Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Praying for Today's Victims

As the grandson of a former Virginia Tech faculty member -- and the son, brother, and brother-in-law of Virginia Tech alumni -- I am deeply shocked by the shooting rampage there. I spent a good portion of my childhood on that campus, and my family continues to return to it on a regular basis. My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who has been affected by this tragedy.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Few Questions Remain on Secondary Employment

Late last week, a small number of articles appeared in both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review concerning the police secondary employment. As discussed in an earlier post at the beginning of the month, Pittsburgh's interim mayor has finally decided to institute a cost-recovery fee whenever city police officers whore hire themselves out to perform security functions for private employers. Even if he was against the cost-recovery fee before he was for it, Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has now agreed to charge private employers $3.85 per hour for the use of each City of Pittsburgh police officer they hire.

At the end of last week and over the weekend, the police department released a few details about how the new secondary employment system, and its associated cost-recovery fee, is going to work.

As described in a letter from Chief of Police Nate Harper, all businesses who wish to employ off-duty police officers must fill out an application with the police department. After their application has been approved, business owners can schedule off-duty officers either by contacting the police department directly (through its Special Events Office), or by working with a small number of police officers who serve as "designated schedulers" for off-duty employment. As the Tribune-Review article tells us, most businesses are choosing to work directly with the police department:

The special events office will handle scheduling and payroll for off-duty officers for 345 of those businesses. The remaining 150 businesses have designated one officer, who will schedule other officers for off-duty patrols and receive a cut of the off-duty officers' pay.
For each officer-hour used, the city will then bill the employer directly to collect the $3.85 per-officer-hour fee.

Despite this additional information, there remain a small number of questions that are, at least from what I can tell, unresolved. For example, none of the stories about the new secondary employment plan indicate exactly how the officers will be paid. In the past, some officers worked "under-the-table" when they were off-duty, were paid in cash, and had the option of evading taxes on this income.

For the majority of secondary employers under the new system, the officers who do the work will be assigned to them by the city, and it will be possible to monitor how many hours they work when off-duty. But the businesses can set their own hour pay rates, and those who use designated schedulers must somehow account for the "cut" that comes out of the other officers' wages to pay for the services of the scheduler. Will all secondary employment pay be passed through the city's payroll system or will some officers continue to work on a cash basis? What kind of auditing is in place, especially when designated schedulers are used, to ensure that all of the hours worked by the officers are duly reported to the Special Events office? And, as posed in comment left over at the Busman's Holiday by reader Jason Phillips, how will these additional wages figure into any calculations for pension, worker's compensation, and other purposes?

Also, when a designated scheduler is used, it looks like the officers who work the detail will either have to pay the scheduler directly for the privilege of doing the work (in cash?), or will have their pay docked a bit by the private employer in order to pay the scheduler for their services. How will officials prevent this system from descending into an ordinary kick-back scheme? And how will this schedulers fee work for tax purposes; will it also be tracked through the Special Events Office? Will the officers who have to chip in to pay the designated scheduler have to pay taxes on the wages that portion of their income which the "voluntarily" hand over to the scheduler?

In general, the new Ravenstahl plan looks like a good deal for city taxpayers. But the devil is in the details, and some of those details remain unclear at this point.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Getting Old... I Missed the Most Important Story of the Last Month

It sucks to get old, to get trapped in work and family and... well, life... so that I end up missing the news that -- years ago when I had no cares -- would have been at the foremost reaches of my mind to the last month. But bettter late than never, I guess.

Rush has a new album, titled "Snakes and Arrows", coming out on the 1st of May! They've already released "A Far Cry", a single from the new album on iTunes. And -- like the true Digital Men that all Rush fans are -- there are already countless fan-produced videos to go along with it on YouTube. This one seems to be the most popular:

Pariah dogs and wandering madmen
Barking at strangers and speaking in tongues
The ebb and flow of tidal fortune
Electrical changes are charging up the dawn

It’s a far cry from the world we thought we'd inherit
It’s a far cry from the way we thought we'd share it
You can almost feel the current flowing
You can almost see the circuits blowing

One day I feel I'm on top of the world
And the next its falling in on me
I can get back on
I can get back on
One day I feel I’m ahead of the wheel,
And the next its rolling over me
I can get back on
I can get back on

Whirlwind life of faith and betrayal
Rising anger, fall back, and repeat
Slow degrees on the dark horizon
Full moon rising lays ever at your feet

It’s a far cry from the world we thought we'd inherit
It’s a far cry from the way we thought we'd share it
You can almost feel the current flowing
You can almost see the circuits blowing

One day I feel I'm on top of the world
And the next its falling in on me
I can get back on
I can get back on
One day I feel I'm ahead of the wheel,
And the next its rolling over me
I can get back on
I can get back on

It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit
You can almost see the circle growing
You can almost feel the planets glowing

One day I feel I'm on top of the world
And the next its falling in on me
I can get back on
I can get back on
One day I feel I'm ahead of the wheel,
And the next its rolling over me
I can get back on
I can get back on

One day I fly through a crack in the sky
And the next its falling in on me
I can get back on
I can get back on
I can get back on
I can get back on...

The only sad news is that most of the good seats at this summer's Post-Gazette Pavillion concert seem to have been sold already. Looks like I'm going to have to pay a premium for a direct view of the stage this time around. That's what happens when you stop paying constant attention to your favorite band.

I'm old. But so are these guys. And they can still rock!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Peduto Saves Pittsburgh From Divisiveness By Euthanizing Democracy

In a move that was in no way surprising, Pittsburgh City Councilmember and former mayoral candidate Bill Peduto has hammered the final nail into the coffin of this year's mayoral election. The Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review are both reporting that Mr. Peduto, who pulled out of the Democratic primary late last month, has finally decided not to run as an independent candidate in November. The result is that Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will run with no major-party opposition, and -- barring an act of God or a major felony indictment -- is all but certain to be elected as our bona-fide mayor in November. Those Pittsburghers, like myself, who are grossly dissatisfied with Interim Mayor Ravenstahl's abysmal performance have been left to twist in the wind, with no way to make our voices heard at the ballot box.

Mr. Peduto apparently made this announcement by sending out a press release. But, as was the case even when his anemic campaign was still active, this press release does not appear anywhere on either his campaign or city council website. For someone who likes to portray himself as a hip urban progressive, Mr. Peduto has consistently failed embrace the web and make these kinds of things available to the general public. What we are left with are a few select excerpts which made it into the local press:

"I am a Democrat," Mr. Peduto said in a press release. "Even though a registration change would have been temporary, I believe that running as an independent would be a divisive move. A majority of local Democrats want to reform Pittsburgh, and an independent candidacy would drive a wedge between the reform movement and the Democratic Party."
An excellent commentary on this announcement has been penned by my brother-in-blogging over at the Burgh Report. Herr Burgher sees a number of positives stemming from Mr. Peduto's decision to remain an active part of our dysfunctional local Democratic machine:
I think this is probably the best move for Peduto's long-term political career. Running a negative campaign could only get him into the 40s polling wise, and he would permanently alienate a large number of voters. [snip...]

Additionally, I don't think Peduto's remarks about divisiveness are far off the mark. There is a great deal of frustration among progressives who see themselves united to the Democratic Party nationally, but see Ravenstahl and Onorato as a continuation of the back-scratching local politics that has continued to prevent this region from living up to its potential. Driving a wedge into that seam would only hurt the party.
I have enormous respect for Herr Burgher's opinions. But I have to disagree with him about Peduto's political cowardice being a good thing for our city, the Democratic Party, or Pittsburgh's now-silenced progressive movement.

I'm certainly not suggesting that Bill Peduto should have reversed course at this stage and registered as an independent today. While there was a time when I exhorted him to run as an independent and bypass the Democratic primary, that was prior to his decision, announced on March 21st, to withdrawal from the field of battle. Despite his claims that he was keeping his option for an independent candidacy open, he was clearly pulling out of the race. He hadn't given any real consideration to an independent run. He certainly wasn't taking any steps to energize those of us who would have been thrilled to support such a move. At best, he was taking a few weeks off to see if Mr. Ravenstahl would do something so spectacularly repugnant that the public would finally notice what a disaster our current mayoral administration truly is. Since the announcement, Mr. Peduto has largely disappeared from local press coverage. The Peduto campaign has effectively been in a coma for the last three weeks, and today's announcement merely takes the final step of putting it out of its misery for good.

As he did when he withdrew from the Democratic primary last month, Mr. Peduto again today invoked his pathological fear of "divisiveness" as a reason not to bring his message to city voters. And to think that I once believed that this guy had some balls! Here's the bad news for everyone with a similar phobia about "divisiveness". All elections in this day and age are divisive, and this is especially true when there is something important at stake. The municipal union members and the politicians who pander to them are never, ever going to hold hands and sing "Kumbayah" with the progressives who are calling for much-needed reforms to the city's extravagant pension system.

Sooner or later, if you really want to change the things that are slowly killing our city and the region as a whole, you are going to have to go head-to-head with those who want to keep things just as they have been for countless decades. It's going to be divisive. It's going to be bloody. It's going to create an endless supply of hard feelings. And it's going to be the most important battle that we -- or at least the small number of people who are still left in Pittsburgh when these problems finally come to a head -- will ever fight.

I do not see Bill Peduto's actions, on either March 21st or today, as a necessary and strategic retreat which will ensure the survival of the local progressive reform movement. Instead, I join with a writer named "Highland Ave." over at The Darn News, who notes that he or she is "... still getting e-mails from a campaign best known for re-defining 'Quitting' as 'a successful preemptive strike'". I find myself in agreement with Jonathan Potts over at The Conversation, who had the following to say when Mr. Peduto pulled out of the Democratic primary:
You don't get into politics these days unless you are willing to get your knuckles bloody now and then. Lamentable, perhaps, but that's the way it is. Just ask President Kerry. Besides, Peduto is running against an incumbent. Any time an incumbent runs for re-election the race is a referendum on their performance in office. (I realize Luke Ravenstahl isn't technical running for re-election, but the principal holds.)
And even better reaction, also written in the aftermath of Mr. Peduto's March 21st withdrawal from the primary, comes from Sue at Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents:
Today I received the [Peduto campaign's] acknowledge[ment] of my campaign contribution which I have to admit was a big chunk for me to fork over. It was incorrectly addressed so I called the campaign to get that corrected. During the course of that conversation, I was fed the whole party line about the reasons why it was in Pittsburgh's best interest for Mr. Peduto to withdraw from the race and why I should still be a true believer.

It just made me angrier. Its almost as if I am supposed to just stuff my feelings down and take one for the team with just the slightest suggestion that actually *criticizing* Bill Peduto is a big fat no-no. Good girls/progressives don't. I'm supposed to suck it up and go to bat for other progressive candidates.

Fuck that. While my learned blogging colleagues around the burghosphere explore the political underbelly of recent events, critique the media response and go all cosa nostra on the Ravenstahl administration, I sit here at my computer staring at these two letters just FEELING ANGRY. It has only been three days after all. I'm allowed to be angry. It is a healthy response to betrayal. Oops, did I say that? I mean to tacitly accepting the status quo with regard to Allegheny County Dem politics.

Its only two years, the staffer told me. I'm 36. Two years is a still a proportionately decent amount of my lifetime. It is 24 months of my payroll taxes and property taxes and sweat equity. ... Two more years of driving out to the Giant Eagle on Camp Horne Road because its clean AND prostitute free. [snip...]

So while I appreciate the genuine sentiment of Mr. Peduto's campaign worker, I disagree with her philosophy. She asked me to keep an open mind. I blew a gasket at that and have to give her credit for listening to me. My mind is open.

It is my heart that is closed.
The thing is that there were real people out there who opened their hearts, donated much-needed portions of their paychecks, and gave up countless hours of effort in support of Mr. Peduto's candidacy. Many of us saw this as the one golden opportunity to demonstrate the need for change in Pittsburgh. Even if we couldn't win it, this election would at least present us with a pulpit from which the need for reform could be trumpeted to a largely apathetic and set-in-their ways electorate. Even if Mr. Ravenstahl won this election, we would at least be able to reach more voters next time around. By that time, the pension bomb will have detonated, the city finances will again be in the toilet, and we could at least say, "we told yinz so".

With no mayoral candidate in the race, the reform movement in Pittsburgh is effectively silenced for the next two years. The press isn't going to devote any sizable amount of coverage on these issues anymore, because there isn't a horse race to report on anymore. This is no great failing on the part of the local press. The public typically only pays attention to these kinds of things when there is a reason for them to do so. A contested election is one of the few things that gives your Average Joe a reason to pay some degree of attention to politics, and press attention necessarily follows the attention of the public.

Now that we have a (more or less) uncontested mayoral election in front of us, we can ask ourselves just where we are really likely to be in two years' time, assuming that Mr. Peduto tries to run again in 2009. Even I -- someone who is genuinely impressed with his knowledgeable understanding of the issues and who agrees with many of his positions -- would be very wary of offering Mr. Peduto much in the way of financial, shoe leather, or even emotional support.

After all, how can I be sure that he won't wimp out on us yet again? What if the campaign gets -- God forbid -- "divisive" in 2009? Will he turn tail and run out on us at the last minute? Will two-and-a-half years finally be long enough for this mythical and seemingly endless mourning period for former mayor Bob O'Connor to come to an end? Bill Peduto already asked me to "Believe" in his broken-promise fairy tale in 2007. I am not so sure I can trust him enough to "Believe" yet again in 2009.

But even if I can get past this year's betrayal, where will the typical Pittsburgh voter be by the time that 2009 rolls around? Even if the city finances are beginning to circle the bowl by that point, will things really be bad enough that anyone other than us wonks will really notice the problems? I'm betting that the pension checks will continue to go out, that the potholes will continue to be patched, and the quality of city services won't be so glaringly deficient as to be noticable to most voters. If things aren't all that bad, why not "give the kid another chance"?

And even if things are so bad that people finally begin to notice Luke Ravenstahl's obvious deficiencies, who are they likely to blame for these problems? Mr. Peduto will be, at that point, an 8-year incumbent on city council and could be rather easily painted as part of the problem rather than the solution. Moreover, now that he has relinquished his bully pulpit as a candidate in the 2007 election, very few people are likely to remember his warnings about our looming financial crisis. He will undoubtedly try to remind people that he "told yinz so", but -- coming from a long-serving member of city government -- those pleas could easily fall on deaf ears. And the progressive reform message, rather than reminding voters of something that they have heard in the recent past, could very well come across as something "new" and "dangerous" in a time of fiscal uncertainty.

I realize that Mr. Peduto would have lost this year's election to Luke Ravenstahl. And he would have probably lost by a fairly large margin. But I'm not convinced that this defeat would have, as Mr. Peduto claims, irrevocably wounded our chances to bring reform to Pittsburgh. Instead, I think we would have reached a few more people this time around than we did last time. And I think that 2007, regardless of the size of Mr. Ravenstahl's victory, would have provided us with a decent jumping off point for 2009.

I just can't see how anyone can hope to promote reform in Pittsburgh by going silent about the need for it. Mr. Peduto's "Reform Pittsburgh Now" movement may seem like a good idea, but let's face it. The people who get involved with it will largely end up preaching to each other. With no candidates on the ballot, the group's message is exceedingly unlikely to reach those who just want to "give the kid a chance". Those are the people that the reform movement needs to reach, and Mr. Peduto's withdrawal has given them license to simply stop paying any attention to what he has to say. When things go bad in a few years, they won't even know that anyone ever "told yinz so".

Meaningful reform may very well require a fair bit of divisiveness. And it certainly will require bravery instead of timidness.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

McNeilly to Publish an Open Letter in The Post-Gazette

With her Federal lawsuit against the interim mayor and the police chief now settled out-of-court, Police Commander Catherine McNeilly has come out swinging, and swinging hard. In the settlement, she was personally awarded the sum of $85,000. Ms. McNeilly has now, according to a report which aired this evening on WTAE, spent $4,000 of that money to purchase space in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for an open letter to all city residents. To her credit, she does not plan on keeping much -- or possibly any -- of the taxpayer's money. And she sounds like she is still one very pissed off police officer.

According to WTAE reporter Bob Mayo's personal blog, the letter will not appear in the Post-Gazette until sometime next week. But it's already been posted on the WTAE website. Here is what Ms. McNeilly has to say:

To The Citizens of the City of Pittsburgh:

I have been asked if I am "happy" with the terms of the settlement in the suit that was filed against the City of Pittsburgh, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Chief Nate Harper for my actions that were taken in good faith and in the public interest, according to the law.

The situation deteriorated because of undue influence by an individual or individuals who, because they were unelected, were unaccountable to the public.

What began this whole series of events was an attempt in the legitimate and routine performance of my duties as a Zone Commander to initiate disciplinary action against an officer who was abusing sick time and secondary employment privileges to the detriment of his fellow officers, but more importantly -- to the public safety.

The irony of this entire charade is that not only does that officer remain undisciplined to this day, but he is enjoying the salary, benefits and elite status of "acting detective." He is presently assigned to the unprecedented and untouchable "Office of the Assistant Chief of Operations," and is still enjoying the privilege of working secondary employment.

In essence, his actions have been rewarded rather than reprimanded, and they continue.

Another intimately involved individual remains in an influential and sensitive position within the Mayor's Office, making her privy now, as she has been throughout, to all aspects of this situation.

Because this has been allowed to continue, and absolutely no effort has ever been made to move her from the sensitivity of the Mayor’s Office throughout this ordeal, I was, and remain convinced that this administration genuinely believes there has never been any wrongdoing emanating from that office, regardless of what has been said in Federal Court.

I would be greatly disappointed if State Attorney General Tom Corbett (in charge of the Public Corruption Unit) or U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan chose to ignore the findings of the Federal Court when it was emphatically noted that my case was about "wrongdoing and improper and undue influence by the Mayor’s Office in the Police Department matters," and not about corruption in my police department, especially in light of the fact that so much remains unchanged to this day.

I can only hope that our Criminal Justice System has duly noted the Federal Court’s findings, and I have faith and confidence that the system will take up the task of realizing, undertaking and completing what the Temporary Injunction Hearing was not intended to accomplish.

I would like to express my admiration of the Honorable Judge Donnetta Ambrose for the meticulous and diligent attention that was paid to every detail presented in the grueling testimony during this hearing, and for the professional and expeditious manner in which a ruling was brought forth.

I do not intend to become enriched personally as a result of this redress of justice.

So that the public's investment of their tax dollars in this settlement (some of which are my own tax dollars) are not totally fruitless, I have sought financial advice and have decided to create an endowment from the monies of the settlement, the proceeds of which shall, in years to come, be donated to several, various charities.

Since their names have figured so prominently and involuntarily in the events of this incident, my husband, former Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Chief Robert McNeilly, and my brother, Father Lou Vallone, have joined me in making personal and non-tax deductible donations to these endowments.

My attorneys, Mr. Timothy O’Brien, Esquire and Mr. Witold Walczak, Esquire, have joined me in making personal and non-tax deductible donations to these endowments as well.

I would invite Mayor Ravenstahl, Chief Nathan Harper, Solicitor George Specter and Mr. Michael Kennedy, Esquire of the City of Pittsburgh Law Department and Mr. William Goodrich, Esquire (Mr. Ravenstahl’s personal counsel) to likewise make personal donations to worthwhile charities of their choice.

Some of the charities that will ultimately benefit from the closure of this incident include:

  • The ACLU ~ who dedicated innumerable resources to insuring the preservation of 1st Amendment rights and its pertinence to this case;
  • North Side Common Ministries (since I was able to return to my position as Commander of Zone 1 – North Side);
  • St. John of God Parish (where my brother, Fr. Lou Vallone, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Chaplain, is Pastor), St. Pius Church in Brookline, the Passionist Convent in Carrick and Asbury Heights Retirement Community (for all their support, prayers and for believing in me);
  • Concerns of Police Survivors, Inc., (C.O.P.S.);
  • The Allegheny Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
The settlement has addressed -- to a degree -- the injustice done to me personally for my actions that were taken in good faith and in the public interest, according to the law.

But this was only a redress for a time consuming and expensive diversion from the core issues.

I accept it only so that I may put an end to the distraction that has been caused by this episode, and resume what I was in the process of doing throughout my 29 year career with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police as a law enforcement officer...

... To serve the citizens of Pittsburgh with accountability, integrity and respect.

Catherine R. McNeilly

Obviously, Ms. McNeilly is still very unhappy with the administration of Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. While she names no names, she clearly believes that the same inherent problems which led to her lawsuit are still present in the mayor's office, even if Dennis Regan is no longer employed there. Her call for further investigation by state and federal law enforcement is especially interesting. Even her pleas goes nowhere and result in no action against the Ravenstahl administration, they will tar the mayor's office with the suggestion of ongoing corruption.

Stay tuned, dear readers. Stay tuned.

Another Bipolar Day At the Post-Gazette Editorial Board

Today's editorials in Post-Gazette illustrate much of what is genuinely bad about local Pittsburgh politics. In one case, the newspaper's editorial board comes down, far more solidly than I had anticipated, on the correct side of the issue. In another, they tacitly endorse -- almost without even realizing that they are doing so -- one of the primary reasons why our city and region continue to stagnate and remain unable to provide voters with any real choices for progress. Indeed, the Post-Gazette comes out swinging in support of the very same situation that they chastised City Councilmember Bill Peduto for creating when he dropped out of Democratic mayoral primary last month.

The newspaper's lead editorial today rather boldly calls for the resignation of another City Councilmember, Twanda Carlisle. Ms. Carlisle, as discussed here in an earlier post, was formally charged with a number of crimes yesterday. Her conduct has been so egregious and unsupportable that it would be impossible for any rational body, even the Post-Gazette editorial board, to argue in Ms. Carlisle's favor. But instead of merely censuring her for engaging in this illegal conduct, or even pushing for voters in next month's primary election to vote Ms. Carlisle out of office, the editorial goes the extra yards to demand that she resign her seat on city council:

It is too late to remove Ms. Carlisle's name from the May 15 primary ballot, where she faces seven Democratic challengers for the party nomination for the District 9 seat. Given the seriousness of the charges, it would be an affront to the voters if she went forward with her candidacy. It would be worse if she continued to pose as a City Council member serving the public.

Right now the people Ms. Carlisle should be most concerned about are those who will sit in judgment during her trial. If she has any regard for the people of District 9, she will gracefully step aside.
Those are pretty bold words from the Post-Gazette. I'm somewhat impressed, even though I don't really see how Ms. Carlisle's resignation would end up doing much good for the people of the 9th "Councilmatic" District. If she resigned at this point, it would still be too late to make any changes to the May 15th primary ballot. Even if it were possible to rapidly set up a May 15th special election that would pick a temporary successor for Ms. Carlisle's seat -- and I'm not convinced that it could be done -- the voting process would be enormously confusing. Voters would be asked, in one part of the ballot, to pick someone to fill the remainder of Ms. Carlisle's term. Then they would also be asked to cast their primary election votes for the Democratic party, choosing between eight different candidates, including (since it's too late to take her off the ballot) Ms. Carlisle herself.

Rather than leaving the residents of District 9 with no representative on city council for the next eight months, it's probably a better idea -- however distasteful this may be -- to allow Ms. Carlisle to fill this role in a lame duck status.

The Post-Gazette's second editorial is a seemingly pure-vanilla endorsement of incumbent Pittsburgh Public School Boardmember Dan Romaniello. I have no personal beef with Mr. Rominello, and I can't complain about the editorial board's endorsement of his candidacy. But instead of merely endorsing him to win the Democratic party nomination in the primary, the Post-Gazette goes on to suggest that he should also be the victor in the Republican primary as well:
Since he and his two challengers, Sherry Hazuda of Beechview and Amy Barrett Montgomery of Brookline, are cross-filed on the Democratic and Republican ballots, it's conceivable that one candidate will win one party nomination in the May 15 primary while a different candidate receives the other. With Mr. Romaniello, 52, on the job, though, we see no need for the parties to differ on who is best. [snip...]

The incumbent has been part of the board's new stability and its ability to reshape the district. Clearly, he gets it. For that reason, Daniel Romaniello Sr. deserves both party nominations and another term on the city school board.
For starters, the entire practice of candidates cross-filing nominating petitions under multiple political parties is disgustingly vile. Pennsylvania law actually bans cross-filing in most elections, but allows it -- for reasons that I can't begin to understand -- for "... judicial elections in the court of common pleas, Philadelphia municipal and traffic courts, justices of the peace, and school directors (where elected)". Why is this practice, which allows candidates to appear on the general election ballot more than once for any given office, permitted for some elected offices and not others? It has never made any sense to me. If anyone can enlighten me, I would be deeply grateful.

Whether this practice is legally permissible or not, the Post-Gazette makes a mistake in treating it as acceptable. And the editorial board makes an even bigger mistake in in recommending that the exact same candidate be chosen by the voters of both major political parties. The result, should the paper's endorsements be adhered to by the voters, is that Mr. Romaniello will be the only available option on the November general election ballot, appearing on both the Democratic and Republican tickets.

When Bill Peduto dropped out of the race for Democratic mayoral nomination, the Post-Gazette had the following to say about his decision:
Barring some later entry from an independent or a write-in candidate, Pittsburgh is left with no mayoral race at all. The Republicans, as hapless as ever in Pittsburgh, have no candidate for November. As far as Pittsburgh's most important office goes, democracy has been effectively suspended.
By recommending that Republican voters nominate a Democrat to appear on their ticket for School Board, the Post-Gazette is effectively doing the same thing here. As today's editorial makes clear, there is a bona-fide registered Republican, Amy Barrett Montgomery, running against Mr. Romaniello in this election. But instead of endorsing her for the Republican nomination, and allowing the voters to have some choices before them in November, the Post-Gazette would rather see voters left with no options at all.

One reason why Pittsburgh Republicans are, to use the Post-Gazette's own words, so "hapless", is that they are given little coverage or opportunity to develop by the city's mainstream press outlets. Ms. Montgomery would probably have little chance running as a Republican against a Democratic incumbent, but the race would give her some experience and allow her to evolve, perhaps, into a more viable candidate in the future.

At one point last month, the Post-Gazette thought that Bill Peduto should have been honor-bound to continue his doomed campaign, if for no other reason than to provide the "youthful" Luke Ravenstahl with the chance to "... temper his political steel in the cauldron of experience". It's a shame that they don't attach the same degree of importance to providing this kind of opportunity to young candidates from the Republican party. Maybe that's one of the reasons why local Republicans are so hapless.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Now that Someone Else's Ass is In the Hot Seat, Ravenstahl Thinks the Ethics Board is a Damn Fine Idea

The Post-Gazette has been very busy today, constantly expanding their coverage Pittsburgh City Councilmember Twanda Carlisle's indictment on a number of criminal charges. They have posted a PDF file of the original criminal complaint, which details all of the offenses that Ms. Carlisle is charged with. The final tally looks like three charges of theft by deception, another three charges for criminal conspiracy, three charges of state Ethics Act violations, five Election Code offenses, and three charges of failing to file required financial disclosures. They have also provided a link to a number of audio files, including one which features some comments made by Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

The really remarkable portion of Mr. Ravenstahl's comments concern his sudden interest in the City's long-dormant Ethics Board:

I've instructed my staff this morning to ensure that the Ethics Board meets, uh, as early as next week, uh, to deal with this issue and any others that come up in city government 'cause we want to ensure that this type of activity isn't taking place...

... in fact the Ethics Board has not met in, in well over a decade... rather than reflecting on why it hasn't met, ah, it's important to, to make sure that it does meet, and, uh, and, we will do so like I said as early as next week...
Forgive me for being underwhelmed by Mr. Ravenstahl suddenly finding religion when it comes to the City Ethics Board. Especially since he has done a simply astonishing amount of foot-dragging on this issue, particularly when his own fat was in the fire for a variety of ethical fumbles.

In early February, after a report by WTAE reporter Bob Mayo hit the airwaves, things descended into a farcical sequence of political one-upsmanship. Noting that the Ravenstahl administration had done nothing to reconvene the Ethics Board, City Councilmember (and then-mayoral candidate) Bill Peduto went ahead and scheduled his own meeting with the panel. The interim mayor's lackeys responded by suddenly scheduling their own meeting with the board members a few hours before Peduto's meeting was to take place. And then -- having denounced Mr. Peduto's effort as "political" and doing a fair job of upstaging him -- the Ravenstahl administration announced that its meeting of the Ethics Board failed when the body was unable to muster a majority of its members.

At that time, when the most prominent ethical lapses in city government were of the interim mayor's own making, many of us wondered just how hard the Ravenstahl administration had worked to establish a quorum of board members at this meeting. Indeed, the most rampant speculation was just how hard the administration had had to work to prevent a quorum from being formed.

But now that the focus is on Ms. Carlisle and mayoral politics have been rendered moot by Mr. Peduto withdrawing from the race, Mr. Ravenstahl suddenly thinks that it's high time for us to reconstitute our Ethics Board. Pardon me for being cynical, but I really don't imagine that he would have been so anxious to take this step if he was still facing any opposition in the May primary election.

Also interesting is the interim mayor's perspective on just what next week's meeting of the Ethics Board will focus upon:
I think the initial meeting will be to determine what, uh, the Ethics Board role will be, and then, uh, and then move forward from there.
In other words, the board is going to meet to figure out just why in the hell they even exist in the first place, make sure that everyone knows how to find their way to the right conference room, and record all of the members' coffee and doughnut preferences. After all of those essentials are taken care of, it rather sounds like they will then get cracking to work out a means by which they can begin planning the process by which they will continue to meet in an effort to determine their plans to decide on their proposals for holding further meetings. In other words, there are simply no indications that the Ethics Board is actually going to do anything, and there is every reason to worry that this meeting is being held for display purposes only.

All that being said, once the Ethics Board finds its feet, there may be some reason for hope. It is designed to function as an independent body, and it is not constrained in any way by the wants and desires of the sitting mayoral administration. It is free to focus on any issues that it chooses, and could even -- dare we dream? -- decide to examine some of Mr. Ravenstahl's more notable ethically-questionable decisions.

It's not much to hope for, I know. But at this stage, it's just about all we got.

Carlisle Arrested... uh, Detained... uh, Something

The Tribune-Review is reporting that Pittsburgh City Councilmember Twanda Carlisle will be arraigned this morning in District Court. She is facing charges of theft and criminal conspiracy. At the moment, there are no specific details about the criminal offenses that Ms. Carlisle is alleged to have committed. District Attorney Stephen Zappala is not commenting, but his office has been investigating Ms. Carlisle for some time now, ever since last year's referral to his office from the city's Law Department. According to the Tribune-Review, the investigation has broadened considerably since this referral was made, a grand jury has been looking into the matter, and charges against other individuals remain possible.

The timing of these events, coming just one month prior to the Democratic primary, must really suck for Ms. Carlisle. Of course, she -- and everybody else -- knew that things would get to this stage at some point prior to the primary. But she must have been hoping that her perp walk would take place earlier in the year, to give her campaign some time to recover from this blow.

Time will tell whether these events will have any impact on the election. Obviously, they hurt Ms. Carlisle's chances. But she still faces an enormous number of challengers (seven at last count) for her seat on City Council. Depending on how far the anti-Carlisle vote is split among these many faces, she could still pull this one out. To his credit, the endorsed Democrat in the race, Rev. Ricky Burgess -- pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Homewood -- is not making Ms. Carlisle's legal problems a central issue in his campaign. Indeed, all he has had to say on this matter is that he is "... praying for her and her family in this difficult time". Maybe a healthy dose of Christian charity is precisely what Pittsburgh politics needs at the moment.

Those who enjoy semantic gymnastics, the bending of legal definitions, and the twisting of logic into unrecognizable new forms will probably be treated to quite a show later on today. I can only imagine that Ms. Carlisle -- much like Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl did when his Heinz Field handcuffing became public -- will attempt to claim that these events do not constitute an arrest. Despite the fact that she has been formally charged with a criminal offense in a court of law, she will probably note that she surrendered voluntarily and was never handcuffed, and thus she was never "arrested".

One councilmember is forcibly detained by police and handcuffed, but that's not an arrest, at least as he tells it, because he was never charged with a crime. Another is charged with a crime, but without the drama of being forcibly detained and put into handcuffs. That probably won't be an arrest, either. Ain't Pittsburgh politics fun?

UPDATE: The Post-Gazette has posted some details regarding the specifics of the charges, including this fascinating tidbit:

An affidavit filed by Det. William Miller of the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office indicates that on 50 occasions, Ms. Carlisle made cash deposits into her personal bank account at Dollar Bank within one day of one of the consultants cashing a city check. On 13 other occasions, she made cash deposits within two days of one of the consultants cashing a city check.
She could have at least been a bit more subtle about the whole thing, and waited more than a day or two to deposit the kickbacks into her personal bank account.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Another Victory for the Burghosphere?

Over the Easter weekend, my household received yet another mailing from the City of Pittsburgh. This time, we were treated to an invitation to the grand re-opening of the new " sportsplex" at the Schenley Park oval. As you might expect, it announced it very large letters that our invitation was from none other than "Mayor Luke Ravenstahl" himself (so nice of him to think of me). But what truly astonished me was that, this time around, there wasn't a single picture of Mr. Ravenstahl anywhere at all on the card. No "hands on hips" image, no smiling "311 Response Line" picture, and only one mention of the interim mayor in the text. In fact, the only photograph was -- in an astonishing display of appropriateness -- a picture of the new Schenley Oval itself.

One might argue that, since City Councilmember Bill Peduto has pulled out of the Democratic mayoral primary, Mr. Ravenstahl no longer needed to plaster his photograph on every single city mailing. But I suspect that these particular postcards were ordered, and perhaps even printed, before Mr. Peduto dropped his bombshell on the local political landscape. If so, then the decision to leave Mr. Ravenstahl's smiling visage off of these announcements must have been motivated by other concerns.

It seems at least possible that the interim mayor's political handlers had finally had enough of all the blog and mainstream press attention that the earlier city mailings received. This might be yet another example of the positive role that blogs can play, even in a city as troubled as ours.

Gun Control and Democracy in Pennsylvania

Over on the other side of the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania's largest city is in the midst of a bloody wave of violent crime. So far this year, more than 100 people have been murdered within the city limits of Philadelphia, and more than 400 have been shot. To put that into perspective, Philadelphia has had more murders thus far in 2007 than all five boroughs of New York City, despite the fact that New York has a population more than five times the size of Philadelphia. As the body count continues ever upward, violence is beginning to emerge as a major issue within Philadelphia's 2007 mayoral election.

No matter where one might stand on the gun control debate, we should at least be able to agree that Philadelphia's current problems are almost exclusively gun-related. To be more specific, handguns are the weapon of choice in more than 80 percent of Philadelphia's homicides. Since Philadelphia, just like our own beloved Pittsburgh, is an all-but-exclusively Democratic city, you can easily predict exactly what the state lawmakers from that part of the Commonwealth want to enact in response to all of this handgun-related violence. Once again, legislators from the southeastern corner of the state are screaming for gun control. And once again, lawmakers from just about every other part of Pennsylvania are lining up to make sure that it will never happen. This pattern is seen just about every year in Harrisburg. The only difference this year is that Philadelphia's soaring homicide rate is lending a certain urgency to the debate.

Perhaps the other big difference is that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell is just beginning his final term in office. As a Democrat and a former Mayor of Philadelphia, Mr. Rendell obviously sides with pro-control side in this debate. And as someone who will never again have to face Pennsylvania's voters, he no longer has to worry about disguising this fact. At the end of last month, Mr. Rendell outlined a number of reforms that he would like to see made to state government, including the introduction of term limits for legislators. That part of the story made it into local Pittsburgh newspapers. What didn't receive a great deal of attention in the local press is what Mr. Rendell, who was making a speech to the Pennslvania Press Club, said next:

He tied his term-limit proposal to what he considered the urgent need for gun-control legislation.

His voice rising, his fist pounding the dais, Rendell said that if lawmakers were true "citizen soldiers," Pennsylvania might finally be able to enact a law halting straw purchases of handguns.

Speaking on a day when Philadelphia recorded its third gun killing in 24 hours, Rendell said that if lawmakers' terms were limited, they might be less fearful of the gun lobby and more likely to support a long-stalled proposal to limit handgun purchases to one a month.

"That law should be passed," Rendell said. "No one who is sane and rational would vote against one handgun a month."
The bill that Mr. Rendell is referring to, one of 15 different gun-control bills to be placed before the state legislature, is being pushed by State Representative and Philadelphia mayoral candidate Dwight Evans. It would, in essence, limit any one person to a single gun purchase per month. To most urban dwellers, and especially those living in or near a city with a skyrocketing murder rate, this idea probably seems like basic common sense. In the more rural areas of the Commonwealth, however, it borders on blasphemy.

Ironically, if you think the "one gun a month" idea is a bad one, you haven't seen anything yet. Unmentioned by Mr. Rendell and largely absent from most press discussions of these gun control efforts is an even more stringent measure that seems certain raise the ire of a wide majority of the state's population. House Bill 760 would require that every last firearm in the state be registered with the State Police on an annual basis. Gun owners would have to pay a $10 registration per gun every single year, provide a substantial amount of personal information, submit to fingerprinting and background checks, provide the photographs which would appear on the registration cards, and subject themselves to the confiscation of their guns if their registration were denied.

House Bill 760, of course, has zero chance of being passed by the Pennsylvania legislature. And even if it were passed, it could never survive the inevitable court challenge. The state constitution, which holds that, "[t]he right of the citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State shall not be questioned", makes the federal second amendment seem almost timid by comparison. It's very hard to see any way in which this part of the state constitution could ever co-exists with a law of this kind.

One can only wonder, therefore, why House Bill 760 was ever even introduced in the General Assembly. It will never pass. It could never survive a court challenge it it did pass. But its mere presence is enough to galvanize its detractors and mobilize a vehement opposition to all gun control proposals, including those that are far more sensible. The "one-gun-a-month" bill may end up falling victim to collateral damage as a result.

Having lived in both the rural and urban portions of Pennsylvania, I can truly understand where the rural legislators are coming from here. As a state representative from Elks counted noted to the Philadelphia Enquirer:
Rep. Dan Surra (D., Elk) said that while he sympathized with residents living in high-crime areas, he could not support any gun-restriction bill because in certain quarters of his district, a hunting stronghold in the north-central part of the state, guns are a single-issue item at the polls.

"They will vote you out on this," Surra said.

Rendell's mention of gun control in his February budget in the Capitol drew a chorus of hisses from Republicans - and likely some Democrats in the Capitol - underscoring the largely geographical, rather than political, divide on the issue.
This understandable reluctance by rural legislatures is the key reason why statewide gun control measures are defeated nearly every year in Harrisburg. But it begs the question why these kinds of reforms must be enacted on a statewide basis at all. Pennsylvania is a remarkably diverse state. Our counties range in size from some of the least-populated areas of the eastern seaboard to the nation's fifth-largest urban center. Obviously, people living in different areas will have different needs. Urban areas will always have concentration of violent crime, but our current laws don't do anything to reflect this reality.

As things stand right now, Philadelphians and Pittsburghers are subject to (and protected by) the exact same gun control rules as those in Elk and Forest counties. And nothing can be done at the local level to change that. Title 18 of the state's Consolidated Statues holds that:
No county, municipality or township may in any manner regulate the lawful ownership, possession, transfer or transportation of firearms, ammunition or ammunition components when carried or transported for purposes not prohibited by the laws of this Commonwealth
While state law does allow a municipality to ban the discharge of a firearm within its boundaries, that's all that they can legally do. As a result, the nation's fifth-largest city -- filled with poverty, drugs, and street gangs -- must have the same gun laws as the hunting utopia that is the northern tier of Pennsylvania.

Gun control is not a panacea. Criminals obviously don't pay any attention to laws which limit their gun ownership rights. But gun control can have a secondary effect which pushes up the street price for black-market firearms. As a result, illegal guns can become rather valuable possessions, and those who own them can become less prone to take the risk of losing them. Provided that police activity makes the seizure of illegal guns more likely, simply carrying a gun can present a very real risk of losing a costly possession. And if the illegal carrying of firearms can be curtailed, mere disagreements -- which occur constantly in a city such as Philadelphia -- are less likely to unravel into murderous confrontations.

The key thing for our state to recognize is that, at least on this issue, democracy must be allowed to work at a lower level. Communities should be permitted to make their own rules about gun sales and ownership. Pennsylvania House Bill 18 would permit them -- subject to some rather stringent restrictions -- to do just that. It would allow our cities to enact the laws that make sense for their situation, while doing no harm to the rest of the Commonwealth. It makes sense. And for Philadelphia's sake, it needs to happen soon.


The People's Republic of Pittsburgh would like to apologize for the lack of posts in the last week or so. Any readers who have the privilege of singing for a church choir probably understand why last week was just a tiny bit busy for the Admiral, who is only just now getting his voice back and his body readjusted to a more normal schedule.

With Holy Week now behind us, things are turning a bit bittersweet in choir loft. The big "Hallelujah" pieces -- Handel (of course) and Beethoven -- are finished. Our college-student members will soon finish up their spring semesters and head home. The choir will slowly shrink in size with each passing week, and the choral season will end -- as it nearly always does -- with more of a whimper than a bang.

In addition to all of these things, the Admiral has also been trying to come to terms with some personal events that may require some substantial changes to his blogging habits. Stay tuned for more developments in this story, which may very well be good news for everyone who reads the burghosphere.

But for the moment, we now return to our more usual posting routine.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

A Safer Crosswalk For Evelyn

A few years ago, I had a very pleasant afternoon conversation with a former co-worker (and occasional babysitter for my children). I hadn't seen her for a while, and we shared stories of what we had been up to and what we had planned for the future. It was delightful to catch up with her once again. She was by far one of the nicest people I ever worked with, and her research was simply fascinating.

Just hours later, she was dead, killed when she was struck by a minivan while crossing Braddock Avenue in Regent Square.

Evelyn Wei was one of those people that you just can't forget. I still think of her every single day, and I'm grateful that I had the chance to know her for even a short period of time.

Today, as reported in the Tribune-Review and on KDKA, the intersection where she died has been made safer. I have to wonder why her family and friends had to donate $20,000 to make these improvements happen, and why the city couldn't have done these things before we ever got to this horrific point. But at least things are now safer than they were on the night she was killed.

I will always miss you, Evelyn.

Ravenstahl Does Good

It's been a very long and busy week out in the Pennsylvania Operating Area. Endless man overboard drills, simulated boardings and searches of merchant vessels, deceptive lighting competitions, main space fire drills, formation steaming, DIVTACs, flight operations, and a constant stream engineering casualty exercises (BECCEs) kept us up through all hours of the night. The battle group finally returned to homeport a few days ago, and all hands -- including myself -- were given a 24-hour liberty to recover. It's amazing how sane, and even mundane, Pittsburgh's political scene appears to be when viewed from well over the horizon. Up close, however, the ugly truth becomes disturbingly obvious.

But this morning, there is some good news to report. I once promised that, if Pittsburgh's Interim Mayor, Luke "The Anointed One" Ravenstahl were to do anything that I agreed with, I would be sure to praise him in this space. He finally has done some good, and I both recognize and thank him for doing so.

As the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review are reporting this morning, the police secondary employment story is once again back in the news. Months after the story first appeared here in the burghosphere, it would seem that we finally are seeing a reinstatement of the city's cost recovery fee. Beginning next week, the city will charge $3.85 per hour whenever an off-duty police officer is employed by a private entity. According to my own calculations, this new fee should bring in more than $730,000 to cover the expenses -- liability, litigation, worker's compensation, wear and tear on city property, and replacement of expended consumables -- that it incurs when city police officers hire themselves out to private employers.

I'm impressed by this move by the Ravenstahl administration. In my own cynical way, I had fully expected that they would simply ignore this issue yet again. Once Mr. Ravenstahl's only election opponent, City Councilmember Bill Peduto, had dropped out of the race, I figured that the new cost recovery plan -- which the interim mayor had promised to institute in time for the Pirate's April 9th home opener -- had little hope of seeing the light of day. At the very least, I had expected that it would be significantly scaled back to some meaningless amount. But Luke Ravenstahl has proven to be a better man than I had anticipated, and his plan certainly appears to be worthy of our admiration.

One wonders, of course, if any of this would have taken place without the protests of the burghosphere. But regardless of his motivation, Mr. Ravenstahl has set a cost recovery fee that should truly recover the taxpayers' costs. And for that, I salute him.

As is a bit normal in the wake of an announcement like this one, the media accounts are a bit confusing about what the new cost recovery plan will entail. It seems clear that the new fee will amount to $3.85 per hour, which just so happens to be precisely 10% of an officer's hourly wage ($38.54), at least when the employment is scheduled through the police department's Special Events Office. It is a bit less clear, however, exactly what will happen to this fee in the future. The news reports only mention this flat $3.85-per-hour amount, and don't tell us how it is calculated. Will this fee be recalculated every year, so that it remains at 10% of the officers' hourly wage? Or is it fixed at a flat $3.85-per-hour, where it will stay for years on end until inflation renders it meaningless?

Also less than clear is whether the Special Events Office will take control of all secondary employment details. Rich Lord's Post-Gazette story indicates that some police officers will continue to serve as third-party contractors who dole out the assignments to some of the more lucrative secondary employment details:

The new plan includes a concession to the union -- allowing businesses to use entrepreneurial officers as "designated schedulers" rather than getting officers solely through the Police Bureau's events office. The bureau spent $30,950 in 2005 on software for scheduling the jobs.

Several officers run lucrative businesses in which they place colleagues in side jobs in return for a cut. The city would get $3.85 an hour for the scheduler's time, and for each officer scheduled through them.

SMG [the company that currently handles all events at Mellon Arena] will continue to handpick officers, [General Manager Jay Roberts] said.
I'm not certain who will end up paying for the services of these designated schedulers. Regardless of who does the scheduling, the city will still get its $3.85-per-hour fee for each officer who is employed. So I guess that each of the officers who are provided with work by one of these designated schedulers will be expected to fork over some of their wages to pay the scheduler for this honor. Call it what you like, but to me this sounds very much like a kick-back scheme.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Boren's piece in the Tribune-Review makes it seem like all work will be run directly through the Special Events Office, and that "designated schedulers" are a thing of the past:
Ravenstahl also will stop officers from arranging off-duty side jobs for their colleagues and taking their own cut, Skrinjar said.

"The whole idea is to bring this under the control of the police department, without any freelancing by individual officers," said Skrinjar, who added that all off-duty assignments will be tracked by computer.

Before November, only businesses that hired officers directly through the city paid the fee. But about two-thirds of all moonlighting jobs were privately arranged between businesses and individual police officers, at varying rates, city records show.

Police Lt. Thomas Atkins, who privately arranged for officers to work Pirates games, said he would abide by the city's decision.

"I'm a team player," he said. "Whatever they tell me to do, that's what I'll do."

"This would make if fair so that everyone can bid on the same jobs," said Jim Malloy, president of police union Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1.
You will pardon me for being confused here. One story says that there will still be role for these "designated schedulers", and the other article says there will not. But if "designated schedulers" are going to exist, the Trib article at least makes it appear as though the jobs will still be entered into the department's computer system. If true, then this brings additional good news for the city and its school district, since together they stand to collect more than $200,000 in wage taxes from these secondary employment details. In the past, many of these jobs were done "under the table", and these taxes went unpaid. As long as the officers' wages are being paid through the city's payroll system, this sort of tax evasion should now be a thing of the past.

Hopefully, the city and the police department will be vigilant, and will institute rules which forbid officers from working outside of the official secondary employment system.

I have to be fair to Luke Ravenstahl. Without an opponent in the coming election, he easily could have sat on his hands here. He could have instituted no fee whatsoever, waited out the inevitable howls of protest that would have come from the burghosphere on April 9th, and placated all of the powerful interests who had rebelled against the earlier fee until he eliminated it last November. But instead, he actually went forward with a decision that will anger these internal factions, but will be very good for city taxpayers.

I'm truly impressed. Good job, Mr. Ravenstahl.