally, if Ms. Harris was present) and selected the candidates who would appear on the November ballot. Of course, with all her connections, the fix was in once again for Darlene Harris. The Democratic committee wasted no time at all in selecting her to as their candidate. And in this town, of course, even Rick Santorum would win if he appeared on the ballot with a "(D)" next to his name.

It's not like the committee's selection was met with anything approaching even a lukewarm endorsement from the rest of us peons. The Post-Gazette actually the Republican candidate, Joseph Lucas, in the November election. That's far from normal behavior for the Post-Gazette, and it just goes to show the depths to which this woman is detested by anyone with any appreciable knowledge of local politics and her behavior during her time on the School Board. As the Post-Gazette's Reg Henry noted in discussing her victory a few weeks ago, "Pittsburghers will have themselves a Dino-crat instead of someone who could have stirred things up."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Without A Vote?

An easy-to-miss item in today's Post-Gazette revealed the following:

Proposed new rules restricting where bars and restaurants serving alcohol can locate in Pittsburgh took effect yesterday, though City Council members are not likely to vote on them until February or March.

Councilman Jeff Koch's ordinance barring new liquor licensees from opening within 150 feet of any more than two existing licensees in neighborhood business districts was referred by council to the city planning commission for review.

The ordinance must go through public hearings before the commission and council, then survive two council votes and consideration by the mayor before becoming part of the city code.

But zoning administrator Jeremy Smith said city code requires that his department use the most stringent existing or proposed law to judge requests for zoning approval. That means Mr. Koch's proposal took effect around 1:30 p.m. yesterday, when council referred it to the commission.

It will continue to be enforced unless council rejects the measure, Mr. Smith said.
Is this the way it really works on Grant Street? Please, somebody tell me that it isn't so!

My complaint isn't about the proposed zoning rule itself. Instead, I am far more concerned with this notion that zoning rules take effect before our elected representatives on City Council ever get to vote on them. Can that really be true?

If so, then what exactly is in place to prevent a city council member from proposing rules that declare the member's own home to be a religious institution and thus exempt from property tax? Or zoning rules which require the member's next door neighbor to cut down a tree that the member's spouse never really liked? Or a regulation banning the neighborhood cat who continually shits in the member's flower garden from living within the city limits? Or perhaps even a rule that requires all city council members to be addressed only as "Dear Leader" by members of the peasantry?

I never realized that members of our City Council had such power. It would seem that, at least with zoning rules, they could (in theory) propose a rule, submit it to the zoning commission for review, have it take effect more or less immediately by that action alone, and then delay any council votes on the measure for as along as possible. Given the molasses-like speed at which City Council operates, such a delay would be fairly easy to achieve. This rule makes each member of council, in essence, a little mini-dictator when it comes to zoning regulations.

I suspect that my home will be seized and turned into "People's Re-Education Camp" for wayward bloggers in the near future. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

"Yep, I'm Guilty" Says DeFazio

As has been reported in just about every local news outlet, former (just-barely-former, I might add) Allegheny County Sheriff Peter "The Macer" DeFazio pled guilty today to a Federal misdemeanor charge, admitting that he pressured public employees to "donate" to his "re-election" campaigns. The offical charge that he pled guilty to was something called "macing", which I can't find listed in any of the online legal dictionaries. But the Post-Gazette has defined it as "...coercing an employee to contribute to a particular candidate or political party". In plain language, all of this means that DeFazio's endless denials of any illegal conduct on his part, especially in the weeks leading up to his last election victory in 2005, were ultimately nothing more than a bunch of pure bullshit.

Of course, corruption in the Sheriff's Office has been blatantly obvious for years now. So clear was the depths of the illegal conduct there that the Post-Gazette actually endorsed the Republican candidate, Herb Ohliger, in the 2005 general election. The stridency of the Post-Gazette's endorsement is still so clearly relevant that it's worth quoting some of it here:

Sheriff Pete DeFazio's office has been under federal investigation since January [2005] for macing, abuse of power and other illegal activity.

Sheriff DeFazio, who... has worked in the office for 35 years, was called as a witness but, incredibly, invoked the Fifth Amendment to protect against self-incrimination. His executive assistant and one of his sergeants also took the Fifth.

Sheriff's Capt. Frank Schiralli was found guilty of perjury for telling a grand jury that he never kept lists of deputies who bought tickets for political fund-raisers for Sheriff DeFazio.

Sheriff DeFazio's employees testified that his commanders pressured them -- with implied threats about their jobs -- to buy tickets, some costing hundreds of dollars, for the sheriff's Mother's Day brunch, golf outing and other political events.

Sheriff DeFazio's deputies did landscaping work on county time at the home of his chief deputy.

Sheriff DeFazio has been a budget buster, off and on, and has routinely spent beyond his limit. Part of the reason is that he has sought to enlarge the scope of the sheriff's office beyond its core functions of securing the courthouse, moving prisoners and serving court papers.

It's a wonder, with this shameful litany and an investigation still in full throttle, that Pete DeFazio, 56, chose to run for re-election at all. ... Given all of the political activity recently revealed there, to support not only the sheriff but also other Democratic candidates, it's no surprise that the [county Democratic} party felt a need to protect this fund-raising outpost.
And so today, at long last, we can finally know that DeFazio really is the criminal that he always appeared to be.

Not that, even now, Peter "The Macer" DeFazio sees anything wrong with his conduct. Much as Tony Soprano might claim, our just-barely-former Sheriff said the following in an interview with KDKA television: "The only thing I can say is that what was going on there went on for the 36 years I've been here and I'm sure it went on for 100 years prior to me getting there. To be honest with you, I didn't think I did anything wrong,".

But Mom, all the other kids are doing it!

You might think that a man of real integrity, upon finally getting to the top after all those years of working in the Sheriff's office and witnessing this kind of conduct, might try to turn around this century-long tradition of corruption. But then again, as we have known for nearly two years, DeFazio is most certainly not a man with any integrity at all.

And yet, the ultra-perceptive voters of Allegheny County ignored everything a year ago and returned DeFazio to office by nearly 12 percentage points. One can only imagine that, in that final election with our Eisenhower-era lever voting machines, nostalgia-obsessed Pittsburghers took full advantage of their final opportunity to pull that great big "Democrat" lever one last time. Most of them probably didn't even look to see smaller lever marked with DeFazio's name come down, and wouldn't have had any knowledge of just what they were were supporting if they had.

That landslide victory, provided by what could only have been an uninformed electorate, allowed Pete "The Macer" to get that one last year in office that he needed to max out his country retirement benefits. After reaching the point where he had precisely 36 years on the job, DeFazio retired in October.

Oh, and those full retirement benefits that we gave him? He gets to keep every last dime of them, of course. As the Post-Gazette reports:
According to Bruce D. Campbell, the solicitor for the county retirement board, the only way Mr. DeFazio would lose his pension -- which isn't due for approval until next month -- is if the charge he pleads guilty to is specifically named in the state law.

Macing is not.

The Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act spells out 22 state crimes -- or their federal equivalent -- that result in a lost pension. Though the law, passed in 1978, was written to combat public corruption, there are still some crimes related to it that are not covered.

Simply looking at precedent, Mr. Stewart [a former DeFazio deputy who also pled guilty to macing] didn't lose his pension, so it seems Mr. DeFazio won't either.

"I think the public sometimes is offended because some people lose it and some people don't," Mr. Campbell said. "We don't have any control over what the law says."
Actually, we -- the people (remember us?) -- do have control over what the law says. We could put an end to this situation if we were paying any attention at all. But as DeFazio's re-election last year teaches, most of us don't have a clue.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Common Sense Wins a Small Victory!

Both the television special and the book deal featuring O.J. Simpson's quasi-confession have been cancelled by none other than Rupert Murdoch himself. This will save me the trouble of exhorting all three of my readers -- two of whom don't even have a television in their home -- from watching it. Whether this digusting bastard did it or not, it goes beyond vileness to attempt to profit from the murder of your children's mother.

It Won't Work This Time, Either

The U.S. Mint is so very excited to announce that they will be releasing yet another set of gold-colored dollar coins into circulation. This time, the coins will depict every U.S. president from Washington to whomever happens to be in office about 2018 or so, when this program should finally come to an end. They are confident that, after the public failed to embrace both the Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea coins, these dollars will finally be the ones that the we latch onto.

I guess they have to say that. What would be the point of issuing these coins along with a statement that acknowledges that they will fail just as spectacularly as their predecessors? Even if that is exactly what's going to happen.

What exactly are they thinking here? Do they really believe that the public rejected the last two attempts at a dollar coin because women were depicted on them? Do they figure that, now that they have relented and put dead white guys on these coins, we will finally meet them halfway and give up our paper dollars?

It's not the artwork that makes us hate these dollar coins. It's the size, stupid!

That's right! These new "Presidential" dollar coins will be -- wait for it -- precisely the same size and weight as the failed Susan B. and the Sacagawea dollars. What a great idea!

Both of the previous coins failed because, despite different edges and different colors, they more or less look and feel exactly the same as quarters. I was in Los Angeles recently, and found myself at a subway ticket machine with nothing but $20 bills in my wallet. The fare was all of $1.95, and so I was presented with 18 Sacagawea dollars in my change. The gold color had faded a bit from when these coins were new, and my first reaction was that the machine had flooded me with -- you guessed it -- quarters. I thought that I had been short-changed! It wasn't until I really bent my head down and looked at the coins that I realized (several minutes later) that I had been given dollar coins.

My reaction? I went straight to the front desk at my hotel and asked to be given paper bills in exchange. The guy at the desk told me that they get that kind of request all the time.

You know, it can't be fair to blame the folks at the Mint for this bone-headed move. Sure, they picked the artwork. But something this stupid has to have a Congressional mandate somewhere at the heart of it all. I do know that the vending machine lobby -- yes, there is one -- has pushed hard to keep the size and weight of all dollar coins the same, so that they won't have to go back and retro-fit all of the existing machines out there.

So instead, we will spend all this time, effort, and money to make coins that nobody will ever use. It would be far cheaper to scrap the whole idea of a dollar coin, rather than circulate ones that nobody wants to carry around.

I have lived in countries where the primary denomination -- the pound and the Australian dollar -- is only available in coin form. It worked fine, because these coins were much thicker and heavier than the other coins of lesser value. They were also a dark golden color which seemed to get even darker as the coins circulated, but it wasn't about the color. It was the size and the weight that made them work.

But we can't do that here. Changing the size and weight of the dollar coin to something that would actually work would go against the vending machine lobby. Not producing dollar coins at all would go against the metal and mining lobbies. Producing only dollar coins, without printing any paper ones, would run afoul of the Crane Paper Company's lapdog, Sen. Ted Kennedy (and probably the ink lobby as well). No doubt the U.S. Mint is simply doing what it has been required to do by a Congress that is completely beholden to these (and other) interest groups.

Pity that there isn't a common-sense lobby out there to represent the interests of the rest of us.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

How to Succeed in Public Education Without Even Working

Could someone please, please find me a job like the ones that Lynn Spampinato has had over the past few years? One of those very rare jobs where they pay you not to come to work, and don't expect you to accomplish anything? Ideally, this job would provide me with a nice hefty 6-figure salary. And if at all possible, it would be great if this whole boondogle could be funded through taxpayer dollars, especially if those dollars come from tax rates that are high enough that just about every working adult really feels the bite when they look at their paycheck stubs and property tax forms. That way, I could feel extra smug when I wake up at 10:00 AM or so on a Wednesday morning, and look out the window to watch the guys from the nursery arrive to rake my leaves. After all, a decent part of the meager wages they receive from back-breaking labor will go to pay me to do absolutely nothing that day. How cool is that?

Many of you won't have a clue who Lynn Spampinato is, and with good reason. Heck, I don't really know her, either. She could walk by me on the street and I wouldn't even know it. And really, this isn't about her, even though she greatly deserves all of the scorn that I plan to heap upon her.

So, to recap the story of the rort so far, Lynn Spampinato was -- until mid-October -- the "Deputy Superintendent for Instruction" for the city of Pittsburgh's public schools. Or was it the more-ironically-titled, "Deputy Superintendent for Instruction, Assessment and Accountability"? She arrived in Pittsburgh to great acclaim just as 2005 was coming to a close, earning a base salary of at least $160,000 per year during the 10 months that she held the position.

Not bad. Seriously. For that kind of money, I would probably accept the job even if I did have to come into the office five days a week. Maybe even six days a week when things got busy at the office.

But "something" happened in mid-October that put Ms. Spampinato out of work just 10 months after she arrived on the scene. Not out of a job, you understand, just out of work. She was still getting paid, of course. But she was put on "paid leave" from her taxpayer-financed, six-figure-salary position.

Why? What was this mythical "something" that caused her departure? Ah, I was afraid that we would encounter this little rub. You see, we -- the little people who forked over part of our salaries in order to pay hers -- we simply can't be permitted to know the reasons behind all of this drama. In fact, we can't really even be trusted to know whether Ms. Spampinato was fired, resigned under threat of being fired, or simply quit. No, no, no... the peasantry can't be told anything about the real story here, because that would violate the vaunted "confidentiality" that is inherent in all "personnel matters". Never mind the fact that she was, ultimately, working for us.

Fast forward a month to mid-November. The monthly School Board meeting is drawing nigh, and Dr. Spampinato has been paid more than $13,000 to do essentially nothing for the preceding four weeks. Nothing, that is, apart from keeping her mouth shut about what really happened and attending meetings with her attorneys.

Time had clearly come to take action! Our bold and dynamic School Superintendent Mark Roosevelt took charge of this ridiculous situation, and put an end to it. He did, so (of course) by paying Ms. Spampinato even more money to keep her mouth shut.

What really happened here? Did Dr. Spampinato have video footage of Mr. Roosevelt dressed up like Little Bo Peep and doing unspeakable things with farm animals? Since nobody's talking, that's as good of an explanation as any, I guess.

The one bit of good news in this mess is that Dr. Spampinato will not remain on "paid leave" for the rest of her natural life. But in exchange for keeping mum about what transpired here in Pittsburgh, she will get paid $213,000 to settle this little "personnel dispute". In addition, she will be "be available" to the Pittsburgh Public Schools as an "academic consultant" through April 15, 2008.

The news stories on this rort (an excellent Australian term that unfortunately has no decent American equivalent, although Wikipedia equates it with "fraud") leave out some key details. We don't really know, for example, whether this $213,000 constitutes her pay for these consulting services, or whether she is being given the $213,000 simply to leave quietly, and will then be entitled to bill the district (i.e, the rest of us) additional fees for whatever "consulting" she may provide.

What we do know is that the $213,000 is not contingent upon her actually doing anything for the taxpayers of Pittsburgh. The Post-Gazette quotes district Solicitor Ira Weiss as saying that "[s]he will be paid the money regardless of the level of utilization of her services". That's lawyer-speak for, "we're paying her in the hopes that she goes away and keeps her big mouth shut".

All right, so you might wonder just why the hell I am making a big deal about all of this. All together, the taxpayers have shelled out about $133,000 for the 10 months that Dr. Spampinato worked here, plus another $13,000 for her month of paid leave, plus this additional $213,000. Since we don't know whether she will be billing for her consulting time, we'll just ignore that possibility for the moment. Altogether, this amounts to about $360,000 that we are paying this woman for 10 months worth of work. As government waste scandals go, this one seems pretty penny-ante.

And yet, it still really sucks. Take this $213,000 that we taxpayers are shelling out just to make Dr. Spampinato go away. Let's put this in perspective. That's about a dollar for every taxpayer in the City of Pittsburgh. No big deal, right? We pay that much for just 30 minutes of parking in Shadyside. But imagine that we aren't talking about tax dollars for a second. Imagine that you are walking down, say, Craig St. in Oakland one day and come upon one of the many beggars who hang out along that stretch of sidewalk. One of them asks for a dollar, but has story to go along with his request for a handout. I need your dollar, he says, because I just got fired from my $160,000-per-annum job, and I am really hoping that I don't have to burden myself by doing any other work for a while. I would really like to take the next 18 months off, but I certainly don't want to dip into my savings. Couldn't you help me out?

Nobody would give this beggar a dime. In fact, most of us would be indignant that even the most shameless moocher would have the gall to even make such a request. So why should Lynn Spampinato be any different from any other panhandler that we encounter?

Now let's be fair here. Dr. Spampinato isn't just asking for a simple handout, and we do get something in the bargain. She has agreed not to sue the Pittsburgh Public Schools (again, that means, ultimately, us). So this isn't just simple panhandling. It's more like extortion. Doesn't that make you feel better about forking over that dollar?

Lest you be even remotely tempted to give this woman the benefit of the doubt or feel any sympathy for her, there is also the matter of her recent employment history. According the the Tribune-Review and other news organizations, this new appointment as a consultant represents Dr. Spampinato's eighth position in just six years time. She pulled similar stunts in Colorado and St. Louis, leaving under mysterious circumstances well before her contract had come up for renewal.

It would seem that public education is particularly susceptible to this kind of taxpayer-financed extortion. This may be especially true in Pennsylvania, with its seemingly limitless number of independent districts, all of which must be staffed by a veritable army of Ed.D.'s and Ph.D's. With so many separate districts competing for the small number of people -- and an even smaller number of decent people -- who hold such qualifications, salary inflation is inevitable. Throw in the unionized nature of just about every school district, and you can add a pathological fear of firing anyone (or even allowing a public discussion about "personnel matters") into this gigantic mess. The inevitable result is that people like Dr. Spampinato are able to extort money from the taxpayers again and again, moving from place to place without any worry that the details of their conduct will ever be opened up to public scrutiny.

Nice work if you can get it! You know would be nice? If our former Deputy Superintendent for (among other things) "Accountability" would actually demonstrate some for a change. If there are unspeakable problems within the Pittsburgh Public Schools that make it impossible for talented people to work there, we -- the people who fund this circus -- deserve to know about it. If Dr. Spampinato is nothing more than a fraud whose sole talent is extorting money from school boards, then we -- or at least her next prospective employer -- deserve to know about that, too. After all, we've paid $213,000. We at least deserve to know why.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Beautiful Story Behind Some Beautiful Music

I'm not all that sure that anyone will be all that excited about this, but what the heck. It's still a cool story.

This Sunday, my choir (at St. Paul Cathedral) will be doing a piece of music for the very first time. At first, I frankly didn't like it very much. But it has really grown on me over time. Especially when I found out about why the composer wrote it in the first place.

The piece is called, "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come", and was written by a guy called Paul Manz. Apparently, it's regarded as one of the finest church anthems to be written in the past 100 years. But I had never even heard of it until earlier this year when our music director threw it in front of us and insisted that we learn it.

There's a particularly excellent recording of it on the publisher's website. It's free of charge, and can be obtained here. I think it might be the King's College Choir from Cambridge; at the very least, it sounds like an English choir that still uses boys instead of women to sing the high parts. They do a very good job with it, whoever they are. I've been listening to it over and over again all week.

But back to the story. Paul Manz is still alive today, but is quite old at this point. 50 years ago, however, he was a young father facing the very worst thing that can happen to any parent. His 3 year old son was in the hospital. The child was dying, and the doctors had told the parents that there was simply nothing more that they could do. Every day, the child slipped a bit further away.

The parents stayed at the child's side as much as they could. The mother sat there during the day, while the father handled the nights. Eventually, it became clear that the end was very close. The mother, reading her Bible, found a passage which asked for the Lord to come quickly. When the father arrived at the end of the day, the mother pointed the passage out before going home for the evening.

That night, as he watched over his dying child, Paul Manz began setting the text to music. And suddenly things started to look brighter. The boy got stronger and was soon out of danger and back at home. The full story, along with some details about the composer and his wife, can be obtained from Minnesota Public Radio.

Somehow, knowing this story makes listening to this piece very special for me. Maybe some of you will have a similar reaction.

How Voting Needs to Change in Pittsburgh (Part I)

I don't imagine that this is only a problem for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, but the issue only really became in-your-face obvious to me once my wife and I moved here in 1999. I simply couldn't believe that, for so many races, there was simply no choice at all to be made in the November elections.

I'm not just talking about non-competitive races where only one of the candidates has any hope of winning. Those are legion in this part of Pennsylvania every November, and I'll address that problem in a later post. What I am talking about here are those races where only a single candidate -- almost always the Democratic Party candidate -- is listed on the ballot, running completely unopposed. And these aren't just meaningless local offices that we're talking about. My own U.S. Representative, Mike Doyle, has run unopposed in every election that I can remember. At least until this last one.

Imagine my shock a few Tuesdays ago, upon entering the voting booth -- oops, I guess that's one more idiomatic expression that my children will never understand (see also, "broken record") -- upon being led to my Fabricator 6000 electronic voting machine and pressing countless buttons on it's touch screen, to find that there was actually a second choice on the ballot. At least this time around, I could vote for someone other than the incumbent.

I wouldn't exactly describe it as "bliss", but it was a refreshing change of pace.

Of course, our rare second choice wasn't a Republican. The local Republican Party hasn't had the cojones to contest this seat (and many others like it) for years, and probably never will. Instead, our non-incumbent candidate was Titus North, from (to my incredulous disbelief) the Green Party.

I had never even heared of the guy until I was basking in the glow of the Fabricator 6000's touch-screen. The Post-Gazette only seems to have mentioned him in passing while giving it's unquestioning and all-but-fawning endorsement to the incumbent. Prior to that, there wasn't a mention of the poor bastard. You would think that they would at least run a brief interview with the guy, if only for the novelty of seeing a constested race for a change, but that would be asking far too much of our local members of the fourth estate.

Since the Post-Gazette didn't see fit to cover the story about Mr. North's run for office, it obviously couldn't tell us anything at all about how it almost didn't happen. And this is where this whole story gets truly and disturbingly disgusting.

It turns out the Titus North teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Despite this fact, even the student newspaper on campus didn't have much to say about his run for office until Election Day itself. But better late than never, I guess. The Pitt News finally ran
an article about his candidacy, just as the polls were opening on that fateful Tuesday. I'm sure that all 257 people who actually (a) read the Pitt News for something other than it's Police Blotter, and (b) made it to the polls found the article to be enormously helpful.

While I myself did not encounter this article until well after the election was over, it's still a pretty decent piece of work. It really shows how low the dominant political parties will sink to protect their monopoly on the ballot.

Now let's look at this situation objectively for a second. We have an incumbent who is seeking his seventh consecutive term in the House of Representatives, and who enjoys more name recognition than some members of the Steelers. His seat has been safely Democratic since just about forever. He has run unopposed for as long as anyone can remember. It also happens to be a year in which the Democrats are predicted to (and, in fact, did) make big gains in the House. In basic terms, Mr. Doyle could have been facing Jesus Christ himself on the Republican ticket and still pulled down an easy majority without even coming back into town to kiss a single baby.

But he wasn't facing Jesus here. He wasn't even facing a Republican, who might have had at least enough money to print up a dozen yard signs prior to the election. He was facing a professor who nobody have ever heard of, a party which is only remembered -- if it is remembered at all -- as the spoliers who split the Gore vote and gave us the W. presidency, and a campaign that had almost no money whatsoever to mount even the barest degree of publicity for Mr. North's candicacy. More to the point, Mr. North's Green Party positions on nearly every issue were basically the same as the Democratic party line. So there was almost no need for even the most left-wing voters to desert the incumbent. Even Mr. North, according the the Post-Gazette, conceded that he was going to lose. Truly, the North candidacy was absolutely nothing for Mr. Doyle to have worried about.

In fact, in his public comments about the election (what little one can find in the local press), Mr. Doyle claims to have welcomed Mr. North's challenge. At least that's what he told the Post-Gazette's editorial board.

But behind the scenes, the Democratic Party worked like mad to keep Titus North's name off the ballot. The story, as reported in the Pitt News, almost sounds pitiful:

... when the last signature was taken and North's petition for candidacy was turned in, the Democratic Party challenged its authenticity.

North saw the challenge as a test to his dedication.

"They challenged 3,800 [signatures] saying they weren't valid," he said. "So I had to spend four weeks in Harrisburg going through the signatures one by one, sitting next to a representative from the Democratic Party."

Two-thirds of the contested signatures were valid. The others, according to North, weren't accepted because many were from college students who had registered under one address and moved recently to a new one.

North slept in a tent during the four weeks he spent at the state capital because a hotel room wasn't in the budget, he said. But he was eventually granted a place on the ballot.

This guy had to sleep in a tent? In Harrisburg? For four freaking weeks? I don't think I could last four nights in the swankiest hotel room that Harrisbug has to offer (second floor of a Motel 6, last renovated during the Regan administration, door opening directly onto the parking lot?). Meanwhile, the Democratic representative who attended all of these meetings to challenege the signatures was probably being driven by a luxury car service back to the Hotel Hershey every afternoon in time to get in a quick nine holes before dinner.

Why on earth would they fight so hard to keep this guy off the ballot when he posed absolutely no threat whatsoever to Mike Doyle's re-election? Who in the hell would get their jollies from doing a thing like this?

Kudos to Titus North for going the extra mile -- more like hundreds of extra miles -- to stand up for a completely lost cause. His positions on just about any issue you can think of are almost completely contrary to my own. Just knowing that he was the Green Party candidate was enough for me to be fairly certain that he and I would not agree on very much. I had never heared of the man before his name came up on the touch screen, and I destest the very notion of uninformed voting.

But I like to have a choice for a change, so he got my vote. That's me and 17,504 others who gave this brave (but misguided) gentleman a whopping 10% of the vote. Somehow, I'm proud of that.

And So It Begins...

Everything must start somewhere, I suppose. The purpose of this space is selfish, in that I plan to post what I find interesting. If I end up with no more than six readers (seven counting my mother), then so be it.

The basic facts are these. I'm a nearly 40-year-old father of two boys with conservative/libertarian leanings who is increasingly astonished at just how absurd life has become and just how stupid government (state, local, federal, intergalactic, whatever) goes out of its way to be.

I need a place to rant, and this is it. Let's get started, shall we?