Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Secondary Employment Just Won't Go Away

The long-rumored settlement between the City of Pittsburgh and Deven Werling is just about complete. And it's going to cost us at least $200,000. As the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord is reporting this morning, the city has agreed to settle the legal case which formed the centerpiece of Part I in my recent series of posts concerning the Pittsburgh Police Department's secondary employment policies. We commoners are paying $200,000 -- plus countless amounts of money for legal fees -- for something that one of our police officers did on his own time, while he was working under the table and evading the very taxes that will now go to pay for his mistakes. And to think that some of you were wondering why this secondary employment story is such a big deal.

The Post-Gazette story contains an enormous number of things that simply must be examined and commented upon. So let's get started, shall we?

The city of Pittsburgh is paying $200,000 to settle a lawsuit stemming from a police sergeant's actions while working a side job.

The federal lawsuit was filed by Deven W. Werling of Largo, Fla., who said he was roughed up by Sgt. Mark A. Eggleton at the Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland in 2004. The city's Office of Municipal Investigations found that Sgt. Eggleton contradicted himself under oath, and he was fired.

In October, the dismissal was reduced to a five-day suspension by then-Operations Director Dennis Regan. Mr. Eggleton continues to work as a Sergeant.
If anyone ever again wonders why Dennis Regan was such bad news, and why his nomination by Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl as Director of Public Safety elicited so much outrage throughout the city, please direct their attention to this particular set of facts. They really say everything that needs to be said. Remember, this is the man whom Master Ravestahl has claimed did "nothing wrong" during his time in city government.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he wasn't familiar with details of the case, and that the Law Department handled the negotiations. Mr. Werling was represented by Timothy P. O'Brien.
This one case is going to cost his constituents more than twice Master Ravenstahl's annual salary, and yet he says that he doesn't really know why. Maybe he should make it his freaking business to find out. In fact, I'll make it easy for him. He can just click right here and read an excellent summary of the whole thing. And then, just maybe, it will begin to dawn on him why it was unforgivably stupid of him to eliminate the very cost recovery program that was designed to cover settlements like this one. Instead, his spineless capitulation to the Fraternal Order of Police leadership has left city taxpayers stuck with the bill.
Council received a resolution to approve the settlement yesterday, and could vote next week.
If City Councilmember William Peduto doesn't take the opportunity to ask some very pointed questions about this resolution prior to voting on it, then I'm going to begin rapidly losing respect for the man. As one of his constituents, I certainly want to know what the city is doing to make sure that the taxpayers don't get left holding the bag for these kinds of lawsuits in the future. As a voter, I want to know exactly what kind of cost recovery plan would be implemented under his administration if he wins this year's election and becomes our city's next mayor.
The Eggleton case highlights what the city considers to be problems with the way security assignments are handed out.

In November, Mr. Ravenstahl shelved a plan to charge businesses $4 or $5 an hour, on top of the $38 an hour they pay the officers, for the scheduling of side jobs. The fee was supposed to cover costs including those stemming from lawsuits like the one involving Sgt. Eggleton.
And now that we are no longer collecting that fee, just where will this $200,000 come from?
Last week, Police Chief Nate Harper said his bureau is still trying to get control of the assignment of side jobs, two years after it started to wrest that duty from entrepreneurial officers who have long handled that role. He said the city hopes it will be scheduling all such assignments by April 9.

Yesterday, the mayor said he saw "no reason why we can't meet that timetable," but would not say exactly what would be achieved by then.
Classic Ravenstahl maneuver here. A generally positive and agreeable statement, but an absolute refusal to commit to specifics.

There are two important things to keep in mind as we move forward into the next few months. The first is that the interim mayor has committed -- in his usual, weaselly, non-specific way -- to meet this April 9th deadline for the Special Events Office to take control of all secondary employment. If he hasn't done it by then, we deserve to hear about it, and we deserve an explanation for his failure.

Secondly, this case proves that the FOP-proposed cost recovery fee of just $2 per hour is ludicrously inadequate. It won't bring in enough money to cover everything that stems from just this one settlement, let alone all of the other costs that secondary employment currently passes along to the taxpayers. Whenever the mayor gets around to reimplementing the scheme that he eliminated last November -- that would be by April 9th, right? -- the cost recovery fee had better be high enough to actually cover the taxpayer's costs. We will be watching.

What Am I Supposed To Do With This Chicken Costume?

Here's a bit of good news. The campaign of City Councilmember Bill Peduto, who is challenging incumbent Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl for the Democratic mayoral nomination, may finally be exhibiting some huevos. They are actually doing something to stand up to Master Ravenstahl's continuing and fearful refusals to meet Mr. Peduto in a televised debate. According to a new post over at Bob Mayo's Busman's Holiday, the Peduto campaign has pointed out that Master Ravenstahl is continuing to duck the debate challenge issued last week by his opponent:

The Peduto campaign e-mailed a news release on Tuesday noting that – a week after his initial challenge – no televised debates have yet been scheduled in the race for mayor. The campaign also released the text of a letter from Councilman Peduto to Mayor Ravenstahl, dated Monday, February 26. In the letter, Peduto invites Ravenstahl to a debate at Sunday's City Democratic Committee meeting, prior to the endorsement vote.
Later in his post, Mr. Mayo indicates that he is seeing signs of the kind of behavior that I commented upon this past weekend. While Interim Mayor Ravenstahl talks a good game about participating in these face-to-face debates, he never seems to be able to agree to any of the specifics about actually scheduling one:
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl responded, saying 'my initial reaction is, I'd be happy to participate in all the network debates, and be happy to do that. The difference, I would argue now, between myself and that year, is: I'm the mayor now. We have a lot of responsibilities on a day-to-day basis to run the city. But I would be happy to make myself available.'

Channel 4 Action News took Peduto up on his call. We've issued offers to both candidates to debate on WTAE-TV. So far, we've heard back from Peduto, who has formally accepted. We're awaiting a formal answer back from the Ravenstahl campaign. Informally, the mayor expressed to me his interest in debating here on WTAE.
Oh sure. Informally, I'd be willing to let Dennis Regan come over and kick me square in the nuts. I'll get back to you on a time when we could schedule that. I'm really busy right now.

The weird thing here, however, is that it would seem that Master Ravenstahl is at least beginning to agree to attend non-televised events where he will be in the same room with Mr. Peduto. In my previous post, I mentioned a comment that was posted over at The Burgh Report by someone calling themselves "Demcat". This person had been trying to schedule a candidate's forum in Squirrel Hill, but had kept meeting nearly impenetrable resistance from the Ravenstahl campaign. Now, however, it would seem that Master Ravenstahl has finally agreed to follow Mr. Peduto's lead and accept the invitation. As this same commenter posted just about an hour ago:
Uh-Oh -- As of 4 PM today I have to eat my words. The Ravenstahl camp has accepted the challenge. This Mayoral Forum in Sq. Hill IS ON!! I was wrong! It sucks being wrong, but it happens.
I guess it's too early to send my chicken costume back to the store just yet. I'll hold onto it for a little while longer, keep it in its original packaging, put the receipt in a safe place, and hope like hell that I won't have to put it on anytime soon.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

An Allegedly Pro-Ravenstahl Blog

The most recent post on the Post-Gazette's Early Returns blog contains a link to what many hold to be the only example of a local blog that largely backs incumbent Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl. Their nod goes to Pittsburgh Jack's Place, which has appeared on my blog roll for quite some time now. The degree to which Pittsburgh Jack truly supports Master Ravenstahl, especially now, remains -- to my mind, at least -- somewhat unclear. But there can be no doubt that, at one point in early January 2007, he did feel some real warmth towards the interim mayor. One post in particular is commonly citied as high-water mark in Pittsburgh Jack's support for Master Ravenstahl:

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl deserves credit for injecting fresh ideas into his gameplan. It's refreshing to see some real action for a change. Instead of conducting study after endless study and commissioning report after report, seemingly without anything new or real ever getting done -- something that used to be the norm here in Western Pennsylvania -- our mayor is moving forward and we are seeing some new ideas being put to the test. Luke is actually walking the walk, not just talking the talk. This, my friends, is one of the greatest benefits to having a young visionary in the mayor's office. And why Ravenstahl deserves our support in the May primary election. Pittsburgh needs to keep the Ravenstahl ball rolling.
This statement certainly seems to provide an unambiguous endorsement of the incumbent interim mayor. It even contains a not-so-subtle swipe at Master Ravenstahl's sole opponent for the Democratic Mayoral nomination, City Councilmember William Peduto, who -- as I and many others have noted -- seems to love nothing better than a new blue-ribbon research report on municipal minutuea.

Despite this clear message of support, it's still seems rather unfair shove Pittsburgh Jack too firmly into a "pro-Ravenstahl" pigeon hole. He has not refrained from offering criticism of Master Ravenstahl, as this post, which the author penned in response to something which had appeared right here at The People's Republic, demonstrates:
... it is my belief that Mayor Ravenstahl should have offered a transfer at some point to Zober, Regan, Cassidy and Lynch from his staff into other appropriate positions within city government and made appointments of his own of trusted confidants to his staff. It is important for Luke to forge his own administration -- it has to be done sooner or later. Especially since most of the negativity surrounding his administration involves scandal involving some of these player's actions prior to him even taking the oath of office.

I applaud Luke Ravenstahl for his dedication to this city and to his determination to enact some of Mayor O'Connor's principles into his administration. But this can be done without retaining O'Connor's staff in their current positions. Luke's decision to do so is proving to be a detriment and is threatening to overshadow any positive undertakings of his administration. The mayoral staff should not be the news story. Especially when the primary election is just a couple of months away.
If you read through all of the content on his weblog, Pittsburgh Jack comes across as a somewhat conservative guy. He has railed against things such as the city firefighter's union and the current presidential bid by Hillary Clinton. It's at least somewhat possible that, over time, he will decide that his views fall better into line with those of Bill Peduto that those of Luke Ravenstahl.

But while his support for Interim Mayor Ravenstahl may not be quite as strong as some have suggested, that's not the biggest reason why I presonally would hesitate to point to Pittsburgh Jack's Place as the prime example of a pro-Ravenstahl blog. The biggest flaw with relying on this blog to take up the Ravenstahl banner within the burghosphere is that it is so inconsitently updated. Pittsburgh Jack's Place began more than two years ago, in October of 2004. The author managed to maintain his interest in city politics for a period of just 25 days, leading to about a dozen or so posts. He then simply dropped off the face of the earth, and didn't resurface until just last month. Then came a flury of posts over a period of about five weeks, covering a variety of topics, followed by yet another long stretch of disturbing silence. At the time of this writing, Pittsburgh Jack's Place has not been updated for 17 days. That's something like a decade in blog years.

Even the yawn-inducing Peduto campaign web site is getting updated more frequently than Pittsburgh Jack's Place, and that's certainly far from a favorable comparison.

I don't mean this as a criticism in any way. Anyone who has tried to do this blogging thing knows that inspiration comes and goes over time, and that real life can intervene in ways that make writing posts simply unthinkable. I've certainly been there, and I would never criticize anyone for taking an extended break from the burghosphere. But if Pittsburgh Jack's Place is going to be held up as the standard-bearer for Luke Ravenstahl among local political blogs, I'm afraid that a lot of people are going to walk away sorely disappointed.

I have no doubt that Pittsburgh Jack has his own reasons for walking away from the burghopshere at this critical time. But if he truly is as pro-Ravenstahl as other people believe him to be, it may also be the case that sustaining that position would require a great deal of effort from any blogger. As Maria from 2 Political Junkies wrote in a comment over at The Burgh Report:
It takes time, thought and passion to keep a blog going. In all the pro Luke comments that I've ever seen, I don't think that I've ever seen one that passionately explains why they actually like Luke. At best, they are either of the "give him a chance" variety or they tear down Peduto or the blogger who wrote the original post.

It's hard to be passionate about mediocrity.
I'm not sure why the man has disappeared at the moment. But I truly hope that Pittsburgh Jack will find his way back into blogging sometime soon. I've missed reading his stuff, and I have missed the alternate perspective that he brought to what can be a bit of a one-note-song within the burghosphere. His commentary can be interesting and unpredictable, and I like that. I especially would like to know how his opinions have evolved (or not) on the mayoral race. But if the past is prologue, then it seems quite likely that we will have to get through this election season without anything new from him.

Monday, February 26, 2007

For The Record...

If I ever put up a string of press quotations about The People's Republic -- such as those which appear in the sidebar of the Carbolic Smoke Ball -- I'll make sure to lead them off with:

"... informative and speculation-laced...",

courtesy of the today's post on the Post-Gazette's "Early Returns" blog. And if anyone happens to know of a "rabidly pro-Ravenstahl blog", I would also love to know about it.

Still Bubbling, If Only On a Back Burner

I forgot to mention it yesterday, and indeed most people probably didn't even notice it tucked away at the bottom of the page, but this Sunday's Post-Gazette did include something akin to a mini-editorial on the police secondary employment story. There was, as usual, no mention of the role that The People's Republic has played in pushing this issue forward. But for one reason or another, I'm betting that the Admiral isn't the most popular guy around the Post-Gazette's newsroom these days. This latest small note on the editorial page doesn't really break any new ground, and it's largely an amalgamation of quotes from the article which appeared in the paper earlier this week. But it at least shows that this story hasn't completely gone away. Not yet anyway.

Lord only knows (Rich Lord, that is) why the Post-Gazette feels compelled to cite the McNeilly case as the reason why this issue has suddenly come to prominence once again. As their brief editorial tells the story:

Police Chief Nate Harper wants to introduce a new centralized system before the April 9 Pirates home opener. Such a change, which has been slow in coming, has been urged by lawyers for Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly, whose recent troubles with the city began with her efforts to discipline an officer employed in a side job.
It's certainly true that Ms. McNeily's problems started with her attempts to deal with the secondary employment of Officer Frank Rende. It's also true that the ACLU is assisting with Ms. McNeilly's legal case against the city, and that the ACLU has taken issue with the defacto privatization of our public police officers during their off-duty hours. But it's really an enormous stretch for the Post-Gazette to suggest that, but for Ms. McNeilly's lawsuit, this issue would never have been worthy of their attention in the first place.

No biggie, though. At least all of us know where the story really began... right here in the burghosphere.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

More Mayoral Analysis

In this Sunday's paper, Tribune-Review columnist Joseph Sabino Mistick provides some early analysis of the race for Pittsburgh's Democratic mayoral nomination. In a move certain to please geeks like me, he even invokes the special qualities of one of the most beloved Star Trek characters, Mr. Spock. He looks at the two competitors in the race -- incumbent Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl and City Councilmember William Peduto -- and rather accurately diagnoses the pros and cons that each man brings to this election. His overall conclusion is that Pittsburgh could benefit most if the two candidates were connected to one another through a Vulcan mind meld, during which the qualities of both men could be mixed together to form the city's ideal mayor.

What an wonderful solution. I'm ashamed that I didn't think of this myself. At the same time, we could use a tractor beam to hold up the collapsing remnants of our flawed convention center, and use our region's natural abundance of dilithim crystals to build a matter/anti-matter reactor in Schenley Park, thus providing the City of Pittsburgh with an unlimited supply of clean, non-greenhouse-gas-emitting energy for at least the next millennium, if not even longer. I'll just send a quick sub-space message to Star Fleet Command, and our problems will be solved just as soon as the Enterprise can establish an orbit around our planet.

Since it seems rather unlikely that any fictional television-hero aliens will arrive to intervene in Pittsburgh's mayoral politics anytime soon, I guess we'll just have stick with our low-tech, early-21st-century ways and let the voters make this choice. But while Mr. Mistick's proposed solution may be seriously flawed, his analysis of the two candidates is pretty much on-the-money. About Luke Ravenstahl's inherent advantages, the columnist has this to say:

Ravenstahl is the darling of the media and has the great advantage of the incumbency. This comes with its fair share of sycophants but those self-interested hangers-on translate into willing contributors.

Outside money is no problem for the young mayor. And he is certainly not shy about using taxpayers' dollars to promote himself around the city on billboards and mailers. Together, his private and public funds form quite a war chest.

Ravenstahl's youthfulness and inexperience, often negatives in political campaigns, seem to be working for him this time around. "Hey, why not give the kid a chance" has become a common refrain.
It's hard to argue with the facts here, although I do wish the mainstream media could examine Master Ravenstahl's use of public funds to pay for his political campaigning with something more than an adolescent "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" grin on their faces. The article continues on to note some of the problems that the interim mayor is likely to face during this election season:
But Pittsburgh has real problems that demand serious solutions. And it is here that the young mayor stumbles. Ravenstahl may reign over the style sections of the newspaper but the cynical political reporters are a harder sell. While the mayor agilely handles the first question on any topic, the follow-up questions almost always throw him.
It's here that Mr. Mistick's column really shines. He picks up on something that I have only just begun to notice myself, but which a few other observers have already been commenting upon. Master Ravenstahl tends to descend into stammering incoherence when faced with any question for which he does not already have a pre-programmed response. This is a problem that his opponent, Mr. Peduto, certainly does not seem to suffer from. As Mr. Mistick's column continues:
And challenger Bill Peduto shines in that arena. A self-described public-policy wonk, Peduto clearly enjoys wallowing in the minutia that composes the science of government. It is likely that he never saw a blue-ribbon study on any municipal topic that he did not love.
Provided that no science fiction fanatasies intervene, the Democratic voters of Pittsburgh will be asked make a choice between these two men. On one hand, we have Luke Ravenstahl, who has almost no original ideas of his own, who remains unknowledgeable (or at least unable to appear knowledgeable) about even the largest problems facing the city, and who is far too beholden to the old-school party bosses who control his campaign's purse strings. On the other hand, there is Bill Peduto, who has so many ideas that almost everybody will disagree with a few of them, who has a predilection for convening ever more committees to produce ever more reports on the city's problems, and who is known for aggressively confronting the Democratic party's biggest power brokers, such as the leaders of the city's public employee unions. The big question here is which man the typical voter is likely to lean towards on May 15th?

I wanted to get something of a glimpse behind the curtain of an individual voter's decision-making, so I posed this question to a young lady at church this morning. I've known her for a number of years now. She's bright, soft-spoken, well-educated, and a resident of one of the city's eastern neighborhoods. In fact, she lives just down the street from where Bill Peduto announced his candidacy for mayor last month. She teaches advanced science classes at a rather well-regarded private high school, and she fully recognizes that the city is facing some enormous problems. She is, in short, the almost perfect stereotype of a Peduto supporter. Except for that fact that she's not supporting Peduto.

Instead, she really likes the idea of having Luke Ravenstahl as our city's mayor. In her own words, "I like the fact that he's young... that he can bring in new people and new ideas". She admits that she, like most of the city's voters, hasn't spent a great of time examining the interim mayor's performance or positions. Instead, she is basing her opinion of Master Ravenstahl solely on the one and only thing that nearly everyone knows about him... his youth. Due to that fact alone, she sees him as someone who simply must be a reformer. She sees him as a man who simply must have new and invigorating ideas. She sees him as someone who is very much like herself. And she clearly doesn't see Luke Ravenstahl as the champion of the old-party status quo that he most most certainly is.

Score one for the unicorn.

This is the challenge that the Peduto campaign must face as it moves toward the Democratic primary. Many city voters aren't really paying attention to the news stories that are supposed to be shaping this race. Many city voters don't know about all of Master Ravenstahl's countless mistakes and poor decisions. Many of them don't even want to know about them. They may recognize that Pittsburgh has it's problems. They may recognize that old-style, party-machine politics have served our city very poorly indeed. But, if anything, they see the older Bill Peduto as the representative of this disastrous status quo, and they see the youthful Luke Ravenstahl as the dashing young knight who will stand up and lead the fight against the old guard.

Somehow, the Peduto campaign needs to penetrate the consciousness of voters like these and let them know that they have the whole thing backwards. They must become far more muscular and move far more aggressively to label Luke Ravenstahl as the old-school party-hack disaster that he actually is. And they must do it fairly soon, before mere inertia awards Interim Mayor Ravenstahl with the reformer image that rightfully belongs to Councilmember Peduto. I just hope that they truly understand what they are up against. So far, I haven't seen much to suggest that they do.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Developing Trends in the Mayoral Election

During the early portion of this past week, Pittsburgh City Councilmember and mayoral candidate William Peduto issued a challenge to incumbent Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Mr. Peduto publicly called for a series of at least eight televised debates with Master Ravenstahl, to be held during the run-up to the May 15th Democratic primary election. Yesterday, KDKA television reported, in a story headlined "Ravenstahl Answers Peduto's Debate Challenges", that the Interim Mayor had responded to this challenge. The story quotes Master Ravenstahl's own remarks, made during an appearance on KDKA Radio's Marty Griffin Show:

I'd be more than happy to participate, uh, in any forum as we move forward throughout the, uh, campaign. I think it's important for people, uh, to understand, uh, the positions of myself and, uh, my opponent.
KDKA reporter Jon Delano also notes that, "Ravenstahl's campaign delivered [a] letter to Peduto's campaign, which commits the mayor to debate Peduto on TV and in the neighborhoods."

All of this sounds great. It sounds like the two candidates are behaving as grownups and agreeing to put their views -- unedited, unspun, and unpolished -- before the voters in a long series of relatively open discussions. This is really good news. Or at least, it seems like really good news. Until, that is, you take the time examine the rest of KDKA's televised report.

In what is fast becoming yet another disturbing behavioral pattern, Master Ravenstahl echoes the general sentiment that the public wants to hear, but fails to provide anything at all in the way of specifics. Once again, he says things which make it appear like he is completely in line with Mr. Peduto's position, but fails to take any actions that are congruent with those comments. Because, when you watch the rest of the report, you find out that Luke Ravenstahl has refused to agree to a specific date and time for any of these debates, despite being given multiple opportunities to do so. Indeed, he seems to be doing everything possible to avoid a public debate with his opponent:
But five organizations working together, including the League of Young Voters, say Ravenstahl has not been easy to schedule.

Nish Suvarnakar says a number of groups wanted a February 28th evening debate. Peduto accepted but Ravenstahl declined.

“I don't know if he was dodging us or not. I really, I'm not sure if it was just a matter of scheduling. We told him that if the time wasn't going to work, we would change the day,” said Suvarnakar.
If you actually watch the report, instead of just reading the text that appears on KDKA's website, you see that what Mr. Suvarnakar really said was, "we were completely rebuffed on that one" by the Ravenstahl campaign.

Meanwhile, over at the Burgh Report, in the comments to a post discussing the latest City Paper article about Councilmember Peduto, a person calling themselves "Demcat" noted the following:
Here's my take on debates/Mayoral Forums... I've invited both to take part in a Mayoral Forum in Sq. Hill. Within 24 hrs., the Peduto camp accepted... I've been dealing with Luke's Campaign for 4 days... My response from Luke's campaign manager. " I'll get back to you." I know the Mayor has his job to do, but 2 to 1 says I never hear from him.
Another comment made in response to this very post, written by someone calling themselves "ndp", related the following:
I can verify that interim Mayor Ravenstahl is more difficult to schedule than Bill Peduto. The business-related non-profit that I am a member of has been trying to schedule both Peduto and Ravenstahl to speak to the membership; Peduto was receptive and agreeable; Ravenstahl has not responded - it's been over two months of continued requests.
I'm not saying that we are quite to this point just yet, but if this "duck and cover" behavior continues for much longer, it's going to be time for someone to put on a chicken suit and begin showing up at all of Interim Mayor Ravenstahl's public appearances. The Ravenstahl campaign could, at the very least, propose their own list of dates and times for these debates to take place. Mr. Peduto certainly seems to be neither reticent nor fearful of debating the interim mayor, and I'm betting that the Ravenstahl campaign would quickly receive an affirmative response. Probably in less than twenty-four hours.

In other news, a discussion over at the Pittsburgh Comet examines the seemingly counter-intuitive idea that Mr. Peduto's support is growing among conservatives. He even managed to charm Fred Honzberger, of all people, into agreeing with an expansion of the federal government's role in investigating the convention center's structural problems. How is it possible that Mr. Peduto, who is described over at Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents as, "... the true progressive in this race, ... who actually seems to value women and gays for more than our ability to contribute to campaigns", could enjoy more conservative appeal than Master Ravenstahl, who apparently holds noticably right-wing views concerning such hot-button liberal issues as contraception and abortion?

As a fairly conservative individual myself, perhaps I can shed some light on this conundrum. Simply put, character counts. And Luke Ravenstahl doesn't seem to have much in the way of appealing character traits. I don't particularly feel that I can trust him. I don't believe that he is, or ever will be, a good steward of my tax dollars. I am not at all convinced that he has the backbone needed to take on the city's most obvious and critical financial problems, such as our ballooning and unfunded pension obligations.

Mr. Peduto, on the other hand, seems to have the kind character that one count on. He may be more socially liberal than Master Ravenstahl, but he is clearly far more fiscally conservative. He appears willing to take on powerful union interests when the situation demands it. And I just feel like I can trust him more than I trust Luke Ravenstahl.

I'm not quite willing to publicly endorse Mr. Peduto just yet. He has a disturbing habit of asking for yet another study, when every important issue facing our city and region has largely been studied to death. His campaign seems overly timid in taking issues to the voters and in reacting to the attacks made by his opponent. And I haven't yet had the chance to dissect all of Mr. Peduto's positions on the issues that are near and dear to my heart. But from a conservative standpoint, there is far more to admire in Bill Peduto than there is in Luke Ravenstahl.

Which brings me to a potentially explosive proposal for the Peduto campaign. In the event that Mr. Peduto fails to secure the Democratic nomination during the May 15th primary, and especially if he loses by a fairly narrow margin, I would strongly encourage him to run as an independent candidate in the general election. There are thousands of Pittsburghers out there who are not registered Democrats. Their voices will not be heard on May 15th. The opportunity for these people to vote for a viable mayoral candidate in the general election has long been denied, and there is an enormous amount of pent-up demand. As an independent who has broken free from the Democratic machine, and who has already demonstrated a certain degree of city-wide support, Mr. Peduto would present an almost irresistible opportunity for this long-silenced minority. If Mr. Peduto can attract nearly 50% of the Democrats in the city electorate, and can combine those votes with those of the conservative and independent minority, he can become a mayor completely unburdened by machine politics and free to pursue an agenda that will benefit the city as a whole.

What a fantastic thing that would be.

UPDATE: Despite the fact that I still think that it would be an excellent idea for this city to elect Mr. Peduto as an independent, it would appear that our Commonwealth's byzantine elections laws forbid us to do so. The only way that it could happen would be if he drops out the Democratic primary right now, registers as an independent within the next month or so, never files any kind of petition to run in the primary, and sacrifices a goat on a mountaintop during the next full moon. And state law isn't all that specific about exactly what kind of goat has to be used, so there would likely be a court challenge anyway.

It's crap like this that makes me truly resent living in this backwards-ass state sometimes. It's amazing the lengths that Pennsylvania will go to in it's effort to thwart the will of the voters. It's even more amazing that Connecticut, of all places, does a better job. At least they allowed the voters to elect Joe Leiberman after he lost the Democratic primary last year.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Correction

In my opinion, being willing to admit my mistakes is a key part of writing these articles for the rest of the world to read. I take the trouble to put put these posts out into the public domain, and thus I owe to to my readers -- especially the ones who disagree with me -- to set the record straight when I have gotten the facts wrong. Back in Part III in my series about police secondary employment, I included the following estimate of how much money the City of Pittsburgh could earn through a cost recovery program. The erroneous portion of this paragraph is highlighted below:

If a reduced rate of merely $2 per hour was enough to bring in $300,000 per year, then logically the Costa plan was capable of bringing in no less than $600,000. And if the Pittsburgh Police Department were to mirror the policies of other local agencies, the FOP's own figures suggest that the revenue from secondary employment could have easily climbed past $1.2 million per year. Every knowledgeable source who has contacted me on this issue, however, is convinced that the FOP's figures grossly underestimate the potential revenue from the cost recovery program. Depending on how you run the numbers, it's possible that a standard 22% plan could attract as much as $3 million in much-needed funds for the City of Pittsburgh.
At the time that I wrote this, I had to work with a variety of rather speculative numbers, and it was very difficult to come up with decent estimates of everything that went into the calculation. I spent a great deal of time calculating different models, but it's now abundantly clear that my upper limit of $3 million was very, very far off the mark.

Today's article in the Tribune Review reveals that the total estimated wages earned by off-duty police officers over the past year amounted to just $3.4 million. Clearly, no cost recovery plan, no matter how draconian, could ever expect to take in $3 million per year from these secondary employment details.

The People's Republic apologizes for this error, and regrets any problems that it may have caused. The original post will be edited to reflect the amounts provided by the Tribune-Review.

And Closer Still...

As predicted, questions about the Pittsburgh Police Department's secondary employment policy are still being asked. One day after the Post-Gazette had their turn with the story, the Tribune-Review's Jeremy Boren is taking the administration of Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to task for it's decision to eliminate the city's cost recovery plan late last year. Mr. Boren seems to have obtained some of the data from the Pittsburgh Police Department's frequently-bypassed secondary employment computer system, which is meant to handle the details of these off-duty assignments. He also has applied a bit of the city's own guesswork to estimate just how much secondary employment is going on under the radar (and most likely under the table), uncontrolled by the computer system in the department's Special Events Office:


Pittsburgh officials missed out on more than $300,000 last year they could have gotten from lucrative off-duty security jobs that netted $3.4 million for hundreds of city police officers, budget records show.

Police Chief Nate Harper wants the city to get its share and improve a computer system that tracks fewer than half of the estimated 189,400 off-duty overtime hours police worked for private businesses in 2006.
I find the $300,000 figure a bit off-the-mark myself. That's the same amount that Fraternal Order of Police President Jim Malloy claimed that the city could make if it adopted the FOP-proposed fee schedule. But that proposal, presented in a letter from Mr. Malloy to Interim Mayor Ravenstahl (see this earlier post for details) was almost laughable in its bargain-basement pricing. At most, it would recover between 5 and 10 percent of an officer's off-duty wages. The City of Pittsburgh would stand to make far more money, on the other hand, if we implemented the standard 22% rate used by many other county police departments.

Nevertheless, this article is an important development. We have a mainstream media outlet openly acknowledging that the Ravenstahl administration shut the door on at least $300,0000 of much needed-revenue. The next question is why they would do something so mind-blowingly stupid. The article explains it this way:


Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in December dropped a $3- to $4-per-hour surcharge the city used to levy, a move that curried favor with police and mollified business owners upset that they had to pay an average $37.50 hourly overtime rate plus the fee, said Jim Malloy, president of Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1.
It has to be stated that this paragraph contains some glaring inaccuracies. First of all, the proposed cost recovery fee was eliminated by Interim Mayor Ravenstahl during a meeting with FOP leaders on 21 November 2006, and not in December as the article claims. Secondly, the proposed fee was set either at $4 or $5 per hour, and not at $3 or $4. Third, the city had not yet gotten around to actually levying this charge on most secondary employers. Instead, Master Ravenstahl killed the program before it ever got off the ground. And finally, as we shall see later on, the average wage of an off-duty police officer -- at least according to the city's own numbers -- is just $26.39, and certainly not anywhere close to $37.50. I guess they must not provide calculators to their reporters at the Tribune-Review.

But still, despite these errors, the presentation isn't all that bad. The article doesn't quite make obvious connection that this effort to "curry favor" was really an blantant attempt to purchase the FOP's support in the coming primary, in the same way that fomer Mayor Tom Murphy won the "gratitude" of city firefighters just days before the 2001 election. But it does at least nudge up against the truth.

Some other choice nuggets from this latest article:

  • The settlement amount seems have gone up in the lawsuit filed by Devon Werling after his off-duty encounter Sergeant Mark Eggleton (described elsewhere in these pages). While my sources had predicted that city taxpayers would have to shell out $150,000 to settle Mr. Werling's claims against the city, the amount has now increased to at least $200,000.


  • Only 28% (at best) of all secondary employment hours are currently being tracked by the $30,000 computer system in the department's Special Events Office


  • This small fraction of off-duty jobs that have been tracked by police department accounted for 53,218 hours of employment, during which the officers made $1.6 million in wages.


  • Doing the math, that amounts to an hourly rate of about $30 per hour.


  • Just on these tracked jobs alone, 6 police officers made over $20,000 in off-duty income last year. Another 104 officers made over $5,000. Remember, the off-duty jobs at bars, restaurants, and the stadiums -- which are commonly believed to be far more lucrative -- are currently not being tracked by the computer system.


  • The city estimates that these untracked secondary employment jobs accounted for 136,240 hours of work, and resulted in about $3.4 million in wages for the police officers who performed them.


  • These numbers amount to a ridiculously low-ball estimate of these officers earning just $25 per hour from these untracked jobs. Then again, since much of this money would have been provided under-the-table and tax-free, perhaps the normal economics don't apply here.

  • In total, on both tracked and untracked jobs combined, Pittsburgh police officers earned $5 million over 189,454 hours of off-duty employment. That works out to an hourly rate of $26.39.
All of these numbers are important, because they provide the first concrete values by which one can estimate the amount of revenue that a properly-designed cost recovery program could net for the City of Pittsburgh. Our police officers worked approximately 189,454 hours of off-duty employment between February 2006 and January 2007. We don't have the exact dates here, but let's assume that this period covers a full year. Those who were working through the Special Events Office were being paid at an average rate of $30. If that same rate was applied to all secondary employment, the total wages would amount to roughly $5.7 million.

What this means is that the $300,000 in lost revenue, as described in the article, amounts to a cost recovery fee of just 5.3%. If the city instead charged the 10% fee that was first proposed by former Police Chief Dominic Costa shortly after he took office, we could earn $570,000. Using the standard rate of 22%, our city could bring in just over $1.25 million of much needed revenue, every single year, to cover the costs that these off-duty work details impose on city taxpayers.

If the average wage of an off-duty officer were really $37.50, as Mr. Boren reports in his article, then the total amount of money earned by police officers would swell to $7.1 million. In this case, a 22% cost recovery fee would bring in $1.56 million to compensate the city for it costs.

Indeed, the true hourly rate, when an officer is hired through the city's Special Events Office, may be even higher than what Mr. Boren indicates. An anonymous comment left in response to another post here at The People's Republic contained some revised wage values for the current year:
Anything that runs through the city computer system is charged at the current year's Police Officer 4 time-and-half rate. Which as of 2007 is $38.54.
If this value is accurate, then the police officers can be expected to earn around $7.3 million over the next year. A 10% cost recovery fee would net $730,000, while the standard local fee of 22% would bring in $1.61 million for city taxpayers.

The Tribune-Review article, however, notes that current Police Chief Nate Harper doesn't want to use a percentage-based fee structure. Instead, he prefers to stick with former Chief Costa's plans to charge a fixed dollar amount for each hour worked, regardless of how much the officers themselves are getting paid. If the city goes with the FOP-proposed rate of just $2 per hour, only $378,000 will be recovered. While this seems like an impressive amount of money, it probably won't even be enough to cover a single big legal settlement like the one in the Eggleton case. Once you factor in legal fees, other smaller lawsuits, worker's compensation for off-duty injuries, the costs of replacing uniforms and equipment, and the wages of the employees who work in the Special Events Office, there would likely not be enough left over to cover the $200,000 that we are paying to settle just this one case. When applied to the average hourly rate of about $30 per hour for work tracked by the city's computer system, the FOP proposal amounts to a meger recovery of just 6.6%.

The final Costa proposal of a $4 per hour fee, made just before he left office in September 2006, would do a bit better. It would bring in nearly $760,000, which would be equivalent to a percentage-based fee of about 13%.

As I noted yesterday, the key here will be the precise nature of the cost recovery fee that Interim Mayor Ravenstahl -- now that he is in full flip flop mode -- will be brave enough to propose. Anything less than about $6 per hour (20%, with revenue of $1.14 million) will be a betrayal to the taxpayers of this city. We'll just have to see if he has the cojònes needed to do his job. Frankly, I'm not enormously hopeful.

UPDATE: The various figures which appear in this post have been updated numerous times as additional information has come to light, and as new calcuations have been applied to them. A detailed spreadsheet of these values can be seen here.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Fecal Matter Advances Ever Closer Toward The Rotating Air Movement Device

Questions are getting asked. And that's the important thing. Panic... well, not panic, really, but certainly a fair bit of concern is beginning to set in within the upper reaches of city government. That's the interesting thing. The cost recovery program has been hauled out of the morgue and hooked up to a respirator. It may or may not be brought back to life, but there is at least a concerted attempt to make it look nice for the folks who are, in ever increasing numbers, asking to see the body. And that, my friends, is the inspiring thing. You can say all the negative things you want about the city's current mayoral administration, but you have to admit that they are quite adept at reacting to issues once others do the hard work of bringing them to the public's attention.

A few weeks ago, I posted a three-part series of articles concerning the Pittsburgh Police Department's policy on secondary employment by its sworn police officers. For a while, there didn't seem to be any reaction whatsoever, despite all of that effort on my part. And that was more or less fine with me. I was satisfied with accomplishing a job well done, and was content to leave it at that.

But then I began to hear rumblings about the whole thing. It appears that I, in a blog whose readership extends to maybe a few hundred people, might have kicked over a bit of an anthill in the City-County Building. First, I began to receive a few comments from anonymous readers who suggested that the cost recovery program was merely "suspended", and not eliminated altogether. I found that to be enormously interesting, since it was abundantly clear to me that the program had been entirely eradicated by Interim Mayor Luke "Handcuffs" Ravenstahl during a 21 November 2006 meeting with the Fraternal Order of Police leadership. Admittedly, the language used in announcing this decision did indeed portray the program as "suspended". But that suspension was also described being "indefinite" in nature. In other words, there was no plan in place and no moves afoot to implement any sort of cost recovery program in either the near or distant future.

Today, all that seems to have changed. An article in this morning's Post-Gazette by Rich Lord reveals that, for some reason, there is a bit of a rush to get the cost recovery plan back in place:

The multimillion-dollar business of side jobs for police is still part law and order and part Wild West, but the city of Pittsburgh hopes to rein it in before the April 9 Pirates home opener.

Centralizing the system under which officers get after-hours assignments for private pay was supposed to be done last year but has taken longer than expected. Sports facilities, bars, banks and utility companies still use a mix of the bureau's system and police-run private security networks, said Police Chief Nate Harper yesterday.

"They're a hybrid of both [private and public systems] right now, and we're trying to get it under one umbrella," he said. "We're looking at revamping it, hopefully before the opening of baseball season."
Some members of the burghosphere have expressed disappointment in the article's lack of penetrating analysis. However, I personally see it as a critical step in letting the Ravenstahl administration know that we, the public, are watching this issue. There are certain constraints upon a real-world journalist that I, as a blogger, am not faced with. I've written about the cost recovery plan myself, and I know how difficult it is to describe this issue without resorting to long-winded explanations. The Post-Gazette does not have an unlimited amount of column-inches to devote to this or any other story, and its writers have to juggle multiple projects at once while working under very tight deadlines. And besides, the penetrating analysis part of the story is already done, posted, and publicly accessible right here at The People's Republic.

The key thing, to me, is that this morning's article could never have been written at all without someone buttonholing Police Chief Nate Harper and asking a few questions about the secondary employment program. Indirect questions posed in the blog of some anonymous author are one thing, but questions posed directly by a member of the mainstream press are quite another. And from what I've been told, the Post-Gazette is not the only outlet asking these kinds of questions of the Ravenstahl administration. I wouldn't go so far as to describe this as holding our city government's feet to the fire, but the people in the city hall now know, at the very least, that things are starting to get a bit warmer than usual.

That may be the reason why, just yesterday, Interim Mayor Ravenstahl's Chief of Staff, Yarone Zober, held what one correspondent described as an "emergency" meeting with Police Chief Harper. Apparently, Mr. Zober directed that "... 'some' aspect of the cost recovery program must be implemented 'immediately'". Does anyone really believe that there would be such urgency in reversing Master Ravenstahl's horrendous decision to eliminate the program if it weren't for these questions being posed by the mainstream press? Or, for that matter, if the issue had not been discussed in depth here at The People's Republic?

All of this looks like yet another example of a new medical condition that is rapidly infecting our city's government. For lack of a better term, we can call it the "Ravenstahl Regurgitating Reflectionless Rapid Rectal Reversal Reaction", or 7Rs for short. The symptoms of this disease are a sudden and unexpected reversal of Master Ravenstahl's earlier entrenched positions, made only as a reaction to outside pressures, often by regurgitating the exact same viewpoints voiced by his critics, made without any deep thought or reflection, and usually occurring in a manner which illustrates quite convincingly that our interim mayor has his head up his ass. There is apparently no cure, and no treatment which can reduce the severity of symptoms. The disease also seems to be a degenerative condition which only worsens as time goes on.

This patient's only hope is an extended period of time out of the political limelight, where he can rest and gain the maturity he needs to make proper decisions the first time around. Luckily for him, there's an election just around the corner that might give him precisely the vacation he needs.

The critical thing at this juncture is to keep our eye on Interim Mayor Ravenstahl and the rest of his administration. They may be desperate to react in some way to head off this story. They may anxious to roll out some kind of cost recovery scheme to make it appear like they are onboard with this much-needed reform. But they aren't stupid. And they aren't about to throw away all of the FOP votes that they purchased -- with our money -- back in November.

Just what kind of a cost recovery program are they going to implement? Are they going to accept the incredibly weak version that the FOP first proposed months ago, which amounts to an almost meaningless charge of just $2 per hour to cover the taxpayer's costs? Or will Luke Ravenstahl finally grow a pair and stand up for the taxpayers by matching the far-more-appropriate cost recovery fee of 22% that is charged by most other jurisdictions in the county?

And even more importantly, how does the Ravenstahl plan, whatever it may be, compare to what City Councilmember William Peduto will do if he becomes our mayor next year? If there was one question missing from the Post-Gazette's article this morning, that was probably the one that I most wanted the answer to. But fear not, brave citizen. Lots of people are asking questions now. And I'm sure that we will soon have some more answers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Can Someone Explain This To Me?

So I was reading this little article from the Post-Gazette. It describes the dogged efforts of a local woman to rid the state of electronic voting machines, and also that way that more state and local governments are leaning toward optically-scanned paper voting systems. And that's cool. I can vote on anything that you throw in front of me. Granted, I'm not going to enjoy having SAT flashbacks when I'm forced to deal with one of those "bubble forms" again. I'm not anxious to recall the astonishing number of #2 pencils that I wore down to nubs in filling out my application to Annapolis in 1986 (no, I didn't get in; my local congressman was a dickhead). But I'm going to vote, no matter method I have to use.

But here's the thing that's always had me truly puzzled about this inherent distrust of electronic voting machines. Why is it that the same people who can't trust this new method were perfectly happy voting on those 860-pound lever machines that we had for all those years? How in the hell could anyone know that their votes were being recorded properly on those things? Would it be so impossible to believe that the old machines were manipulated in some way to suppress the counting of one party's votes over another's? Admittedly, one would have to have been some kind of mechanical genius to figure out who rig one of those ancient behemoths in that manner. But it certainly seems possible. I certainly was never 100% confident that all the dials inside that machine were really turning in the directions needed to reflect my actual vote.

How is an electronic machine any worse than the the old lever ones? I'm not asking this question in a rhetorical or an accusatory way. I really want someone to explain it to me. I don't have enormous confidence in the electronic machines, either. But why weren't these same people raising hell over the old lever machines?

If anyone could enlighten me, I would be most appreciative. It's a question that I've had for a while, but it never seems to get answered in any of the articles I've read. Thanks!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Peduto Reacts to McNeilly Settlement Talks

As reported tonight on KDKA, the settlement talks between the City of Pittsburgh, Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl, and Police Commander Catherine McNeilly are proceeding along at a steady pace. Today, the parties met behind closed doors with the Federal judge who is hearing the case. KDKA political reporter Jon Delano states that the case is getting ever closer to a settlement. The terms of the settlement -- as reported yesterday on KDKA (again, by Jon Delano), and with amplifying comments on both the Burgh Report and 2 Poltical Junkies -- are purported to include the following:

  • Ms. McNeilly's permanent reinstatement to Commander,
  • The city to pay Ms. McNeilly a cash payment somewhere under $100,000, and,
  • The city's acknowledgment of whistle blower protection for city employees
Tonight's report also brought a quick soundbite of response from Master Ravenstahl's challenger for the Democratic mayoral nomination, City Councilmember William Peduto:
I can't see, really, how the city can afford to go to trial on this. I mean, it's obvious that her constitutional rights have been violated by Luke Ravenstahl. ... There's no doubt that from flawed decisions come costly penalties.
I would have loved to see, hear, or read much more of what Mr. Peduto had to say. His comments were obviously edited for broadcast, and there clearly was far more to it than what was shown on KDKA. This is precisely why I detest television news. Nevertheless, KDKA's Jon Delano must be commended for providing the details on this settlement before anyone else, which is why I have no other choice but to pull Mr. Peduto's reaction from a broadcast story. The simple fact is that nobody else has gotten around to reporting these details yet.

Meanwhile, over in the comments thread to the post on the Burgh Report, Herr Burgher is reporting that the proposed amount of the cash settlement is rumored to be $70,000. There will almost certainly be additional funds heaped on top of that amount to cover Ms. McNeilly's legal fees. When you add in the cost of the city solicitor's time -- and possibly, for all I know, any amount that the city picks up to cover the cost of Master Ravenstahl's personal attorney -- this little blunder is likely to cost all of us at least $100,000, if not even more.

Master Ravenstahl keeps throwing away simply astonishing amounts of taxpayer money on what are clearly very poor and misguided decisions. Mr. Peduto is certainly correct in saying that there is no point in fighting this settlement. The city really can't afford to go to court, and we would probably lose the case for an even larger sum of money if we tried. But an even better idea would have been to simply grant Ms. McNeilly protection under the state's whistleblower laws to begin with. Mr. Peduto seems to have understood that point all along.

So we have yet another boneheaded move by Luke "Handcuffs" Ravenstahl, and all of the rest of us have to pay for it. What amazes me is that there are still some people, such as this anonymous commenter, who still seem to be anchored firmly in the "give the kid a chance" mindset. The good news is that they have almost three months before the election to pull their heads out of the sand.

Best. Post. Ever.

From the always-hysterical Carbolic Smoke Ball comes a preview of the latest taxpayer-financed Ravenstahl billboard:

Does Anyone Love Ravenstahl? Or Brian O'Neil's Latest Column?

Last Thursday, the Post-Gazette's Brian O'Neil -- whose perspectives are usually warmly welcomed, at least in my home -- wrote a column which has received a rather chilly reception. His effort, titled "2 Pittsburgh Mayoral Candidates in Search of a Difference", examines the two men -- Interim Mayor Luke "Handcuffs" Ravenstahl and City Councilmember William Peduto -- who are competing for the Democratic mayoral nomination. Both candidates are proposing what seem to be similar tax abatement proposals, offering a 10-year, 100% tax break on any newly-developed property within specific city neighborhoods. While there are some differences in the two plans, especially in terms of which neighborhoods are included in the tax abatement scheme, they are generally quite similar to one another.

In fact, they are a bit too similar to one another, both in their general nature and in the timing of their respective announcements. And since Master Ravenstahl's plan was decidedly sparse on specifics, while Mr. Peduto's proposal was accompanied by 60-some-odd pages of supporting analyses cobbled together during a year-long study by an 18-member tax force, it was abundantly obvious just which candidate had come up with the idea first. As he has on so many occasions, Luke Ravenstahl is attempting to squeak by at the last minute by copying the homework of the nerdy kid.

But according to the Post-Gazette's Brian O'Neil, this is actually a good thing:

As long as challenger Bill Peduto keeps offering ideas, and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl keeps stealing them, this city has a chance to make a nice run.

"Stealing" is ordinarily a pejorative, but not in politics. It is a poor politician who attacks a good idea from a rival. A smart politician seizes the idea, tweaks it and claims it for his own.

That's what's been happening in the Ravenstahl-Peduto race, which has frustrated the less known, less moneyed, less telegenic and less politically connected Peduto, but it's hard to see how this take-and-take is bad for the city.
Mr. O'Neil then goes on to cite example after example of Master Ravenstahl, as the Burgh Report puts it, "... cribbing his way to the election". There was an issue about bus revenue being devoted to streetside tree maintenance. There was the question about whether to collect the annual $52 "Emergency and Municipal Services Tax" in one lump sum or through $1-per-week payments. There was the idea of nominating Fire Chief Michael Huss -- and not Dennis Regan -- as Director of Public Safety. In every one of these cases, Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl has reversed his earlier position and ended up agreeing with Mr. Peduto.

But Mr. O'Neil didn't see these reversals as a problem. After all, he argued, "[w]ho can argue that learning from early mistakes is a bad trait in a politician?".

Actually, if you read the letters to the Post-Gazette's editor over the past two days, it would seem that plenty of people have an argument with this conclusion. The first two letters appeared yesterday:
Idea source

When folks say two heads are better than one, they tend to assume both are heads full of ideas. But this old saying doesn't apply when all the insight, innovation and wisdom are coming out from under only one thinking cap.

Brian O'Neill, who claims that it doesn't matter so much if either city Councilman Bill Peduto or interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl wins the upcoming mayoral election, does not seem to care that all the great ideas he cites in his Feb. 15 column ("2 Pittsburgh Mayoral Candidates in Search of a Difference") originated from Mr. Peduto's diligent work.

I would like to emphasize to him that, if Mr. Ravenstahl ends up finishing the remaining two years of this term, Pittsburgh will be left to flounder with a man who has not yet presented the city with a promising initiative of his own (although he's attached his name to plenty).

On the other hand, if this election brings Mr. Peduto into the mayor's office, with him he'll bring all his policy expertise and his ability to keep coming up with fresh ideas. The city's future is in the balance, from its financial straits to its aging population to keeping the Penguins here. It matters deeply who wins this election.

Developing creative ideas that will address the challenges our city faces is a mark of sound leadership. Shouldn't we choose the candidate of innovation rather than the one who just copies him?

JONATHAN FOBEAR
South Side

Copycats OK?

Columnist Brian O'Neill ("2 Pittsburgh Mayoral Candidates in Search of a Difference," Feb. 15) says that it is OK that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl keeps stealing Councilman Bill Peduto's ideas.

How would he like it if he saw his ideas in someone else's column?

CELESTE BEHREND
Oakland
Then, after that one-two punch on Monday, even more of these letters appeared today:
Great leaders are those who generate great ideas

Does it really matter who wins the mayoral election? Brian O'Neill doesn't seem to think so. In his Feb. 15 column, "2 Candidates in Search of a Difference," he points out that both Democratic candidates are proposing similar ideas for the future of the city, and maybe it's not important which man wins.

Hmm, I remember these same arguments being made during the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Would anyone care to make that argument today?

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hasn't told us his ideas for improving the city of Pittsburgh. Well, that's not entirely true, as Mr. O'Neill points out -- the only ideas the mayor seems confident in supporting are plans put forth by Councilman Bill Peduto. Mr. Peduto has a clear vision about where he wants to take the city. With his focus on neighborhood-based development, environmentally friendly policies and historic preservation, he is setting forth an agenda that will revitalize our city.

If you look at American history, our greatest leaders have been the greatest idea generators. Mr. Peduto has the right ideas for the city -- even his opponent seems to think so. We do not need a middleman mayor like Luke Ravenstahl to parrot the ideas of Bill Peduto.

KYLE ETHAN FISCHER
Lawrenceville

It does matter

While I thank Brian O'Neill for bringing to light Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's pilfering of quality ideas from Councilman Bill Peduto ("2 Candidates in Search of a Difference," Feb. 15), I cannot agree with his conclusion that it makes no difference who ultimately wins the election in May.

Ideas are but the beginning for changes that must take place in order to save our city. The implementation of a progressive vision takes a real, original leader, as in Councilman Peduto, not a follower.

Pittsburgh has run out of time. We cannot afford to wait and "see what the kid can do."

JANEY ZEILINGER CLARK
Squirrel Hill
What's noteworthy here is that the Post-Gazette didn't publish any letters in support of Mr. O'Neil's views. Or, for that matter, in support of Master Ravenstahl's theft of Mr. Peduto's intellectual property. In many cases, the paper makes some attempt to counterbalance thesse kinds of letters with others representing the opposite perspective. One can only suspect, therefore, that the Post-Gazette simply hasn't received any. All of these letters appeared in the printed version of the newspaper, but the Post-Gazette often publishes additional letters on its website. Yet even there, one can find no letters in support of either Mr. O'Neil or Master Ravenstahl.

Indeed, it's not just this fairly small group of motivated letter writers who have taken issue with Mr. O'Neils perspective. The Post-Gazette's own editorial board -- which usually runs in lock-step with the Interim Mayor's press releases -- even noticed the difference between the two candidates' proposals, and particularly the difference in how much preparation had gone into each of them:
Pittsburgh Council has before it two ideas for offering tax breaks to draw new residents to targeted city neighborhoods. One is a thoroughly researched and analyzed 64-page proposal from Councilman Bill Peduto. The other is a thin and speculative concept from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. ...

There are attractive elements in both plans, but only Councilman Peduto's, to date, has the necessary supporting analysis. The administration needs to deliver similar justification for the mayor's ideas if council is to give the same weight to his points in this key public initiative.
I have zero confidence in the Post-Gazette's editorial board. They may have noticed Master Ravenstahl's vacuousness in this one instance, but they have a habit of swinging back around to his side in the end. The letters from the paper's readers are, to me, far more interesting. Maybe the public in general, and not just those who populate the burghosphere, are actually beginning to notice that Luke Ravenstahl is a failure of a mayor. One can only hope.

UPDATE: The day after this post originally appeared here, the Post-Gazette published yet another letter from someone who disagreed with Mr. O'Neil's perspective on the mayor's race:
His sudden interest

I am writing in response to Brian O'Neill's Feb. 15 column "2 Candidates in Search of a Difference." I am a realtor in Pittsburgh and served on the Shared Tax Abatement for Neighborhood Development Task Force organized by Councilman Bill Peduto to study his proposed tax abatement for Downtown.

I worked for more than six months, with representatives from more than a dozen different groups (everyone from labor to building owners), to develop a plan that would revitalize Downtown, bring in new revenue to the city and promote green buildings, historic preservation and public art.

During this process, then-Council President Luke Ravenstahl never attended a meeting and never sent staff in his place. Now that he is running for election, he suddenly has a vested interest in our work.

However, he never asked to meet with us, never asked for our opinion and never credited the working group or the consultant for our hard work. The mayor's announcement is not backed by any plan, there has been no research and there is no economic impact study to go with it.

As someone who loves this city and has worked long and hard on plans to redevelop Downtown, I am greatly disappointed that our mayor would play politics with such an important issue.

CHARLENE HAISLIP
North Point Breeze
In the interest of fairness, I should point out the the Post-Gazette also managed, on that same day, to find someone in this city who thinks that the theft of Mr. Peduto's intellectual property is a damn fine thing:
Energizing proposal

I would like to applaud Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for his progressive proposal to offer tax abatement incentives for development projects in the city of Pittsburgh ("Competing Plans Air to Boost City Housing," Feb. 14).

In particular, Mayor Ravenstahl's proposal pays homage to the late Mayor Bob O'Connor's promise to return our city neighborhoods to their former glory. In contrast, Councilman Bill Peduto's proposal to offer tax incentives for projects Downtown and in adjacent areas, to the exclusion of our city neighborhoods, falls short and creates a vacuum effect that will hinder private investment in our neighborhoods.

The mayor should be commended for his attempt to energize the Downtown living initiative without "throwing the baby out with the bath water" as is proposed by Mr. Peduto. If adopted, the mayor's proposal to provide development incentives for neighborhood projects will yield a powerful catalyst for energizing private investment and expanding community development success.

On behalf of Wylie Holdings and others engaged in community development efforts, I can only hope that Mr. Peduto will see the shortsightedness of his plan and embrace the broader proposal offered by Mayor Ravenstahl.

JOE EDELSTEIN
Business Manager
Wylie Holdings LP
Lawrenceville
Oh well. There had to be at least a few old-school back-room political hacks out there who think its a fine idea if Luke Ravenstahl stays in office for another few years. After all, old-school, back-room, back-scratching politics is precisely how this city got into such a huge mess in the first place.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thank You, Jim Motznik... Blogging Makes a Difference

An anonymous reader of The People's Republic has left a brief -- but very important, interesting, and illuminating -- remark for the rest of us to enjoy. Responding to the final chapter of my three-part series about the Pittsburgh Police Department's secondary employment policies, the commenter noted the following:

I thoroughly enjoyed the series and emailed several friends to read it too. Funniest thing of all? If it hadn't been for the McIntire/Motznik blog battle, I might never have gotten interested in anyone's blogging. I can't thank you enough for providing me with new topics to use to start arguments all over town.
So I want to take this opportunity, once again, to publicly thank Pittsburgh City Councilmember Jim Motznik for drawing the public's attention to the burghosphere. It's nice to see how this one little blunder on his part is having a snowballing effect on our readership.

Who knows? Maybe a similar snowballing of public opinion could even follow as a result of things like this.

Failing City Services Create A Real Stink

Admittedly, it snowed a few inches this week. And it was cold. And the schools had to be closed for a few days. But really, as winter storms go, this one wasn't the end of the world. We didn't get hit nearly as hard as the eastern end of the state, and we've certainly had far worse snowfalls during my time here in Pittsburgh. I was able to clear my driveway and sidewalks without enlisting the aid of my wife, which means that the situation is better than it has been on at least three or four previous occasions in the past few years. And besides, whatever the weather may have done to us, all of it happened earlier in the week. My kids had a two-hour-delay on Thursday and the schools were back to a normal schedule yesterday. So things are back to a regular routine, right?

Well, no. Certainly not in my neighborhood. The streets are a God-awful mess and the garbage pickup is now four days late. Starving woodland rodent-like creatures with bushy tails -- from which my neighborhood takes its name -- are now digging into the heaps of trashbags piled along the street. Every trashbag seems to have at least one hole gnawed through it, and garbage is starting to get strewn all over the place.

Over at the Angry Drunk Bureaucrat, the city's response to this storm has become a topic of discussion. The ADB himself notes that city residents generally don't care about all the various scandals which have beset Interim Mayor Luke "Handcuffs" Ravenstahl. Most of them haven't even noticed the dozens of really questionable (and often downright stupid) decisions that he's made during his short term in office. But they definitely notice when the city fails to provide basic services:

You see, despite all of our punditry and pontificating, at the end of the day, the citizens of the City of Pittsburgh basically care about whether their day-to-day needs are being met. As much as we've enjoyed bloviating about them, Luke's little run in with the law or Jim Motznik's blog or Dennis Regan's, well, everything, are not going to be major factors in the May primary...

As long as the streets get plowed tonight.

Garbage pickup, crime, snow plowing, and the like are obvious, tangible examples of public works, both in the general and specific-Costa-run senses. The mayor is in charge of these services and, no matter the financial crunch impressed upon him by a previous administration or the limited number of resources at his disposal, if he cannot deliver, he's going to face a lot of angry voters.
The ADB's post elicited a few choice comments from his readers. Ed Heath, who is the author of the Cognitive Dissonance blog, offered up the following observation:
So what should I read into the salting situation? A main road in Stanton Heights, Hawthorne, on the east side of Stanton, was salted and plowed early while Forbes at Morewood, and indeed much of Shadyside, was not plowed and only lightly salted. (no hint of butter jokes, please)
Meanwhile, a reader calling himself "Jerry Doe" provided the view from yet another neighborhood:
Even despite the freakish weather, I can't remember the city doing a WORSE job in the S. Side. I disagree that the lying/handcuffing [and] mishandling of Regan/McnNilly won't have some impact; seriously, few issues [equal] the silver bullet, but I agree that mishandling of the basics will get the kid tossed out on his porcupine-like hair.
Back here in my allegedly-posh East End neighborhood, the roads are still bad days after the storm. Despite the impression that many people have of what goes on in these parts of town, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill certainly did not get top-notch city services. In fact, they are far worse than they have ever been during prior mayoral administrations. We have never, ever had to leave our garbage at the curb for four straight days with nary a sign of a garbage truck. For that matter, I'm not sure anyone could safely get a garbage truck down the street at the moment, as it's still covered in ice, slush, and snow.

It's not just me -- tin-foil-hat-wearing, nit-picking, blog-writing Ravenstahl-hater that I am -- who is noticing this breakdown in city services. The Tribune-Review is also providing an outlet for the voices of frustrated city residents:
Bonnie Seekford doesn't remember her Brighton Heights street ever looking so bad in the three decades her family has lived there.
Standing on the porch of her Wadlow Street home Friday, Seekford, 36, shook her head at the snow and ice that still covered the road and the pile of garbage bags sitting outside.

"They're plowing but not using any salt," she said. "They were supposed to take my trash away yesterday. I've called Environmental Services, but all I get is a recording."

Echoes of the frustration voiced by Seekford could be heard in neighborhoods around the city yesterday, where snow and ice still buried side streets two days after this week's storm.
The article is filled with complaints from all over the City of Pittsburgh; from Brighton Heights to Arlington to Perry South to Squirrel Hill. The city has truly fallen down on the job.

So it's not just Master Ravenstahl's scandals and immature decision making that's causing problems for our city. It's also his inability to get the basics accomplished. The best that can be said is that at least the squirrels are eating well.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

I honestly couldn't make up stories as laugh-out-loud hilarious as this one, even if I was writing for the Carbolic Smoke Ball. It seems that Pennsylvania House of Representative Majority Leader Bill DeWeese had decided, in the interests of fiscal restraint, that he will cut back on his personal spending a bit. He will no longer rely on a private (but taxpayer-financed) chauffeur to drive him around the state. As the Post-Gazette reports:

The state House's top Democrat has ended the practice of paying a driver to transport him to meetings around the state and from his Waynesburg district to the Capitol.

Majority Leader Bill DeWeese's office announced the change last night, nearly two weeks after the Post-Gazette reported he spent $32,000 last year on a part-time driver from Donna Hertig Enterprises.

"Rep. DeWeese recognizes that he is a steward of hard-earned tax dollars and he has canceled the practice of hiring an outside driver," said Tom Andrews, spokesman for the lawmaker.
I'll pause for a moment for you to wipe the tears out of your eyes, and for you to stop laughing over this portrayal of Mr. DeWeese as a well-meaning "steward" of our "hard-earned tax dollars".

Ready now? Good. Now get a load of the next paragraph:
In one month alone Mr. DeWeese spent $4,765 on the chaueffer, who drove Mr. DeWeese's personally owned pick-up truck. The charges don't include about $1,600 a month in mileage, which Mr. DeWeese recouped separately.
He was being chauffeured in a pickup truck? Wait, he hired someone to drive his own pickup truck? Why in God's name would anyone even bother?

The official excuse is that having someone else drive him allowed Mr. DeWeese to, "... safely make phone calls, read and work on legislation..." while driving back and forth from Harrisburg. All right, I'll concede one point. I think that we are all safer on the roads without having Mr. DeWeese -- who has proven to state taxpayers that he isn't exactly the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree -- attempt to drive and talk at the same time. Walking and chewing gum at the same time would almost certainly be more than Mr. DeWeese could handle, so driving and dialing (a bad idea for anyone) would be way-beyond-dangerous in his case.

But really. Can't Mr. DeWeese and his press secretary manage to make this announcement without making it seem like the rest of us are a bunch of idiots for demanding this change? The implication in this announcement is that, because the nasty Post-Gazette had to go and make a big deal about this practice, we will all have to suffer a multitude of negative and costly effects as a result. Now Mr. DeWeese won't be as productive during his 4-hour-drive to Harrisburg. He won't be able to work the phones for the good people of Pennsylvania. And he may just be forced to use his phone anyway, becoming a danger to himself and everyone else on the road.

Spare us the bullshit. Lots of us commute long distances. Lots of us have phone calls to make. Some of our phone calls concern things that are more important than anything that could possibly be happening in the state House of Representatives. Especially anything that a butt nugget like Mr. DeWeese, in all his pay-raising, bonus-awarding glory, might be involved in. And yet, all the rest of us manage to meet these challenges without hiring someone to drive us back and forth. Even if we did decide that we were so important that we would be better off hiring a chauffeur to handle the driving, we wouldn't have the unmitigated gall to ask every other citizen of the state to pay for it.

I just can't understand how those idiots in his district re-elected this moron.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Record Readership Levels!

Yes, I am perfectly well aware that the whole thing was way too long. Yes, I do realize that blogs attract an audience that wants immediate gratification. Yes, I understand that the blog format works best when the posts are both short and frequent. With all that in mind, it was perhaps a mistake on my part to undertake an examination of a topic as complex as the police secondary employment story. It took an enormous amount of my time to pull the whole thing off, and my natural tendency to write in a detailed and very verbose style meant that I ended up demanding one hell of a lot from my readers. For those of you who did manage to make it through all three parts (or even halfway through one of them), I both apologize and extend my gratitude.

Was it all worth it? Well, I'm proud to say that The People's Republic attracted more readers on Sunday than it ever had on any other day before that. Monday was even better. And Tuesday was the biggest day in this blog's rather short history. And not only were more people coming here, but those who did visit seemed to get more out of it. The average visitor spent far more time connected to the site, and viewed far more individual articles, than they ever had in the past. None of these numbers are huge, but they are a new record for the The People's Republic, and I take a certain degree of pride in them.

That was the good news. The bad news is that the series didn't generate anywhere near as many reader comments as I had expected. And I was unhappily surprised to see that there were no contrarian comments made in response to these posts. I had rather expected that, with the ability to post comments anonymously, I might draw the ire of a few FOP members who would tell me that I was full of shit. Or at least a snide comment or two from Matt H. But, so far at least, it hasn't happened. I guess I'm only surprised because I was writing about something that I didn't -- and still don't -- know very much about. I'm almost certain to have gotten a few things wrong here and there. I expected that my errors would be caught and spit back in my face to impeach the credibility of what I was trying to say.

It didn't happen. And I don't know why. If I was an egotistical butt nugget, I would pat myself on the back and tell myself that I had written something so convincing, so unimpeachable, that it was simply impossible to argue with. But I'm not that egotistical, and -- while I stand behind every last word of what I wrote -- I'm sure that there are points in there where a contrary point of view would really help to illuminate the story even further.

As I'm sure I've noted in the past, I don't write these posts with any expectation (or even hope) of making an impact of any kind. But I'm beginning to suspect that this long series of very long posts may have made even less impact than usual. There is no indication at all that the mainstream press has any interest in the story. The city didn't pick up my trash today and still hasn't plowed the street I live on, but I really doubt that they are doing that out of a desire for revenge. There isn't any suggestion that this issue has been noticed by the Peduto campaign, who could -- maybe -- get a little bit of mileage out of it if they wanted to.

Heck, even the rest of the burghosphere is pretty damn silent about the end of the series. I got some nice advertisement for all three of the posts over at the Burgh Report, which encouraged its readers to take a look at them. Yet only one local blog, the Pittsburgh Comet provided any kind of review or reaction to the posts themselves. And everyone else -- even the most vehemently anti-Ravenstahl members of the burgosphere -- haven't mentioned the series in any way. Hell, John McIntire devoted nearly all of his MacYapper post today to a discussion about, and even a few pictures of, Jennifer Aniston's naked breasts. And frankly, as breasts go, her's aren't even all that great.

Don't get me wrong. The Admiral is not crying out for love and attention. My feelings aren't hurt. I'm proud of what I wrote, happy to see so many readers here, and that's more than I usually take away from the things I post here. The effort was worth it to me, simply for those reasons alone. But I am thinking that maybe it's time for a slight change in style for the things I post in the future. I'd like to stay on political topics and focus on local political figures, but it does seem that I would make a bigger splash if I could incorporate a few pictures of naked breasts every once and a while. Does anyone have any topless pictures of Darlene Harris that I can use?