Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Bit More Digging, A Bit More Bluster, A Glimmer of Hope

I just couldn't help myself. I had to go back in and look at the transcript of Judge Ambrose's decision, which reversed Catherine McNeilly's demotion. I found something that I think is truly fascinating.

If you look around the Burghosphere for a while, and not just on this particular story, you will encounter scathing complaints about the vaunted "confidentiality" that is seemingly inescapable in all "personnel matters" involving public employees. We've seen it in this case, obviously. It's also shown up in fairly small matters (e.g., the alleged pilfering of coins from parking meters by employees of the Pittsburgh Parking Authority), more weighty scandals (e.g., the $213,000 payout to former Pittsburgh Public School official Lynn Spampinato), and even such highly-important decisions as last year's appointment of Dominic Costa as Chief of Police. In fact, in this last case, according the the Post-Gazette story which ran at the time,

Council members expressed less concern with Mr. Costa's 25-year track record with the bureau than with how details from it became public in recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. They called for an investigation of who leaked an internal report that criticized Mr. Costa and others for their handling of a Homewood standoff in 2002.
This presumption of confidentiality has enormously strong roots. From the way it gets thrown out there in story after story, you could easily reach the conclusion that public employees are completely protected, as a matter of law, from any public disclosures of their employment history.

This notion has always gotten on my nerves, because these public employees seem more than happy to take the public's money, but aren't willing to accept that the taxpayers are ultimately their boss. So imagine my reaction -- a mixture of shock, elation, and dismay -- when I encountered the following passage in Judge Ambrose's ruling:
The disciplinary action report [which was attached to the e-mail that McNeilly sent to City Council]... contains specific dates of Rende calling off sick and working secondary details before and after the sick leave, the dates and places of his secondary employment and the statistic of his, Rende's, arrests and traffic stops, all of which, according to Donaldson, are not inherently confidential and, according to Plaintiff's expert Rothlein, are public records in other jurisdictions, specifically Florida.

The Defendants [i.e., the City, Mayor Ravenstahl, and Police Chief Nate Harper] have not identified any statutory or constitutional basis for keeping this information confidential, and it appears that it is deemed confidential solely because of the working agreement with the Fraternal Order of Police. This is a contractual agreement which has less significance than if it were grounded in a statute or in the Constitution for weighing purposes.
[emphasis added]
So in other words, the Judge seems to be saying that there is absolutely nothing in the city statutes, Pennsylvania law, or the state constitution which establishes any expectation of confidentiality when it comes to the personnel records of public employees. If that's really true, then count me as totally blown away. From the way this old chestnut gets hauled through the coals every time a public employee does something even remotely questionable, you would think that it was bestowed upon them by the Almighty himself. Instead, it's simply part of the near-ubiquitous union contract which seemingly covers every single taxpayer-financed employee in our neck of the woods. Who knew?

To put it another way, city officials -- backed by several generations of union-dominated Democratic party control -- have long since bargained away the right of us taxpayers to examine precisely what we are paying for. Nice. Real nice. I think I may be sick.

Even better, ever since this provision was enshrined in some contract from the now long-forgotten past, it has been recycled over and over and over again in all subsequent contracts. From today's perspective, the right of public employees to be protected from public scrutiny has been around so long that, when combined with the Pittsburgh region's famous parochialism, has simply become a storied and accepted part of the "way we do things around here". What a load of crap.

In other news, Mayor Ravenstahl's reaction to yesterday's decision -- as reported this afternoon on the Post-Gazette's web site -- is a bizarre mixture of blustering stupidity combined with the barest hint of hope that his administration may do the smart thing and settle this lawsuit as soon as possible.

On one hand, the Mayor claims that there was never anything wrong with punishing Catherine McNeilly:
"I stand here proudly [believing] that I acted appropriately," Mr. Ravenstahl said... [H]e believes he acted properly to demote Cmdr. McNeilly for breaking a rule by releasing private personnel records. "The decision [to demote Cmdr. McNeilly] was made because the rules were broken," he said. "I stand behind those rules."
The Mayor also maintained his iron grip on this bullshit-ridden fairy tale that Dennis Regan never did anything even slightly wrong:
As far as Mr. Regan's actions were concerned, the mayor said it would be improper for anyone in the mayor's office to influence police decisions, but he's not convinced Mr. Regan did anything wrong. ... "There was no rule broken, no law broken," he said. "If anything, maybe bad judgment was used." Mr. Ravenstahl wouldn't say whether he would have fired or disciplined Mr. Regan if he hadn't resigned on his own.
The only hopeful thing in this afternoon's news was the last line of the article, where "the mayor said no decision has been made on whether to defend the case at trial or try to reach a settlement."

My advice? Settle it, apologize, and move on. Otherwise, this is all that anybody is going to be talking about until the primary.


Mark Rauterkus said...

Your advice to LUKE and mine to him are identical.

I did hear the Luke interview(s) today. But, I was more taken back by the willingness, if not eagerness of Luke to go to a deposition. He said, "I look forward to it."

He wants to tell his story to lawyers and a judge.

That was more of a challenge than any silly settlement, from what I gathered.

Anonymous said...

I have a feeling that this is all some poeple are going to tlak about unitl the primary, even if the case is settled. To tell you the truth, I am already very tired of hearing about it -- no matter what went down.

Anonymous said...

It's what they should talk about - Luke is an unfit mayor. At every step along this Regan journey, Luke had choices. He consistently made the wrong ones - even now, when the Chief U.S. District Court Judge for the Western District of PA smacked him right between the eyes with a common sense stick, what did he do? He ignored what the woman told him to do and did what Denny & Urone told him to do. His behavior in reaction to the Judge's decision reflects a core defect in his judgment.

Judge Rufus Peckham said...

Admiral, you are to be commended for your analysis.

Bram Reichbaum said...

I knew sleeping in this morning was a mistake. Good show.

Bram Reichbaum said...

I've been mulling over this post, and have a little devil's advocate to play.

Will the scrapping of these rules of disciplinary file confidentiality lead to a city where every time someone's up for appointment or promotion, catty rivals will start publicly outing people for being in AA, for having been busted for downloading porn on their computer, for having unpaid parking tickets, et cetera? Sure the we the people are technically their bosses, but I don't think we want to create an environment where relatively good people forgo good opportunities because they don't want their trash picked through. Just sayin'.

Lightwave said...

I have to follow suite with Mr. Reichbaum. Everyone is always complaining that folks who work for <insert your favorite government institution here> are a bunch of incompetent hacks.

What do we honestly expect? As the public-at-large, we want to own these people's lives. We want access to every detail of everything they do.

Work for a private company, and all they can say is "yes, he worked for us." without getting sued. Work for the public, and you're threatened that any screw-up will become front page news (i.e. you'll never get another job within 200 miles).

Oh, and by the way, we certainly don't want to pay these people a market wage...they should just be happy to work for us.

(Meaning no offense to city workers) With such a work environment, all we've done is create an evironment that only attracts folks who aren't good enough to land a job anywhere else. I'm afraid we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Commentators make a point re: disclosing of personnel files, however, the court didn't say that people are permitted to produce files just because they don't like someone - the court recognized a limited exception where disclosure is proper and should be encouraged:

1. The person disclosing the information must be of the good faith belief that someone is committing an illegal act, act of corruption, abuse of power, etc. - this forbids disclosure if just for petty purposes - this is the difference between the leak of Dom Costa's personnel file to thwart his appointment (despite our opinion that Dom was a poor choice) and the McNeilly e-mail, which raised what the judge characterized as a good faith concern of meddling in police affairs, some of which may have been criminal.
2. The disclosure pertains to a matter of public concern. Not every promotion would fall into this category, but something like public safety director, which must be confirmed by council, would.