Saturday, March 24, 2007

Fleet Exercises

The People's Republic of Pittsburgh regrets to announce that the Admiral is currently underway conducting a FLEETEX in preparation for a future deployment. There are hydrographic surveys to be done, enemy defenses to be probed, and new liberty ports to be explored. All units from the regular battle group, combined with vessels of intense historical value and selected ships from foreign navies, are expected to participate.

Lest anyone believe that the political turmoil of the past week has driven the Admiral into hiding, he wishes to make it clear that these exercises have been planned for many weeks, and that it has taken a great deal of time to get all of these units into position. The Admiral anticipates his return to homeport in roughly one week's time. During this interval, new commentary may or may not appear in this space; the Admiral makes no promises one way or another.

Friday, March 23, 2007

How the Endorsements Killed Democracy

In the past few days, I have encountered a few viewpoints that have forced me to reexamine the events of the past month or so. The first was an excellent post over at Pittsburgh Comet, which examines the stated reasons behind Pittsburgh City Councilmember Bill Peduto's decision to pull out of the Democratic primary. The second was an email that I received from a loyal reader, which challenged a few of the observations that I made in an earlier post. Together, they have sparked a few ideas in my head, and they cast a light upon just how the mayoral race might have been affected by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee (ACDC) endorsement vote on Sunday, 4th March 2007. In some small way, this most anti-democratic of Pittsburgh institutions -- the idea that party leaders, and not everyday citizens, should chose who is worthy to seek elective office -- is responsible, once again, for ensuring that our election was over before the first voter had a chance to cast a ballot.

In my earlier post, I took the Post-Gazette to task for providing inadequate coverage of the mayoral race, particularly over the past month or so. I presented a kind of ironic argument that it was only now, once Mr. Peduto had pulled out of the race, that the Post-Gazette -- and particularly its editorial board -- was paying any attention to either him or the election in general. I was far from alone in making these observations. Similar arguments can be found over at The Burgh Report and 2 Political Junkies.

Specifically, the Post-Gazette was faulted throughout the burghosphere for either neglecting a number of important issues entirely, or relegating them to its "Early Returns" blog, which appears only online and thus has a far more limited readership than the print version of the newspaper. A list of these issues would include:

  • Endless debate dodging by the Ravenstahl campaign,
  • The use of the "hands on hips" picture on both city and campaign documents,
  • The overdue details of the the tax abatement plan, and,
  • The flip-flop answers about contraception
The paper could even be accused of providing fairly thin coverage of the interim mayor's illicit trip to New York City on Ron Burkle's private jet, at least in the days prior to Mr. Peduto's decision to pull out of the race.

In addition to these accusations largely ignoring issues in the "hard news" portion of the paper, the Post-Gazette's editorials and opinion columns were taken to task for some questionable decisions. The newspaper had, after all, responded to the Master Raventahl's Heinz Field arrest with a kindly wink, and described the favoritism shown to him afterwards as something that was "very Pittsburgh". The theft of Mr. Peduto's policy ideas, such as property tax abatement, was also given a grinning nod in the pages of the Post-Gazette.

But, as one of my readers pointed out in an email this morning, the editorial board also has some history of taking Master Ravenstahl to task when they think he deserves it. They castigated him over the Regan/McNeilly case, and even accused him of using "lame ethics" in this matter. They also provided a very unfavorable reaction to his lacking-in-detail tax abatement proposal, especially as compared to the plan put forward by Mr. Peduto. So there is some degree of balance in the paper's editorial positions, as indeed Tony Norman himself argues in today's paper.

Instead of being blamed for consistently giving Luke Ravenstahl a free pass on his endless sequence of ethical fumbles, the editorial board at the Post-Gazette might be better accused of, at least in recent weeks, simply ignoring the mayoral election altogether. They published their tax abatement editorial on 18 Feb 2007, and that was largely the final word they provided on any mayoral topic until Mr. Peduto withdrew from the Democratic primary this week. There wasn't even a reaction on the editorial page to the ACDC endorsement vote. Instead, they chose to cast their attention on such vitally important topics as the excessive length of the Oscars telecast and the introduction of a new form of postage stamp.

Thus the sins of the Post-Gazette seem to be ones of omission rather than commission. When you look at the list of stories that the paper has largely ignored, you will notice a very clear trend. Every last one of these topics surfaced only recently. And for the most part, these issues have only become truly relevant in the weeks since the ACDC endorsement vote, which Mr. Peduto lost by a landslide.

After that defeat, the Peduto campaign went largely, and rather unexpectedly, silent. While blogs such as this one were busy pointing out that there were still no debates scheduled between the two candidates, that Interim Mayor Ravesntahl had broken his promise to provide "the full data" on his tax abatement proposal, and that the same photographs appeared on both city documents and the Ravenstahl campaign website, there was really only a token reaction from the Peduto campaign. And more importantly, there was no sign that the Peduto campaign itself was driving any of these stories.

Prior to the ACDC endorsement vote, it had not been that way at all. When Ravenstahl went a week without responding to the Peduto's initial debate challenge, the Peduto campaign went on the attack with a press release. News coverage followed, including some pointed questions put to the interim mayor by mainstream reporters. A few days before the endorsement, when the Werling settlement was coming before city council, Mr. Peduto took bold action to demand the reinstatement of the cost recovery program. But once Mr. Peduto lost the endorsement decision, we simply stopped hearing from him and his campaign. While the blogs were pushing forward, Mr. Peduto seemed to go into a sulking and depressive funk.

This funk lasted a few short weeks before Mr. Peduto decided to throw in the towel altogether. But as The Pittsburgh Comet points out, this decision -- even when examined from a number of different angles -- doesn't seem in any way rational.

Mr. Peduto's purported reasons for leaving the race can be distilled into the two related threads. First, there is the inescapable reality that Pittsburghers seem committed to their "give the kid a chance" delusions. Secondly, the only way to defeat that mindset would be to go massively negative, and that was something that Mr. Peduto simply didn't want to do. A third very important aspect of Mr. Peduto's decision is that he chose to announce it at the very last moment, just hours before the filing deadline. As a result, there wasn't even an opportunity for any other Democrat to get into the race, and voters will be left with no options whatsoever in our mayoral election.

Mr. Peduto seemed most upset that there was no discussion of the issues taking place, and that he was most in demand by the news media to discuss the unethical behavior of his opponent. Yet there seemed to be no push by Bill Peduto to discuss these issues once the endorsement defeat was behind him. Even the burghosphere, faced with a lack of either media or campaign reaction to the stories we were putting forward, began to see Mr. Peduto's defeat as all but inevitable. There were no more Peduto press releases to remind us that the interim mayor was dodging debates. There was no public push for council to adopt Peduto's tax abatement plan instead his opponent's. There were no reminders from the Peduto campaign that the Ravenstal tax abatement details were well overdue. If there were no discussions about the issues, it is largely because Mr. Peduto wasn't asking anyone to have them.

Bill Peduto could have, and should have, continued his campaign. He could have, and should have, continued pushing every last issue that was important to him and the citizens of Pittsburgh. If he was adverse to going negative, he simply could have refused to do so. Pointing out that your opponent's plans are inferior to your own does not constitute negative campaigning. And sometimes, doing so can even force your opponent to take a position on something that would otherwise have been ignored entirely. By leaving the race, Mr. Peduto has guaranteed that these issues will now never be addressed, however begrudgingly, by the Ravenstahl administration.

Bill Peduto could have, as he had done in 2005, stayed focused on the issues and lost the primary with honor. Or he could have used his withdrawal from the Democratic primary as a springboard to announce his independent bid for reform in the City of Pittsburgh. Either option would have assured Pittsburgh's voters -- perhaps a minority of them, but important voices nonetheless -- that there would at least be a choice on the ballot. Maybe we weren't going to win, but we would be given an honest means of communicating to Luke Ravenstahl that we are unhappy with his flawed leadership. Instead of giving us options, Bill Peduto took them away. He turned tail and left many of us out in the cold.

It really would seem that his defeat for the Democratic endorsement, which he did not even seek in his 2005 campaign, destroyed Mr. Peduto's will to go on. In the weeks that followed, his campaign became so timid and weakly reactive that his withdrawal from the race could best be viewed as a mercy killing. My personal view, having never once given a shit about the political endorsement of any group, and especially not the worthless Allegheny County Democratic machine, is that Mr. Peduto's reaction was massively excessive and largely unwarranted. In fact, from my perspective, being unendorsed by that particular group of mental midgets was an enormous asset instead of any kind of liability.

But the evidence seems clear that it affected Mr. Peduto in ways that I will never be able to understand. A few hundred people got together and decided that Mr. Peduto wasn't the best man to represent their own narrow interests as the Mayor of Pittsburgh. And Mr. Peduto decided that he would rather listen to them than to the actual citizens who are supposed to make these decisions in our democracy. For months, Mr. Peduto was our only hope. And now, because of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee -- and Mr. Peduto's gross overreaction to their opinion -- our city has no hope at all.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

"Cojònes" No Longer

City Councilmember Bill Peduto has pulled out of the mayoral race, and democracy is effectively dead in Pittsburgh. In retrospect, we all would have been far better off if we had just let Yarone Zober have his way. If we had permitted him to bully the city into granting Luke Ravenstahl the entire remainder of Bob O'Connor's term, we simply could have skipped the disgusting fiasco that is the 2007 mayoral election coronation.

The funniest damn thing today is watching the Post-Gazette's editorial board rip Peduto a new asshole for dropping out of the race, on the same day that they also -- finally -- decide to take Master Ravenstahl to task for his latest ethical faux pas. After months and months where they never wrote a single editorial concerning these things. After they blew off the Heinz Field incident as something that was just "very Pittsburgh". After ignoring the endless foot dragging on the debates, and saying nothing at all about the overdue details of the interim mayor's tax abatement plan. After burying the few stories of Luke Ravenstahl's misteps on the Early Returns blog, where only a tiny fraction of the readership was ever likely to see them. Now, they suddenly blame Peduto for dropping out, when the fact that they had so spectacularly dropped to ball in covering these imporant issues was Mr. Peduto's primary stated reason for exiting the race at this time.

An even larger laugh-line from the Post-Gazette comes when they describe city Republicans in the following manner:

The Republicans, as hapless as ever in Pittsburgh, have no candidate for November.
While their statements are certainly fair, one has to ask just what in the hell the Post-Gazette has ever done to promote anything approaching a two-party system in Pittsburgh. In the lead-up to the last mayoral general election, they provided Bob O'Conner with at least four times -- maybe even more -- as much coverage as Joe Weinroth, who was running for the office on the Republican ticket. Part of the reason why the Republican party is so very hapless in this town is because the city's premiere newspaper simply doesn't provide any coverage of the party's candidates. Instead, the Post-Gazette falls into a circular argument, in which they don't bother to write about Republican candidates because they don't feel the candidates are viable, which simply ensures that local Republicans will remain both unknown to the public and unviable for city office..

All that would be fine. The paper is free to ignore the Republicans if they like, and to play such a big role in ensuring that no Republican ever finds his or her way into city government. But it takes some real balls, after years of doing things that way, to turn around and bitch about it now that the vaunted Democratic machine has provided us with a coronation instead of an election.

As far as Bill Peduto goes, I've had a few hours now to relax, calm down, and look at things with a more distant perspective. After deep thought and reflection, I've realized that I'm far more pissed off at him, his stupid decision, and the horse he rode in on than I was at 3:15 this afternoon. I don't forgive easily when politicians shit on me, and I will not be forgiving Bill Peduto.

In earlier posts, I had advocated an independent candidacy for Mr. Peduto. When he made his announcement pulling out of the primary, I prayed -- literally prayed -- that he would announce an independent run at the same time. We didn't get that. Nor did we get a firm denial of any effort to appear on the mayoral ballot in November. Instead, he's taking a kind of "wait and see" approach to see how things develop, and holding out the option of maybe, possibly, announcing an independent bid later on. In fact, he's keeping his campaign headquarters active. He's going forward with a previously-scheduled fund-raiser next week. Maybe he's doing all of this because he fully plans to run as an independent in November.

But if that's his plan, I'm not going along for the ride. I'm not getting screwed twice by Bill Peduto. It would be one thing if his independent candidacy had begun today. I would be down at Peduto headquarters right this second, checkbook in hand and ready to hit the bricks on his behalf. But, as noted over at The Burgh Report, a political second act might be legally impossible at this point. Even if it is permissible, Mr. Peduto can't possibly hope to regain all his supporters after he has gotten into the race, then dropped out, made it seem like everything is done, and then makes an attempt, a few months later, to resurrect things all over again.

Even if he later announces the independent candidacy that I have so longed for, I can no longer have any confidence that he will be able to stick it out to the end. I can no longer have any confidence -- despite his excellent ideas and his well-researched policy positions -- that he will have the political courage to take the steps needed win an election to any executive office. Good ideas are great. But if you can't do what it takes to transport those ideas into the mayor's office, then you really shouldn't waste everyone's time by even discussing them. You aren't going to change Pittsburgh by offering these ideas to Luke Ravenstahl. He lacks the capacity to even understand them, and will never implement anything that goes against the interests of his old-school machine.

It's one thing to stick by a pledge to hold a clean campaign. I respect that. It's fine to want to focus on issues instead of image. I really, really, really respect that. But Luke Ravenstahl is a complete and utter disaster as mayor of Pittsburgh. Our city desperately needs to see him removed from office. By getting into the race in January -- and by communicating that he would be in the race for months prior to his official announcement -- Mr. Peduto may have very well kept other worthy Democratic candidates out of the contest. To suddenly turn his back on the race on the very last day possible, ensuring that Master Ravenstahl has an all-but-clear field ahead of him, is a betrayal on many different levels.

I don't see this as a betrayal to me, personally. I never got around to endorsing his candidacy. And I had not yet decided whether I was ever going to do so. Instead, Bill Peduto betrayed what little bit of a democratic process we have left in this city. And he betrayed Pittsburgh by sticking us with a mayor that only one-ninth of us have ever voted for, and who has proven himself -- time and time again -- to be one of the worst governmental executives that I have ever seen. Some betrayals are simply unforgivable. And this is one of them.

The only good news in all of this is that the blogging will simply have to continue, stronger than ever. Despite the Post-Gazette's sudden concerns about the state of Pittsburgh's democracy, we can all rest assured that in less than a month they and the rest of the media will be back to business as usual. In fact, without a viable election to focus their attention, I would imagine that the coverage of Luke Ravenstahl's endless string of poor decisions will soon become virtually non-existent. Instead, lovely puff pieces about his hairstyle and clothing selections are likely to become the norm. But, as Maria over at 2 Political Junkies has already promised, the bloggers will always be watching.

We may be the only hope that democracy has in our city. And, collectively, we will just have to rise to the challenge.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Email Sent by the Peduto Campaign

Somehow, the Peduto campaign got ahold of my email address -- my real-life one, and not the one that I use for The People's Republic. I never figured out how they got it, but I guess it doesn't matter much anymore. Since they took the time to send it to me, however, I thought I might as well share this one with all of you.

Dear Friends,

Pittsburgh deserves a political campaign based on ideas to reform our city, and I realize that running a victorious political campaign would require dividing a city still mourning the loss of Mayor Bob O'Connor.

I have come to the conclusion that it is in Pittsburgh's best interest to avoid the divisiveness of a political campaign. Therefore, I have decided to withdraw from the May primary. I came to this decision after discussions with my family and closest friends. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, I am sought out more to discuss my opponent's personal missteps than to discuss the important issues facing the city. Reforming the city is too important to continue a political campaign that could divide the city and stifle reform.

My heart is not heavy; it is grateful. Grateful for the hundreds of passionate volunteers who have walked with me door-to-door. Grateful for those who baked homemade cookies with my name iced on the top. Grateful for those parents who pulled out magic markers and sat down with their children to create signs bearing my name. Grateful for the College democrats--the leaders of tomorrow--who reached out to fellow students and brought them into the political process. It is their commitment that has empowered me. They've made me a better person, given me the courage to continue reforming the city, shown me that a passion to change Pittsburgh doesn't make me a lone reformer--it makes me the leader of a movement.

Reforming Pittsburgh is going to take commitment, hard work, and strength. If we remain dedicated to common-sense reform and if we remain willing to debate the issues--the important issues--we will return Pittsburgh to greatness.

I am proud of what we have accomplished and of our commitment to strong, progressive reform.


William Peduto

Peduto Withdraws, Future Uncertain

The full text of City Councilmember Bill Peduto's announcement, withdrawing from the May Democratic mayoral primary, is available over at The Burgh Report. Mr. Peduto didn't say a word about what the future may bring from him. On one hand, he was careful to mention only the May primary when he said he was withdrawing. He also returned to the topic of Pittsburgh's much-needed reforms over and over again. These things suggest that he recognizes how much Pittsburgh needs somebody like him, and that he may indeed run in November. On the other, his stated reasons for pulling out -- that the race had descended to focus on irrelevancies, that Interim Mayor Ravenstahl was ducking the debates, and that any contest would be too divisive -- are unlikely to change between now and the end of the year.

So I don't know what to think. If he was going to run in November, this would have been the optimal time to make such an announcement. If he's not, then why not just go ahead and lose the primary and be done with it... why pull out today, on the exact deadline that he needs to in order to make an independent run possible?

Holy Shit! Peduto Withdrawing?

The Post-Gazette's Rich Lord is reporting that City Councilmember Bill "Cojònes" Peduto is withdrawing from the May 15th Democratic primary. I can only assume that he is not completely giving up on his dream of becoming Pittsburgh's mayor. Does this mean that he might have actually decided, as I recommend in a few previous posts, to run as an Independent in the November general election? I certainly hope so... stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

No Beat, You Can't Dance To It, But Amazingly Fast

Wow. Only 12 or so hours after this morning's Tribune-Review story hit the streets, somebody had already posted this one on YouTube. It has no music. It has no sound of any kind. The final bit of text fades out before most people will be able to read all of it. But it still gets an important point across.

Mainstream Reporter Calls Ravenstahl A Liar

For months, many members of the burghosphere have been noting that the mainstream media wasn't giving the administration of Pittsburgh Interim Mayor Luke "The Debate Chicken" Ravenstahl a hard enough look. They seemed to be ignoring all of the obvious problems. They seemed to be rolling over and accepting all the lies. But today, at least some of them seem to be really pissed off at our young interim mayor. And at least one of them, WTAE reporter Andrew Stockley, is going so far as speak the obvious and call Master Ravenstahl an outright liar. In his blog on the WTAE website, Mr. Stockley offers the following observations:

So what's the story here? The mayor's decision to accept Burkle's invitation to spend the night in the Big Apple? The mayor having dinner with the co-owner of the city's hockey team after closing a $290M arena deal? The mayor missing a meeting the following morning and having someone else fill in for him? Nope. The real story here is that the mayor lied.

He was asked by the Trib earlier in the day if he had traveled to New York. He said no initially, before later changing his story. He says he went on the trip because he wanted to discuss "campaign philosophy" with Burkle -- a well-known supporter of fellow democrats Bill and Hillary Clinton. He later said he couldn't even remember when they went to dinner.

The mayor's decision to accept Burkle's generosity was not wrong. It did not cost the taxpayers money and while he did miss a meeting the following day, he had someone to cover for him. Also, as long as he reports it to the proper officials, I'm sure it's not a violation of any campaign rules. Where the mayor messed up was not being up front when asked the about the trip initially. Now, he's talking about actually reimbursing Burkle for the cost of a flight.

I'm not saying mayor Ravenstahl is alone in his choice not to come forward and be honest. There seems to be something in public office that causes many leaders to flat out lie to people - and I'm not sure what it is. I would just hope that this young mayor - who has become symbolic of a change of political course in this city - would set an example for a new generation of office seekers and not play the game of so-many of his predecessors in public life.

Perhaps Mayor Luke will prove me wrong. I hope he does. He has already made this mistake once before - when he first denied he had been arrested at Heinz Field two years earlier. Mayor, the truth is is a wonderful thing. Please use it. You will find it takes a lot less work to be honest than to lie.
I would dispute Mr. Stockley's assertion that Luke Ravenstahl is somehow "... symbolic of a change of political course in this city". Instead, I think the evidence clearly shows that the interim mayor is no exemplar of change at all. Far from moving us forward, he appears dedicated to keeping Pittsburgh political life firmly anchored to the old-style patronage system that dominated most of the last century. To Luke Ravenstahl's mind, the past is just around the corner.

But at least Mr. Stockley recognizes that Master Ravenstahl is a liar. That's enough, with any luck, to at least cast some doubt on his qualifications to lead our city government, even in the mind of a mainstream reporter. Lying is a bad thing for any politician, but lying to the press can quickly sour an office-holder's most necessary and symbiotic relationship. Now, maybe the press will finally start asking some of the more skeptical questions that have been haunting the burghosphere for months.

At Some Point, It Gets To Be Pathological

Some of you probably think that I'm happy about this. Or that I'm rejoicing in the opportunity to stick it to Pittsburgh Interim Mayor Luke "The Debate Chicken" Ravenstahl for yet another minor scandal. Or that I am so desperate about his prospects in the upcoming Democratic primary election that I'm willing to exploit this latest situation for all it's worth. But to be completely honest with everyone, I'm none of those things. I don't feel happy. I'm certainly in no way rejoiceful about these latest revelations. And desperation is the furthest thing from my mind at this point. Instead, if I had to pick any words to describe my feelings at this point, I would say that I am just enormously sad about the entire thing.

Thanks to some excellent reporting by the Tribune-Review's Jeremy Boren, the region woke up to yet another bad-news story about Interim Mayor Ravenstahl. It is certainly nothing to be happy about. The burghosphere is, as you may have guessed, buzzing with this story (The Burgh Report I, The Burgh Report II, 2 Political Junkies, and MacYapper). Even there -- in venues that are starkly anti-Ravenstahl -- the mood is far from gleeful. Our city has a mayor for whom bold-faced lying has become an almost autonomic and reflexive act. That is certainly nothing to celebrate.

The story, if for some reason you haven't already encountered it elsewhere, begins last Tuesday, after the big public announcement which heralded the deal to build a new arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Interim Mayor Ravenstahl was offered the opportunity to fly to New York City with the Penguins' co-owner Ron Burkle on a his private Boeing 757 for a dinner at some swanky restaurant. Despite the fact that there were plenty of important things on Master Ravenstahl's schedule for the next day, he agreed to join Mr. Burkle on this little celebratory junket. As the Tribune-Review describes these events:

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hopped a private jet to New York City to have dinner and drinks at a posh Manhattan hotel hours after announcing a $290 million deal to build a new Uptown arena for the Penguins.

After last Tuesday's announcement, Ravenstahl attended the Penguins game against the Buffalo Sabres at Mellon Arena with team co-owner Ron Burkle, who invited him onto his private jet and treated the mayor to a meal at the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan. [snip...]

Because of the trip, Ravenstahl missed a meeting Wednesday morning with Hill District community leaders in the office of Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato to discuss how to develop homes and businesses around the site of the Penguins new arena.

The Rev. Johnnie Monroe, of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, was there.

"We would have preferred the mayor himself, but I think Mr. (Yarone) Zober was there," Monroe said, referring to Ravenstahl's chief of staff. "We were all right with that. We were hoping that at the next meeting he's going to be present himself along with a representative from the (city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority) and the Penguins.

"We were promised that when the next meeting is held, that all of the participants will be in the room," Monroe said.

Ravenstahl said he missed the meeting because of the trip to Manhattan.

"Unfortunately, I wasn't in town at the time," he said. "Yarone was there. He handled everything on our side."
Anyone who's spent any time living in this city knows, or damn well should know, just how sensitive the topic of arena-building is in the Lower Hill District. The neighborhood was more or less decimated when the Civic Arena -- now called Mellon Arena -- was built there in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Nobody, and especially not the people who live there, wants to see any additional negative effects flow into the area, either from the construction of the new arena or from the redevelopment of land where Mellon Arena now sits. These people are justifiably concerned with what the future will bring, and they wanted some reassurance from our local political leaders.

And to some extent, they got those reassurances. But despite the fact that they are residents of the City of Pittsburgh, they ended up meeting with the County Executive instead of the Interim Mayor. At the time, I thought that this was a bit strange and potentially insensitive of Master Ravenstahl. Why wouldn't he meet with them, when it was clearly the right thing to do? Why allow County Executive Dan Onoroto to fill the role that was rightfully his? But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that he skipped this important meaning with a key constituency because he couldn't resist the opportunity to hang around with a billionaire and see the inside of his big shiny airplane.

In particular, I really like the quotation in the Tribune-Review from Rev. Johnnie Monroe. He's obviously a smart man, and he clearly knows that he should try to spin his response to be as favorable to Interim Mayor Ravenstahl as possible, but there are some subtle digs in there as well. He expresses disappointment in the mayor's behavior by noting that he and his colleagues had expected, and would have preferred, that Master Ravenstahl had been in attendance. He further conveys this disappointment by noting that he only "thinks" that mayoral chief of staff Yarone Zober attended the meeting, implying that sending an underling was not enough to command any serious attention. And he broadcasts, loud and clear, the message that Luke Ravenstahl had damn well better show up at the next meeting, and bring along a few other noticeable absentees who also missed the last one.

At least Dan Onoroto knew better. At least our County Executive knew how important this meeting was to our city, even if our city's interim mayor was acting like a giddy summer intern who was suddenly asked to drive some important papers out to the vacation home of the managing partner.

Deciding to accept this invitation by Mr. Burkle would be bad enough, of course. It sends a message that Luke Ravenstahl would far rather spend his time with rich white guys than poor black ones. But what is even more disturbing is that, yet again, Master Ravensthal choose to mislead a reporter when he was asked about his behavior. As told by the Tribune-Review:

Ravenstahl initially told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Monday morning that he did not travel to New York, but he changed his story in the afternoon after the Trib confronted him with more details about the overnight trip.

Ravenstahl initially was asked whether he had traveled to New York "on anything related to the Penguins." He said he denied it because he didn't consider the trip to be Penguins-related business. [snip...]

This wasn't the first Ravenstahl denial to turn into an admission during his 6 1/2 months in office.

On Jan. 18, after denying it for months, he acknowledged that police handcuffed and detained him before a 2005 Steelers game at Heinz Field. He never was charged.
The really sad thing about this latest attempt by Master Ravenstahl to lie to the press is that it was completely unnecessary. Clearly, the press had the details about the trip. Clearly, the story was going to come out. Clearly, the interim mayor was going to have to come up with some kind of ex post facto justification to make the trip seem more important than the meeting with leaders from the Hill District. But instead of just making these justifications, Luke Ravenstahl went out of his way -- as he has in the past -- to mislead the press.

Again, we are being treated to tortured explanations about why this lie wasn't really a lie. We are told that because the interim mayor was asked about a trip to New York involving the Penguins, it was acceptable for him lie to the reporter. In his mind, because he considered this journey -- with the Penguins' co-owner -- to be more about his campaign than about hockey, this was not a lie at all. On KDKA Radio this morning, Master Ravenstahl even tried to argue that this wasn't "another" lie to the press, because his lies about the Heinz Field incident hadn't been made directly to the Tribune-Review itself:

And, and, you know, with... without, uh, you know, I guess, expressing my frustration too much, uh, I was never, ever questioned by the, uh, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about the Heinz Field incident and so forth. For that newspaper to claim that I denied to them for months, uh, anything that happened at Heinz Field is just.. it's just flat-out wrong, and uh, I guess I was a little bit frustrated as I read the article this morning, with, uh, uh, I guess, uh, with the tone of it, and, and the approach that was taken, because in my opinion, uh, you know, you can.. you can get me for what I did that day, but don't sensationalize, uh, and, and, make things up that just aren't true. And I think that's... that was the most unfortunate part of the story this morning.
Of course, if we are going to be parsing semantics with such a fine-toothed comb, it is important to recognize that today's Tribune-Review article never claimed that the mayor had made his Heinz Field denials to directly the Tribune-Review itself. It says only, "On Jan. 18, after denying it for months, he acknowledged that police handcuffed and detained him before a 2005 Steelers game at Heinz Field." There is no mention of precisely to whom these denials were made. It's not even implied that these denials were made to the Tribune-Review. No matter what the meaning of the term "is" is, the interim mayor lied yet again on KDKA this morning.

At a certain stage, this continuing pattern of telling outright lies in the face of press questioning becomes enormously disturbing. It begins to seem like the symptoms of some enormous underlying character flaw. Master Ravenstahl could had held off the reporter with a simple, "I have no comment on that right now, I'm afraid. I want to look into things and make sure that we have all of the information that you are looking for. I'll have someone call you back in a few hours." But instead, he reverts to this pattern of attempting mislead a reporter by lying about things, and then being forced to reverse himself when his lies become inescapably apparent.

This pattern doesn't serve anybody well. But then again, neither does our interim mayor.

Monday, March 19, 2007

It's Official: Ravenstahl is a Frightened Little Wuss

Pittsburgh's interim mayor, Luke "The Debate Chicken" Ravenstahl, has now spent exactly four straight weeks cowering in fear and attempting to evade any and all debates with his opponent in the May Democratic primary, City Councilmember Bill "Cojònes" Peduto. The challenge was issued by Mr. Peduto on Monday, 19th February 2007. It has yet to be responded to in any substantive fashion by either Master Ravenstahl or the adults who control his every waking thought. For a while, it seemed somewhat possible to believe -- just maybe -- that Master Ravensthal's failure to respond was due solely to ordinary scheduling conflicts. But it's been four weeks at this point. Mr. Peduto has issued his challenge again and again, and has offered to "bend over backwards" to fit the interim mayor's schedule. The only reasonable conclusion, after nearly a month of ducking the challenge, is that Luke Ravenstahl is simply afraid to put his ideas before the people of Pittsburgh, and that he is terrified of confronting Mr. Peduto one-on-one.

I recognize that, in this particular post, I am using much stronger language than usual. While I have long been a critic of Master Ravenstahl and his administration, I usually attempt to maintain some level of decorum in these discussions. But, to put it plainly, I am finally -- and quite justifiably -- completely pissed off. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior by the interim mayor. He is shortchanging every last one of us, including those who are firmly and irreversibly on his side. He is denying us any opportunity to look into his eyes and judge his ability to think on his feet. And even more importantly, he is preventing us from gaining understand anything at all about his plans for our city's future.

He should be ashamed, but it would seem that he is well beyond shame at this point.

I recognize that there are those of you are firmly behind Interim Mayor Ravenstahl in this election. This post probably angers many of you. But I ask that you set aside your anger for a few seconds and hear me out. Because this continual refusal to hold any debates whatsoever is hurting you and your city just as surely as it is hurting me and everyone else who lives here. Nobody is being well served by this cowardly behavior. Not you, not me, and not even Luke Ravenstahl himself.

Political competition is critical to the functioning of a democracy. The crucible of competition is often the only thing that truly moves us forward, vapid slogans notwithstanding. We are all best served when there is at least a bit of heat being applied to our elected leaders. Even when we are firmly on their side, they still do their best work for us when they are facing the heat of competition. By refusing to debate Mr. Peduto -- by cowering in fear over the very prospect of doing so -- Master Ravenstahl is allowing this election to descend into something approaching a coronation. By refusing to subject himself to any kind of confrontation, he is denying himself the opportunity to define his views and to refine his own political skills. Should he allow himself to take an easy walk to victory on May 15th, he will have no reason to even consider the needs of anyone apart from himself and those within his immediate circle.

Ultimately, this isn't about who will win the election. The likely results of the primary are becoming increasingly clear by the day, and very few of us honestly expect Mr. Peduto to win. Luke Ravenstahl is likely to triumph, regardless of what occurs at any debate with his opponent. Quite frankly, Master Ravenstahl seems to be a fairly capable speaker, especially when he is well prepared with a set of semi-scripted remarks. And any minor mistakes on his part would be easily compensated for in the minds of most voters, who would just figure that one can't expect perfection from somebody so young, and would fall back into a "give the kid a chance" mindset. He has nothing to fear from debating, and yet the overwhelming sense is that he remains, nevertheless, terrified of doing so.

For those of you who are tempted to repeat the claim, as Interim Mayor Ravenstahl himself did in yesterday's Tribune-Review, that his campaign is working hard to resolve all of the details surrounding these debates, I would ask you to spare us. The story is bullshit, and everyone knows it. There is no way in hell that it could possibly take four whole weeks to negotiate these details. The Ravenstahl campaign is clearly stalling, clearly afraid, and clearly shortchanging the voters of our city by refusing to engage in these debates.

It is, truly, time for someone to break out the chicken suit.

Whither the Pittsburgh Promise?

The longer this goes on, the more it looks like the Pittsburgh Promise is suffering the fate of most promises made by Interim Mayor Luke "The Debate Chicken" Ravenstahl. Announced with great fanfare in mid-December 2006 amid an avalanche of generalities and an all-too-typical dearth of specifics, the Pittsburgh Promise now seems to be withering from neglect. The program is woefully underfunded, having received only a single public donation of a token amount. And this weekend's announcement by one of our region's biggest charitable donors makes it seem all the more likely that the Pittsburgh Promise will go unfulfilled.

The basic notion behind the plan, at least at first glance, seemed quite positive. Many of those who heralded its announcement felt that the Pittsburgh Promise was likely to provide an enormous boost for our city's schools and our children's future. If it ever gets off the ground, the program's stated aim is to ensure that any graduate of the Pittsburgh Public Schools -- regardless of test scores, GPA, class rank, or academic record -- will be able to attend college without having to worry about paying for it.

Like all scholarship programs, it of course would have some strings attached. Or at least, it apparently would, if the Pittsburgh Program ever advances to the stage where its full details can be made available to the public. What we do know is that the Kalamazoo Promise, on which the Pittsburgh program is supposed to be based, has certain restrictions. We can only assume that those restrictions would be mirrored here.

To be eligible for 100% funding, a child would likely have to attend the Pittsburgh Public Schools for all 13 years (K-12) of their primary and secondary education. And tuition would be provided only for those who chose to attend one of Pennsylvania's state-run colleges and universities. But aside from those rather understandable limits, the program seemed to have great potential to attract college-bound students back into the Pittsburgh Public School system. Skeptics, including myself, have remarked on some of the unintended consequences that are likely to flow from this effort. But its intended goals are certainly worthy and admirable.

No matter how promising the Pittsburgh Promise may have seemed when it was initially introduced, there were a number of worries about it right from the start. For some reason -- perhaps to distract public attention away from the Dennis Regan resignation and the demotion of Police Commander Catherine McNeilly -- Interim Mayor Ravenstahl and School Superintendent Mark Roosevelt announced the program before lining up even a single source of funding to support it. As some observers noted at the time, the timing of the announcement seemed (at best) very strange, and it was in no way clear the Pittsburgh would be able to keep its promise.

Still, supporters of the program had some reason to hope. From what he said at the introductory news conference, Interim Mayor Ravenstahl made it seem like he had done his homework:

... city and school leaders approached foundations, which could be tapped for $5 million to $7 million a year.

"It's been very well received by the foundation community," Mr. Ravenstahl said.
And, while they weren't ready to promise anything at that moment, the major philanthropic foundations seemed willing to give the matter some consideration:

Foundations that typically fund educational efforts weren't ready to sign on yesterday.

"Nothing is more vital to the city's future than the educational opportunities available for our children, and the mayor and superintendent are to be commended for their focus," Heinz Endowments President Max King indicated in a written statement. "While we haven't had an opportunity to study this issue in any depth, we look forward to working with these officials to examine its potential."
Maybe that wasn't the strongest start for a program with such high ambitions, but there was at least some reason to hope. By the very next morning, however, there were already some clouds on the horizon, as indicated by a Tribune-Review article headlined, "City Foundations Can't 'Promise' Funding". Some of the local foundations seemed dead-set against the idea, others seemed generally positive while remaining non-committal, and others were keeping their cards quite close to their vests. For example, representatives of the Heinz Endowments didn't seem willing to go one way or the other:

The Heinz Endowments, which gave away $53.1 million in 2004, the latest data available online, awarded grants to two scholarship programs -- the Negro Educational Emergency Drive, which provides scholarships to black students, and the Extra Mile Foundation, which gives scholarships for students to attend Catholic elementary schools in poor neighborhoods.

"Our history of funding scholarships is extremely limited," said Doug Root, a spokesman for the Heinz Endowments.

While Heinz rarely supports scholarships, he said the foundation is "interested in exploring" the Pittsburgh Promise.
Roughly one month later, the Pittsburgh Promise received its first -- and, to date, only -- donation. The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers donated all of $10,000 to it, not even enough to fund three semesters of one student's college tuition. While this was start, it brought along with it some ominous signs. For example, despite the fact that the Pittsburgh Promise had been announced nearly four weeks earlier, the Pittsburgh Public Schools hadn't even done so much as open a bank account to hold its funds. Moreover, as others pointed out at the time, the reports about this donation suggested that the scope of the program was being significantly reduced. Instead of covering all the costs of a four-year post-secondary education, the Pittsburgh Promise now appeared to be capped at just $5,000 per year.

The lack of funding and this apparent change to program's benefit structure did not go completely unnoticed by the public. As Joanna Deming, a letter writer to the Post-Gazette, noted a several weeks after this donation was announced:

I am concerned that "The Pittsburgh Promise" is nothing more than a political move ("Tuition Grants a Lure for City Schools: Plan Aims to Put Students in College, Draw People to City," Dec. 14). The mayor and superintendent announced the program before they had a plan in place to implement it. This lack of planning was evident in their response to the $10,000 donated by the teachers union this month. In the Jan. 12 article, Superintendent Mark Roosevelt stated that they "don't really even have an account set up to handle the donation."

I fear the Pittsburgh Promise has already become so watered down that its impact will be minimal to none. This program is allegedly modeled after the Kalamazoo Promise. However, what makes the Kalamazoo Promise so effective that it provides "each Kalamazoo Public School graduate with the opportunity to attend post-secondary education with up to a 100 percent tuition scholarship" (direct quote from the program's Web site).

The amount of estimated support to be "promised" for Pittsburgh Public School graduates is dwindling. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl originally said the Pittsburgh Promise would come in after existing financial-aid opportunities, such as Pell Grants. He said, "The maximum level of aid might be pegged to the cost of a state run university." However, more recently a much lower figure, $5,000 per student, was suggested.

The Pittsburgh Promise, done effectively, is not just "a scholarship program"; it is a promise that money will no longer be a factor for students attending college from the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

I encourage the Post-Gazette, along with its readers, to hold our mayor and superintendent responsible for keeping their promise to the fullest extent, rather than merely profiting from it.
And now here we are, more than two months later, and we haven't heard anything at all about the Pittsburgh Promise in all that time. But if you were paying close enough attention to the news over the weekend, and were able to do some reading between the lines, you would have noticed that things are looking far from promising.

As reported in both the Tribune-Review and the Post-Gazette, the Heinz Endowments announced a major restructuring of their donation strategy. The good news is that their new strategy includes a particular focus on public education within the City of Pittsburgh. As the Tribune-Review reported:

One beneficiary is Pittsburgh Public Schools. Last year, the district received $5 million from Heinz, and King said it probably will get more this year.

"I'm grateful for the Heinz Endowments' emphasis on supporting our work," city schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt said.
And yet, despite this increased support for public education, one cannot help but notice that there is no mention made of the Pittsburgh Promise:

As part of helping the school district, Heinz will give more money to after-school and neighborhood programs that help children -- especially those in areas near the eight accelerated-learning academies, schools with a longer school day and school year. Some of them are on the North Side, Garfield, the Hill District and Squirrel Hill.

"Over the last 40 or 50 years, as neighborhoods and families become weaker, more and more of society's burden falls on schools," King said. "We think, in order for schools to become successful, they have to be supported by community programs."
The Heinz Endowments constitute the second-biggest philanthropic foundation in the area, and according to the Post-Gazette, the organization is one of the 50 largest such foundations nationwide. They hand out $60 million in grants every year, and this change of strategy means that nearly $20 will be dedicated to projects within Pittsburgh alone. Their support would appear crucial to the success of an ambitious program such as the Pittsburgh Promise. Yet there remains no indication that they have any interest in participating in it.

It seems clear, given the Ravenstahl administration's ample gift for self-promotion, that the Pittsburgh Promise is in grave danger. If there was even the hint of a suggestion that any major donors were onboard with the program, we would have surely heard about it by now. The silence is deafening, and the Promise -- yet another promise -- is being broken.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Tube City Almanac

This cartoon comes courtesy of a post on the McKeesport-based blog, The Tube City Almanc. The full post is well worth a good read. Among my favorite passages:

I understand Ravenstahl's desire to invoke stability and continuity of leadership, but it's as if LBJ had run for election in 1964 by riding around Dealey Plaza in a Lincoln convertible. (I suppose it could be worse. We're lucky Ravenstahl never saw "Weekend at Bernie's.")
Hat-tip to neophyte blogger Ol'Skip, who recently launched his fish-story themed political blog over at the Three Rivers Fishing Report.

It's Not About Who Took The Bloody Picture

It doesn't matter who took the photograph. For the moment, we can even ignore the question of who paid for it. It doesn't matter if it was donated, or to whom that donation was made. The big deal here, and I don't know how many times we will have to say this until the issue becomes clear in everybody's heads, is that the same image has been used as the visual centerpiece of both any number of official city programs and, as of this moment, of a prominent election campaign. Even a grade-school politician running for class president knows that this behavior is wrong, wrong, wrong. And there is simply no way on earth for anyone to argue otherwise with even a scintilla of legitimacy.

Yesterday, WTAE reporter and fellow blogger Bob Mayo broadcast a piece which detailed much of the recent firestorm concern the use of the same photographs in both official city documents (most commonly web pages) and in the election campaign of Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl (most prominently on its own website). Mr. Mayo's story correctly notes that many of the photographs which appear on the city's website have now been removed from the interim mayor's campaign site. He also notes, however, that the most obvious image continues to be used in both locations (and in locations throughout our great city):

The biggest buzz is about this hands-on-the-hips photo that remains on the city's and the campaign's sites, as well as city Redd-Up fliers and billboards.

"Those were private photos that were generated and given to me personally from a photographer in the South Side," said Ravenstahl. "So that was a file that was given to me. The city never paid anything for those photos, so that's my personal photo." [snip...]

The professional photographer who took that hands-on-the-hips photo of the mayor confirmed that he gave the mayor the photo for free.

It's from a photo session that would normally cost $1,500.

Ravenstahl [himself] provided that photo to both the city and the campaign.
Fine. Let's take the interim mayor for his word. The city didn't pay for that photograph to be taken. Some photographer generously donated the $1,500 sitting fee and took the photograph at no charge to anyone, including the city, Master Ravenstahl, or the interim mayor's election campaign. The photograph was given to the interim mayor personally, and was -- at least at that point -- the mayor's personal property. I accept that all of that is completely factual.

At this point, however, the mayor handed the photograph over to the City of Pittsburgh. And it got a bit of use. It wasn't just buried in the explosion of smiling pictures that constitute the mayor's portion of the city's official website. Instead, it became the iconic image that has been used countless times, on billboards, on official mailings, and as the visual anchor to the entire "Redd Up" program. In other words, at that moment, it became the property of the city and it's taxpayers. It wasn't Luke Ravenstahl's picture any longer. If it showed up on my garbage collection calendar, which is an official city document, then it belongs to me and every last one of my neighbors.

And so now this same image is being used by the Ravenstahl campaign. And once again, it's not just being used in an ancillary sort of way. Just as it has been used on the "Redd Up" billboards, just as it has been used on three different refuse and recycling mailings, and just as it is continues to be used on the city's official website, the Ravenstahl campaign is using this very same photograh as its visual centerpiece. Once again, it is being employed as the central visual icon that defines every last page on the campaign website, and (for all I know) in other campaign publications.

If the campaign really wants to use this image, that's fine. But if the campaign wishes to define themselves with this photograph -- if they continue to use this "hand on hips" picture as the central visual anchor which defines their candidate's political aspirations -- then all of the following inescapable conclusions must necessarily follow:

  • The $1,500 sitting fee donated by the photographer must be declared on the campaign's financial disclosure forms as a campaign donation. Since this picture has been in circulation for months, this donation should have already been reported in earlier financial disclosure filings.

  • Every billboard donated to the City of Pittsburgh for the "Redd Up" program must similarly be declared to be a campaign contribution. Again, since these billboards have been up for some time now, these declarations should have already been included in earlier filings.

  • The "garbage collection day may change" notice mailed to homes throughout the city in December 2006, which carried the campaign's central defining "hands on hips" image, officially becomes -- as many of us suspected all along -- a piece of campaign literature.

  • The recycling newsletter mailed to homes throughout the city in January 2007, which carried this same image, must also be recognized as a campaign mailing.

  • Every last copy of the a city refuse collection calendar, which also featured (you guessed it!) this exact same photograph, is therefore also a piece of campaign literature. So is any city document which featured this image. If you don't believe me, imagine how up in arms many of us would be if every Federal tax form prominently featured the red-white-and blue elephant symbol of the Republican Party. The use of the Ravenstahl campaign photograph on official city mailings is exactly the same kind of thing.

  • The city must be reimbursed for its costs in printing, distributing, and mailing all of these pieces of campaign literature. There must be more than half a million official city mailings that, having used the campaign's central iconic image, must now be paid for out of the campaign's coffers.
If this photograph is the personal property of Luke Ravenstahl, that's fine. If he wants to use his own personally-owned photograph in his personal political campaign, that's fine, too. But if he wants me to pay for printing up his campaign photograph hundreds of thousands of times, mailing it throughout the city, and slapping it up on official city billboards, then I have a real problem with that.

And I'm betting that the State Ethics Board will, too.

McNeilly and Lawyers To Be Well Compensated For Delaying Settlement

If you thought that the long-promised settlement in the federal lawsuit of Police Commander Catherine McNeilly v. The City of Pittsubrgh was going to spice up this year's primary election race, you had better think again. Even though it would appear that certain key portions of the settlement have been agreed to by both sides, final negotiations about other critical aspects are being delayed until after the May 15th Democratic primary election. A cynical observer -- and anyone who has been observing the administration of Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravesntahl can't help but be anything but cynical -- would suspect that this delay is completely intentional, and that it is designed to prevent any embarrassing public or (even more importantly) City Council discussions about this case prior to the election. Moreover, a cynic would also suspect that the dollar amounts of the proposed settlement, both in terms of the direct payment that will go to Ms. McNeilly and the fees that will negotiated with her many attorneys, are being deliberately inflated to compensate them for allowing this delay.

A fairly complete history of events leading up to the McNeilly case, along with links to a number of newspaper articles about it, can be found in one of my earlier posts. Commander McNeilly's lawsuit more or less began at that point, when she was demoted to Lieutenant for her role in derailing the nomination of Dennis Regan as the city's Director of Public Safety. In response to her demotion, Ms. McNeilly filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Pittsburgh, the interim mayor, and Police Chief Nate Harper. In January, the judge hearing the case granted an injunction which restored Ms. McNiely back to the rank of Commander. Because the judge indicated that Ms. McNeily was likely to win the case if it were to proceed to trial, the city eventually began settlement negotiations with her and her attorneys. As recently as last month, reports in both broadcast and print media outlets began to suggest that a negotiated settlement was getting ever closer to reality.

Since then, there hasn't been a great deal of news about this lawsuit. But the story has been hovering just out of media radar range the whole time. After all, this case has a decent amount of potential to stir up the Democratic mayoral primary race, which puts Master Ravenstahl up against City Councilmember Bill "Cojònes" Peduto. The interim mayor would seem to be faced with two equally distasteful alternatives. To settle the lawsuit would require at least a tacit admission of wrongdoing against Ms. McNeilly, but the alternative would require him to be deposed under oath. As the Post-Gazette's Early Returns blog noted some time ago:

Still a minefield for the mayor is the federal whistleblower lawsuit by police Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly related to the involvement of former city Operations Director Dennis Regan in police matters. At some point between now and the May 15 primary, the city will likely have to agree to a potentially embarrassing settlement, or face potentially embarrassing depositions.
From what I've been told, Luke Ravenstahl's political puppetmasters have managed to engineer a solution that evades both of these unpalatable choices. While I acknowledge that these details come from only a single source and that they are therefore somewhat speculative, they are also disturbing enough to warrant a bit of public discussion about them.

As things stand at the moment, the two sides have agreed to a handshake deal in which Catherine McNeilly will be paid $85,000 to settle her lawsuit. That sum of money is to be given to Ms. McNeilly alone, and will not be used to pay her attorneys. Instead, and this is the brilliance of the interim mayor's plan, the city will pay a separate amount to Ms. McNeilly's attorneys, but the exact amount of those legal fees will not be negotiated until after the primary election. Since they have negotiated a very generous settlement for their client, her attorney's are all but ethically required to go along with this deal, because it is clearly in Ms. McNeilly's best interests. Moreover, since every expectation is that the attorney fees are likely to be similarly generous, they have no personal reason to disagree with this kind of delay.

But for the rest of us, the result of this deal is that this settlement, for all practical purposes, will simply not exist at all until it ceases to be politically relevant. Legal settlements must be voted on by City Council, but they typically are not presented there until the exact terms of the deal are fully negotiated. Since the attorney fees remain undetermined, there is nothing for City Council to discuss. Despite the fact that Ms. McNeilly's portion of the settlement has been agreed to, there won't be anything for City Council to debate until after the May 15th Democratic primary.

To form some understanding of just how generous Ms. McNeilly's portion of this settlement is likely to be, consider the exact circumstances of her demotion from Commander to Lieutenant. Her demotion took place on Thursday, 7th December 2006, and involved the loss of $10,000 per year in her annual salary. The injunction which reinstated her to Commander was handed down on Wednesday, 10th January 2007. Her demotion lasted for all of 34 days, and during that time she lost roughly $930, based on the salary that she would have earned at her old rank.

For this one little fumble by the Ravenstahl administration, Ms. McNeilly will be paid roughly ninety-one times the amount that she suffered in direct financial costs. To be fair, Ms. McNeilly suffered in ways that had nothing to do with her pocketbook. She was likely humiliated by the constant press coverage of her demotion, which was handled in an excessively public fashion. And the administration was clearly in violation of both state and federal whistleblower protection laws, and thus she has significant leverage over the city in negotiating this settlement. Both of those things, and countless other aspects of this case, mean that city taxpayers will be forced to shell out an impressive amount of cash to make Ms. McNeilly whole.

But how much are those things really worth? Even if we paid her $25,000 for the humilation, $20,000 to compensate for the whistleblower mistake, $1,000 to make up for her lost wages, and $4,000 for anything else that she is rightfully pissed off about, that still works out to only $50,000. $50,000 in compensation for a $930 mistake would be more than generous; I would personally put it at least three standard deviations into the upper tail of the generosity distribution curve. But we're not paying her $50,000. Instead, we are offering $35,000 more than that. Why are we being so far beyond generous in this case?

A cynical observer, especially one given to "speculation-laced" blog posts, might suggest that the Ravenstahl administration is paying Ms. McNeilly quite handsomely -- with our money, of course -- to buy her silence until after the May 15th primary election. Maybe that's taking things too far, and maybe I'm being far too cynical. But when you look at the amount of the settlement that the administration has agreed to, and you compare that to the amount of money that Luke Raventahl's mistake directly cost Catherine McNeilly, and you see how the timing of the final settlement has been tied to the date of the Democratic primary, it's very difficult -- as I said before -- to anything but cynical.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Ravenstahl Clocks

On issue after issue, the administration of Pittsburgh Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl -- as in Raven-stall -- has fallen behind. It's difficult to even keep up with all of the things that they have yet to take care of, have simply never responded to, or have failed to deliver after having promised to do so. Perhaps they simply are overwhelmed by the burden of governing our city, and haven't yet devised a system to keep track of everything they are supposed to accomplish. With this problem in mind, and as a public service for all citizens of Pittsburgh, I have created a few clocks to help our interim mayor keep track of just how far behind he is on some key issues.

Overdue on Removing Official City Photographs from Campaign Website:

Overdue on Providing Tax Abatement Details:

Overdue on Late Night Walking Tour of South Side Neighborhoods:

[h/t to Mark Rauterkus]

Overdue on Scheduling any Debate with Peduto:

Overdue on Holding a Successfull Meeting of the City Ehtics Hearing Board:

[h/t to U.R.A. Genius]

Overdue on Identifying any Significant Funding for the Pittsburgh Promise:

[h/t to Malificent]

If anybody has any other clocks that you would like to see displayed here, just leave a comment in response to this post. I'll keep adding new ones as people suggest them.

Ravenstahl Retreats, But Without Really Doing Anything

Yesterday, the election campaign of Pittsburgh Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl responded to the burghosphere with a completely meaningless gesture. In the past few days, a number of local political blogs have been discussing the campaign's flagrant misuse of public property to promote itself. A number of photographs and other images, produced at public expense and used in official city literature, were being employed in various ways on the Ravenstahl campaign website. The story began over at 2 Political Junkies. It continued when an excellent document, detailing the public lineage of a number of these photographs, was made available on The Burgh Report. And the wave of protest arguably culminated with a call, right here at The People's Republic, for readers to file a complaint with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission.

In response, a number of readers have contacted me and have been provided with the screen image captures that will be needed to support their accusations. Let's hope that the State Ethics Commission responds to all of our complaints with a fair and thorough investigation.

While local bloggers have been hitting this story pretty hard, there has not been a great deal of attention from the mainstream press. The Post-Gazette deals with this story not within the paper's printed edition, but buried amidst a wide variety of other topics within a single meandering post on the newspaper's Early Returns blog:

Score one for the blogs. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's campaign took five photos off of its Web site after local political blogs, and then later mainstream media outlets, noticed distinct similarities to photos on the city's site.

"The fundamental issue was, were any of our pictures sourced from the city Web site," said Ravenstahl campaign manager Damon Andrews. He spoke with city officials, who cautioned him about a handful of pictures on the campaign site that closely resembled shots on the city site. This afternoon, the campaign took down the five photos that seemed to be a close match.

Mr. Andrews said that when he joined the campaign, he asked friends of the mayor to e-mail over their favorite photos, and got around 500 electronic images. He said he should have inquired as to their original sources. He said the campaign is now reviewing those it chose to post on the Web site to make sure they aren't city property or copyrighted by other entities, like newspapers.

The issue resonated in the blogosphere because Mr. Ravenstahl hasn't been shy about putting his image on donated billboards, city-paid post cards advertising various programs and services, and the city's Web site. Some bloggers even invited readers to submit complaints about the Web site photos to the State Ethics Commission.
For it's part, the Tribue-Review published a fairly decent ink-on-paper story, and I know at least one broadcast reporter is looking into doing one as well. As is often the case, a few questions from mainstream reporters were enough to (finally) spur the Ravenstahl team -- who typically only do the right thing after they get caught -- into action.

As noted by Early Returns and these other outlets, the campaign responded by removing five individual photographs from a "Photo Gallery" slideshow buried somewhat deep on its website. The five photographs in question were ones specifically mentioned in The Burgh Report's evidentiary document. All of them had been copied directly from the city's official website, and were clearly inappropriate for use in the interim mayor's political campaign.

I guess I should commend the Raventahl campaign for taking fast action on this issue, but I remain deeply underwhelmed by their response. They have removed five photographs from a long slideshow of boring snapshots that most people were never likely to sit through anyway. Big deal. Those five images are fairly unimportant. The most egregious examples of this unethical behavior by the Ravenstahl campaign continue unabated. In fact, the most prominent taxpayer-financed image of them all not only remains up on the campaign website, but can be found on every single page. The main page itself, which every single visitor will see when they first enter the site, is nothing less than a joyful salute to unabashed public corruption:

You see that smiling, "take charge", hands-on-hips picture of our interim mayor that explodes out from the center of the screen? That same image -- and I mean the exact same image, down to the last pixel, and not merely one that "closely resembles" or "seems to be a close match" -- has been used on countless occasions in official City of Pittsburgh publications. It appears on the city's "Redd Up" website. It appeared on a December mailing to city residents, warning them of possible forthcoming changes to their garbage collection schedule. It appeared on a three-page recycling newsletter which arrived shortly thereafter. It appears on all versions of the refuse collection calendar, a copy of which is currently affixed just about every family refrigerator throughout the city. And most prominently, this picture can be found on a series of large billboards which were donated -- to the City of Pittsburgh as a whole, and not to the Ravenstahl election campaign -- in support of the "Redd Up" program.

And now, this exact same image is being used as the visual centerpiece of Master Ravenstahl's mayoral campaign. He's not just including this photograph as part of an easily-ignored slideshow of baby and wedding pictures. He's using it as a virtual icon to define his image and the promote his personal political aspirations. It needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. This picture needs to be removed immediately from the campaign website. Given the ubiquity of this photograph on every single page, eradicating it will likely require a complete redesign of the entire website. But Master Ravenstahl's campaign seems to have unlimited funds available for this kind of thing. While difficult and potentially expensive, overhauling a website is certainly preferable to sharing a state prison cell with former State Representative Jeff Habay, who was recently convicted of roughly analagous offenses.

I certainly hope that this particular problem is limited to the "Luke for Mayor" website, and that the "hands on hips" icon has not been similarly employed on the campaign's printed literature. Websites can be fixed fairly quickly, and they more or less disappear once a new one is introduced in their place. But printed matter is an entirely different matter. If even one scrap of campaign literature is floating around out there with this publicly-owned image upon it, Interim Mayor Ravenstahl could be in very big trouble indeed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Taxpayer-Financed Campaigning and the State Ethics Commission

Once again, as he has done on a number of previous occasions, Pittsburgh's interim mayor, Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl, is using our tax dollars for his own political campaiging. As discussed over in the Post-Gazette's Early Returns blog, city mailboxes are again being carpet-bombed with another round of 311 telephone response line advertisements, all prominently featuring the interim mayor's name and a simply enormous photograph of his smiling face. Meanwhile, as described over at 2 Political Junkies, the Ravenstahl campaign recently unveiled its website, which prominently features the now ubiquitous hands-on-hips image of Master Ravenstahl which appears on the garbage collection schedule sent to every last household in the city, as well on a number of billboards around town.

It's disgusting. It's an in-your-face use of public funds to advance a private political campaign. It goes far beyond the normal benefits of incumbency. But what's a little guy (or gal) like you or me going to do about it? Our city has no means for a regular citizen to address issues such as this one. Our Ethics Board hasn't met for years, and the Ravenstahl administration is seemingly doing everything in its power to ensure that it won't form a quorum prior to the May 15th Democratic primary.

But, as citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, perhaps we have other ways of dealing with this unethical behavior. Even though there is no local Ethics Board for us to work with, we do have the option of filing complaints with the State Ethics Commission. The necessary information can be found on their website, and the form required to file a complaint can be downloaded right here. In fact, should you feel so angry as to file a complaint yourself, allow me to help you fill in the form. You can just copy the text right out of The People's Republic and paste it directly into the PDF complaint form from the state.

1. Person you are complaining about:

Luke Ravenstahl

City-County Building
Fifth Floor
414 Grant Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Position or Title::
Mayor, City of Pittsburgh

Work Phone Number: (no spaces allowed)

Home Phone Number:
I think we can leave this one blank

2. Explain in detail why you believe he may have violated the Ethics Act. Note that the PDF form from the state accepts only a limited number of characters, and that my own explanation won't fit on the form all in one go. You will need to paste the first paragraph onto the form separately, and then paste the rest onto a separate piece of paper to be sent to the Ethics Commission. Note also that the links I've included below won't transfer onto the paper form, but that's fine. The links are more for your use than theirs. And feel free to edit and alter the text as you see fit to reflect your own style and degree of outrage:

As a candidate for election as the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Mr. Ravenstahl has repeatedly used taxpayer-funded materials to advance his political campaign. In late October 2006, the City of Pittsburgh launched a new 311 telephone system. Simply by dialing 311, city residents could report problems with and request information about city-provided services. As part of the campaign to advertise this service to its residents, the City of Pittsburgh began mailing large postcards to most, if not all households within the city limits. Each of these postcards contained a large color picture of Mayor Ravenstahl, and referred to this new telephone number as "Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Response Line". A copy of this postcard also appeared in every copy of the city's refuse collection schedule, which was sent to city households in January and February of 2007.

While this advertising campaign may have constituted a sensible use of city funds when the 311 telephone number was first introduced, it's continuation raises serious ethical concerns. The 311 service has now been active for nearly five full months, and most city residents have already been informed about it in several previous mailings. The city's Democratic primary election, on the other hand, is just two months away. Yet in just the past few days, even more of these 311 announcement mailings have arrived in the mailboxes of city residents. The continued use of these postcards, published and mailed at taxpayer expense, increasingly appears to be more motivated by the desire to influence voters than to inform city residents.

In addition these postcards, this past week brought another example of Mr. Ravenstahl's use of publicly-funded materials in his mayoral campaign. At the moment, Mayor Ravenstahl's campaign website prominently features a large color photograph of him standing with his hands on his hips. This exact same image, however, has been used on countless billboards, city-funded mailings, and on a section of the city's official website. It seems likely that this photograph was taken at taxpayer expense, and it has also appeared on taxpayer-funded mailings, such as a December 2006 mailing about garbage collection and the refuse collection calendar described above.

The use of this photograph, and of numerous other images on the Ravenstahl campaign website, poses significant ethical questions. At least some of these images appear to be official photographs which have been paid for by the public, and thus should not be used for political campaigns. Other images have been used on official city government documents or on the City of Pittsburgh's website, and are thus also inappropriate for use in the mayor's campaign. These actions seem more than worthy of investigation by the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission.
3. Attach or make references to any documents, materials, minutes, etc. which support your allegations. I have a PDF copy of the garbage collection schedule from the city website, along with JPEG images of the Ravenstahl campaign website. It would be nice to have some scanned images of the 311 Response Line postcard. If anyone has one, please email it to me. If you want copies of the files I have, shoot me an email and I'll send them along to you.

Here's where things get a bit difficult, but if you as outraged as I am, it shouldn't be all that much trouble for you to go through. You will need to fill in your name, address, and telephone numbers. Then you will need to print everything out, take it all to a notary, and sign your complaint form in their presence. Then you will need to mail it to:

State Ethics Commission
309 Finance Building
P.O. Box 11470
Harrisburg, PA 17108-1470

Yes, the notary thing is a bit of a pain in the ass. But if that's the price we have to pay for demanding quality governance, so be it. It's worth it to me. I hope that it's worth it to you, too.

Ravenstahl Tax Abatement Details Now Officially Overdue

Twelve days ago, on Thursday, 1st March 2007, Pittsburgh Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl held a meeting at the now-closed Reizenstein Middle School in East Liberty. At this meeting, Master Ravesntahl hauled a bunch of "pleased-as-punch" neighborhood leaders in front of the press to extol the unlimited virtues of his property tax abatement plan. His rival for the Democratic mayoral nomination, City Councilmember Bill "Cojònes" Peduto, responded by noting that the interim mayor was providing no details about his abatement proposal, and had no analysis to back up the notion that the his plan was really a good idea. As Mr. Peduto noted in an earlier discussion of the Ravenstahl proposal, "He has no plan. He had a sound bite and a press release." Once again, as is so often the case, Luke Ravenstahl was caught saying the nice words that everyone wanted to hear, but was being decidedly parsimonious with the details.

While the Ravenstahl campaign probably didn't feel particularly concerned about Mr. Peduto's charges, they did at least make a token effort to parry his accusations. There was plenty of data and plenty of specifics available to back up what the interim mayor was saying, they told us. As the Post-Gazette reported on 2nd March, just one day after the East Liberty meeting:

The mayor's plan would waive the first $2,700 in city property taxes, for 10 years, on units of new housing built Downtown and in 21 other neighborhoods. The neighborhoods were chosen based on a formula involving dozens of factors, including stagnant development, population loss, low education levels, single-parent families, tax delinquency and violent crime.

[Interim Mayor Ravenstahl] said the full data would be released within 10 days.
The Tribune-Review's reporting on this meeting states that the details of the Ravenstahl proposal would be made available in "seven to 10 days". His homework is now officially late.

The Interim Mayor's ten days to provide "the full data" expired yesterday. I gave him an extra day to compensate for unforeseen delays and for the press to have a crack at the data. But this morning, there is nothing in either newspaper about his abatement proposals. Not surprisingly, none of the television stations have anything to say on the matter. And there isn't even a press release on the city website to trumpet the full details of the Ravenstahl proposal. This last fact is highly noteworthy, since the press release section of the city website -- indeed, nearly everything about the city website -- is usually nothing less than a festival of fluff concerning everything Ravesntahl. If the interim mayor had anything at all to say about handing out a tax break to a large portion of the city, we would at least be sure to have seen something posted there.

Why does it even matter that Luke Ravenstahl is late with providing this tax abatement data? What's the big deal? The answer is that there are at least three very good reasons why this one little thing speaks volumes about Luke Ravenstahl's ability to serve as our city's mayor.

First of all, this one incident fits a continuing pattern of behavior on his part. Time and time again, Master Ravenstahl he makes sound-bite-worthy promises in very general terms, but then fails to follow through in taking care of anything specific. He did it when he promised, weeks ago, to hold debates in the lead-up to the May 15th primary. That sounded great, in a general way, but he still has yet to agree on a single specific time and place for any of these debates, and has also, according the the Post-Gazette's Early Returns blog, been working to cut the number of debates down from the Peduto-proposed 8 to only 5 or 6. He did the same thing when he promised, in a general way, to re-establish the city's ethics board, but then did nothing to ensure that they could hold even a single successful meeting.

This same pattern keeps repeating itself, and it's enormously disturbing. This isn't Peter Pan. You can't "keep moving Pittsburgh forward" just by wishing it to be true and repeating banal slogans in front of the television cameras. As a mayor, you actually have to do something to make these things happen. And Luke Ravenstahl continually fails to do take even the tiniest first steps required to make his promises anything approaching a reality.

Secondly, Master Raventahl's failure in meeting his self-imposed deadline to release these details matters because his opponent in this primary election, Mr. Peduto, has already done so. The very idea of instituting a property-tax abatement within the City of Pittsburgh, in fact, came directly from Councilmember Peduto, who first started to examine this issue more than a year ago. The councilmember commissioned a detailed study to examine how these abatements could be implemented with maximum impact on our city, while still having a revenue-neutral effect on the city's budget. The resultant report has been available online for more than a month now. It sets out a convincing argument about Mr. Peudto's own tax abatement plan, which is far more limited in scope than what is (apparently) being proposed by Interim Mayor Ravenstahl. Mr. Peduto's detailed analysis shows that his plan would have a neutral, and possibly even a positive, net effect on city finances, and thus makes his ideas far more likely to pass muster with our Act 47 financial overseers.

It would be nice to be able to really compare the proposals put forward by both candidates. But because Master Ravenstahl is running several months -- if not several years -- behind his opponent, and because Master Ravenstahl can't even keep his own promises when it comes to releasing these details on time, it remains impossible for any citizen in Pittsburgh to make such a comparison. Indeed, the only comparison we can make at this point is that one of the two Democratic candidates, Mr. Peduto, makes his promises only after careful thought and deliberation, and only when he knows that they are likely to be kept. The other candidate, unfortunately, makes his promises without any thought or deliberation, and typically with his fingers crossed in hope that he not have to keep them at all.

And finally, Master Ravenstahl's failure to provide these details is important for third, yet very critical reason. His tax abatement "plan", if one can even call it that, has been cited as one of the few decent arguments in support of his candidacy. In an earlier post, I noted that the following:
After months of pleading, by myself and others, throughout the burghosphere, I still have yet to encounter a single worthy argument in favor of retaining Master Ravenstahl as the Mayor of Pittsburgh. At their worst, the few things written in support of him fall into the "give the kid a chance" or "isn't it cool to have someone so young" line of thinking, and are oblivious to what our interim mayor has done with the chances that he has already had. At their best, these arguments voice support for the self-interested benefits that one's own group, neighborhood, or even self will reap in the wake of a Ravenstahl victory. But not one statement has described even one positive result for the city as a whole that Luke Ravenstahl has either provided or promised as mayor. His actions thus far have largely consisted of a string of failures, and his promises for the future are either all-but-exact copies of Mr. Peduto's plans or simply remain unpresented by the interim mayor's campaign.
In response to this statement (and much to his credit), one of Interim Mayor Ravesntahl's staunchest supporters, Matt H., noted the following:
OK. I live in the Elliott section of the city. An area that has been in total decline thanks to many years of zero help from the Murphy administration. Right now I am working with Councilman Deasy and some other elected officials to develop some NEW housing and the rehab of vacant homes here in Elliott & the West End. The proposed tax abatement from the administration will help my projects that I have going here in Elliott. Why wouldn't I want to support a candidate that is going to directly help my area with a plan? Peduto's plan does nothing for my area.
The cynical part of me would note that this particular argument, as I had already remarked, does nothing more than "... voice support for the self-interested benefits that one's own group, neighborhood, or even self will reap in the wake of a Ravenstahl victory". In a general way, self-interested politics like these, in which one group is continually played off against another, are a big reason why Pittsburgh is such a mess today. But ordinary self-interest will always be part of politics, and Matt H. is certainly within his rights to view things in this manner. After all, that's precisely the way that many people make their political decisions in any modern democracy.

Instead, my present concerns with this argument are far more practical in nature. How on earth can anyone tell whether their neighborhood is or is not included in the Ravenstahl abatement proposal? The city's only press release on the topic fails to mention the specific neighborhoods involved, noting only that it includes "... Downtown Pittsburgh and 20 other neighborhoods – East, West, North and South - that need an additional boost due to population decline, increasing crime and diminishing quality of life". The Tribune-Review describes the Raventahl proposal as one which will affect, "... residential housing Downtown and in other neighborhoods designated as 'growth zones'", and goes on to note that the abatement, "... would be available in 21 other city neighborhoods where development has been virtually nonexistent".

A later Tribune-Review article on this same topic notes that the proposed abatement will affect the city's Homewood neighborhood, along with Fineview, where the Ravenstahl family itself may take advantage of this tax break (how's that for self-interested politics!). Apparently Shadyside does not qualify for the Ravenstahl abatements, so new Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will be paying full freight when it comes to city property taxes. But it does seem like both Upper and Lower Lawrenceville are included, from what one can glean out of a few comments in the press reports. But if you don't live in one of these four or five neighborhoods that are specifically mentioned in these reports, you are currently left in the lurch by Luke Ravenstahl's failed promise to provide us with details on his "plan". Your only hope is to take a wild guess as to whether your neighborhood contains enough "... stagnant development, population loss, low education levels, single-parent families, tax delinquency and violent crime" to qualify for Master Raventahl's largess.

As far as I can tell at the moment, there is no proof that even Matt H's own western neighborhood, Elliot, is part of the Ravenstahl abatement "plan". I'm rather sure that Elliot is included, of course. Matt H is a bit of a Ravenstahl insider, and is in a position to know about these things. Maybe he was even present at the interim mayor's March 1st meeting with neighborhood leaders, and was privileged enough to hear some of the details first hand. But the rest of us aren't so lucky. It has to be said, assuming that the names of all 20 targeted neighborhoods were made available during that meeting, that the local press has done a pretty poor job of telling us about the few details that are known about the Ravenstahl proposal.

It may very well be the case that Mr. Peduto's own tax abatement plan -- and it at least can be fairly referred to as an actual "plan" -- is simply inadequate. It may be true that the Peduto plan ignores many of the residential neighborhoods in the city which would reap enormous benefits from a tax abatement of this kind. But the only reason why we can even argue about the Peduto plan is that he has had the courage to make the details about it available to us.

Personally, I would much rather have a mayor that I could argue with and about, than one who simply doesn't tell me anything at all about his plans for our city's future.

UPDATE: Reader, blogger, and fierce Ravenstahler (Ravenstalite? Ravenstahly?) Matt H. has kindly provided a list of all 21 neighborhoods included in the Interim Mayor's abatement proposal. They are: Allentown, Arlington, Beltzhoover, California-Kirkbride, Downtown, Elliott, Esplen, Fineview, Hazelwood, Homewood North, Homewood South, Homewood West, Knoxville, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington Belmar, Lower Lawrenceville, Manchester, Spring Garden, Upper Hill, Upper Lawrenceville and West End.