Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Biggest Reason

Over at the Post-Gazette's Early Returns, the authors have come up with their list of the Top 10 Reasons why police secondary employment has become, in their own words, "the campaign issue of the week". It's an interesting question, and they list a number of reasons that I can easily agree with. All of the items on their list are clearly key reasons why this story is coming to prominence at this particular time. There are a few reasons which don't appear on their list, however, that I personally feel should probably be included there.

I would first suggest, of course, that the unbridled eloquence and indefatigable persistence of a certain local blog deserves a separate line item all of it's own. I am referring, of course, to The Carbolic Smoke Ball, which plays a little-known and widely-unrecognized role as the Professor Moriarty of the burghosphere. To use a more modern literary reference, let's just say that some people have taken to referring to The Carbolic Smoke Ball as the "Blog-That-Must-Not-Be-Named". Behind the scenes, and perhaps in subliminal images buried in the photographs they use in their posts, the Carbolic Smoke Ball's authors have been pushing the secondary employment story for months. As an aside, I should also note that they have also recently added a new item that has completely supplanted all previous posts to seize the "Best. Post. Ever." award here at The People's Republic. Check it out. It's pee-in-your-pants funny.

But the biggest reason for this story becoming so suddenly important to Pittsburgh's mayoral politics is simply the oldest one of them all... timing. Interim Mayor Luke "Flip Flop" Ravenstahl erred badly in eliminating the cost recovery program, but he royally screwed the pooch by doing it at the worst possible moment. He picked a time when Deven Werling's lawsuit against the City of Pittsburgh was within just a month or two of being settled for a record amount of money. His capitulation to the police union also came just a few weeks before the Heinz field handcuffing would become news, especially within the local political blogosphere. Although Master Ravenstahl had no way of knowing it at the time, one of his most important allies, City Councilmember Jim Motznik, would soon draw attention to the burghosphere in ways that would pull local political blogs into far more prominence than they had ever enjoyed before.

Furthermore, he made this decision just a month or two before the Democratic primary race would begin to heat up. And he picked a time when a geeky little pajama-wearer like me was just establishing his blog. In making his enormously wrong-headed decision just before Thanksgiving, he gave the burghopshere just enough time in the lead-up to the Werling settlement announcement to get it's head around everything that his decision represented.

Stories like this one do not suddenly explode in the wake of a stupid political decision. It takes time for them to grow. In this case, it took time for those who leave comments on these blogs to begin to protest Master Ravenstahl's eradication of the cost recovery program. Their protests just happened to coincide with the revelations of then-Councilmember Raventahl's arrest at Heinz Field more than a year before, which meant these posted comments captured more attention than they might have at a less opportune moment. It then took time for the Heinz Field story to die down enough so that people like me could revisit the secondary employment story. If this investigation had been in the hands of a professional journalist at that point, it's likely that the story would have been written quickly and with relatively little depth. But it wasn't in their hands, it was in mine, and it took me at least a week or two to gather all of the information that I needed to get started with my writing. It also took me three days to get the story out, allowing it to build momentum. In the mainstream press, the story would likely have appeared in one single hit, which might have made it a bit more easy to ignore.

By the time my efforts were finally posted here at The People's Republic it was just weeks away from the Werling settlement, which was especially bad news for the interim mayor. Even then, the timing might have worked out for Master Ravenstahl. But, months before, they made a key mistake of misrepresenting the truth about how secondary employment details are scheduled. When they succeeded in killing off the cost recovery fee, the Ravenstahl administration led the mainstream press to believe that the police department was retaining it's control of 100% of all these off-duty side jobs. As the Post-Gazette reported at the time:

The Police Bureau will continue to manage the details, handing out assignments to officers, the mayor said.

Prior to the institution last year of a computerized system for assigning and managing details, the jobs were dished out by entrepreneurs within the police force, who often took a lucrative cut.

The computer system "metes out details more fairly to officers all over the city," [Fraternal Order of Police President Jim] Malloy said. "You don't have to have an in with anybody."
Thanks to Councilmember Moztnik's short-lived foray into the burghosphere, lots of people were now reading the local political blogs. This readership likely included a number of local reporters. And some of these reporters took the opportunity to ask a few questions about the issues that had been brought up here at The People's Republic. Upon finding out that the police department was not, as the press had been led to believe, in charge of handling all secondary employment details -- that indeed, the Pittsburgh Police Department was managing less than a third of them -- these reporters had a new story to pursue. And that gave the secondary employment scandal just a few more days of life before the Werling settlement would make the need for cost recovery crystal clear to everyone.

Of course, the settlement announcement just happened to come about at the precise time when Master Ravenstahl's mayoral opponent, Councilmember Bill "Cojònes" Peduto, was ready to pounce on an issue like this one. For Luke Ravenstahl, it was all a matter of very bad timing. For the taxpayers of Pittsburgh, the timing has worked out very well indeed.


Bram Reichbaum said...

Jim Motznik dragged us nowhere. He was an effect, not at cause. But anyway, you are to be congratulated. Step out from the curtain and take a bow!

"Timing" has a way of happening before elections. Think how dreary our government would be, if it just went on and on, without elections?

Judge Rufus Peckham said...

Those words about our blog mean a lot coming from the Admiral. Thank you, sir.

Richmond K. Turner said...

Aw, hell. Thanks to both of you for giving a bunch of great stuff to read when I'm not writing posts!

Anonymous said...

Yes, you make a fine point. The reganstahl administration seems incapable of stopping itself when it comes to good old fashioned hack politics even as critics point out the problems time and time again.