Monday, May 7, 2007

Thoughts on Le Petit Massacre

Just over one week ago, Pittsburgh's interim mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, finally took some long-overdue steps to establish an administration that is truly his own. Ever since last September, when he was elevated to his post by the death of the previous mayor, Bob O'Connor, Interim Mayor Ravenstahl had retained the bulk of Mr. O'Connor's appointees in his office. For a brief period of time, this idea made a great deal of sense. Mr. Ravenstahl had never planned to become the Mayor of Pittsburgh. He hadn't been in office on City Council (or even out of high school) long enough to have built a cadre of supporters and loyalists for himself. It had been Mr. O'Connor, and not himself, whom voters had elected as Mayor. One could understandably expect, therefore, that the public would want to see many of the O'Connor initiatives continue in the wake of his death. And most obviously, the city -- and particularly the members of its political community -- were devastated by the unexpected death of their leader and good personal friend. Clearly, this was not the time to compound this loss by throwing Mr. O'Connor's loyal friends and advisers into the unemployment line.

But at some point, far more rapidly than Mr. Ravenstahl probably expected, it became time for his administration and our city to move on. A decent period of mourning and grieving was understandable, but the city and its problems weren't going to go away. Leadership was needed and the occupant of the mayor's office, no matter who it was, had a job to do.

It's hard to pinpoint the moment when Mr. Ravenstahl should have "moved forward" and installed his own administration. But it certainly became clear, very early on, that the retention of Mr. O'Connor's advisers was causing problems for Mr. Ravenstahl. Perhaps these troubles were caused by the fact that Mr. Ravenstahl not only kept these O'Connor appointees around, but began investing them with even more power than Mr. O'Connor himself had ever bestowed upon them. The best example of this trend, of course, was Dennis Regan. Previously Mayor O'Connor's Director of Intergovernmental Affairs (whatever the hell that means), he was quickly promoted by Luke Ravenstahl to become the city's overall Director of Operations. That was a questionable decision in it's own right, but things were about to get much worse. With just under one month in office, Mr. Ravenstahl made his worst decision to that point when he attempted to give Mr. Regan the additional title of Director of Public Safety, ignoring the fact that Mr. Regan had no public safety experience of any kind.

The ensuing firestorm would lead to the suspension of both Mr. Regan and Commander Catherine McNeilly, a decorated senior police officer who had dared to publicly question the wisdom of this nomination. Ultimately, this one unfortuneate decision by Luke Ravenstahl would bring about Mr. Regan's resignation from city government, the demotion of Cdr. McMeilly, a federal lawsuit against the city, an injunction reversing the McNeilly demotion, and a settlement of her lawsuit that will cost city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. It also cost Mr. Ravenstahl the support of city residents such as myself, and was provided one of the primary reason for the creation of this very forum.

Certainly, by the beginning of this year, it was clear that the O'Connor holdovers have overstayed their welcome in the mayor's office. While Mr. Regan was gone, several others -- including his live-in girlfriend, Marlene Cassidy -- remained in city government, many acting as Mr. Ravenstahl's most important advisers. As I commented in early January:

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. If Luke Ravenstahl wants to win me -- and other voters like me -- back into his fold, then he needs to be his own man. He needs to shed his office of all of the hangers-on from the O'Connor administration. He needs to come up with his own plans and original ideas, instead of just rehashing things that the previous administration had already accomplished.
And now, the most prominent remaining members of the O'Connor administration have been removed from the upper reaches of Mr. Ravenstahl's administration. Last Friday, the interim mayor removed Ms. Cassidy from her post as his senior secretary, and fired spokesman Dick Skrinjar, who had held the same job for Mayor O'Connor. He also got rid of his Director of Intergovernmental Relations, Anna Dobkin, who had not worked directly in the mayor's office during Mr. O'Connors brief occupancy, but who nevertheless was an O'Connor loyalist through-and-through.

At first glance, these looked like bold moves by Luke Ravenstahl. At last, he was breaking with the past and striking out on his own. But when you looked more closely at what was going on, there were a number of unexplained oddities in this pattern of events.

First, these individuals weren't truly fired. Instead, for some bizarre and unfathomable reason, Mr. Ravenstahl bent over backwards to find and offer every last one of them a lower-paying position within city government. In fact, it quickly became apparent that the positions that were offered (and, in some cases, accepted) didn't even exist beforehand. It is entirely unclear what Mr. Scrinjar will do for us taxpayers in his new job at the Parks and Recreation department. We don't even know the job title or salary that Ms. Dobkin will command in the Planning Department. And Ms. Cassidy may or may not have gone to work over at the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. According to the Post-Gazette, she visited the Parking Authority's offices last week, and PPA Director Dave Onorato (interesting last name, no?) said "... there would soon be a job opening at the agency...". But, as is true with the other two now-former mayoral advisers, the nature of that position and the duties that she would perform remain totally unclear.

The second big question mark about these moves by Interim Mayor Ravenstahl is that he fired these members of his administration without having anyone on deck to take their places. As noted by Bob Mayo in his blog, The Busman's Holiday, not only was Mr. Skrinjar not replaced as the mayor's Director of Communications, but Mr. Ravenstahl doesn't even seem to have anyone specific in mind to fill this position. Instead, the interim mayor is seeking to fill the now-vacant post by soliciting public applications through the city's website. Allowing such a key position to go unfilled for several weeks doesn't make sense. It strongly suggests that the firings were largely unplanned, and that the interim mayor didn't really think things through before he took this step.

And lastly, the third bit of weirdness is that the stated reason behind these firings makes absolutely zero sense. Supposedly, Mr. Ravenstahl has decided that the time has finally come to make a break with the past, chart his own course for the future of his administration, and rid his office of the O'Connor legacy. The Post-Gazette seems to agree with this sentiment. It would appear that the seemingly never-ending period of mourning for Bob O'Connor has at last come to an end. That's certainly good news. Seemingly everyone in our city's political life has been riding the "mourning" excuse for far too long. Luke Ravenstahl used it as the defacto reason why nobody should challenge his candidacy for mayor. Bill Peduto eventually agreed with him, using the fact that we were "still mourning the loss of Mayor Bob O'Connor" as one of the primary reasons that he dropped out of the mayoral election.

The whole "mourning" thing has gone on way too long. If the twelve apostles had sat around mourning the loss of Jesus for as long as Pittsburgh has (allegedly) been frozen in grief over the death of Bob O'Connor, most of us would still be worshiping the mythological gods of ancient Rome. Even if one accepts that common decency demanded the retention of Mayor O'Connor's favorites in the mayor's office for all this time, then we still must ask the key question, "why now?". Why was the end of April suddenly the right time to declare an end to this interminable period of mourning, when the writing has been on the wall since at least January? How could the mourning period end so quickly and unexpectedly that the interim mayor didn't even see it coming beforehand?

The whole thing stinks. Something truly isn't right here. But hey, at least we're moving forward.


EdHeath said...

What struck me was the similarities (and differences) to the firing of BJ Leber, Susan Malie and Paul Leger. Both moves came out of the blue and seemed kinda Machiavellian. But Ravenstahl is still going to be around to live with his moves, which might be why his were demotions instead of firings. Boy, Ravenstahl badly needs a capable spokesman, though. I hope he and Zober (now I have to learn how to spell Yarone…Yaronne?) don’t wait too long to find one.

Anonymous said...

The timing appears to coincide more with the campaign schedule. Peduto pulls out, i.e. the race is over (Luke doesn't need the so-called loyalists anymore), Luke waits until the body (Peduto's) is cold (places distance between Peduto's withdraw and house cleaning) and then rids himself of the Cassidy/Skrinjar albatross as well as Dobkin. His failure to timely replace these three probably speaks both to the lack of contribution of Cassidy (rumored to have bragged about "not doing anything" for her $70k "because they won't listen to me" - and whose work is already being performed by Luke's personal secretary) and Skrinjar (Skrinjar intentionally misleads the public about O'Connor's physical condition and sets up photo ops featuring Luke mimicking O'Connor boarding windows up - consider it a savings to the taxpayers of $6k that he's now demoted). Also, it speaks to Luke's lack of depth, experience and attention to City affairs. He's mastered the art of taking advantage of all the perks the job has to offer, but he's MIA when it comes to the nuts and bolts and hard work of the job. Also, he has no Jim Turner, no Tom Cox, no Joe Mistick to rely on in minding the store - he has Yarone Zober, who should've been tossed along with the afore-mentioned albatross(es) given his comparative lack of experience, talent and maturity (also, I thought he was supposed to be an O'Connor loyalist too? guess he jumped ship...) - but he should be immediately replaced by someone who has not only experience, talent and maturity, but who can gain the respect of the City workforce and of the sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated taxpayer. Not an easy thing to come by in this ridiculous political climate.

Char said...

I think the “reasoning” here is unfortunately clear cut.

• He kept the O’Connor gang on when he had an election opponent because he needed them as proof he really was the Official O’Connor Legacy Candidate.

• When Peduto pulled out, he had no further use for them. He’s assured to be mayor whether or not Judy O’Connor remains happy with him.

• He’s kept Zober on because he fancies Yarone to be as young, fresh and studly as he is. (He’s gotta have someone to party with doesn’t he?)

• He’s trying to pay off the other three with decent-enough replacement jobs so they won’t go trashing him by leaking any skeletons.

Why didn’t he have replacements waiting in the wings? That is the odd part. Maybe he just thinks he can do without staff for a while. No big deal. All he really needs is someone to take notes on Peduto’s latest offerings. Someone to tweak Peduto’s proposals, rename them and then put them out as his own. And that’s what Yarone does.

My eye is on Marlene Cassidy. You know what they say about “Hell hath no wrath…” And besides, Marlene’s household has been doubly dissed. I think it’s therefore no coincidence she’s the one who’s been the hardest to placate. Er

Nicolo said...

Char has it right - nearly all the people who backed O'Connor immediately lined up with Ravenstahl, so clearing out Bob's close confidants could sour Luke's image as O'Connor's successor.

Next election, in 2009, it will not be about O'Connor, but about Ravenstahl, so why not have people that are loyal to you and not their former boss? Besides, Cassidy and Regan can't get Luke any votes outside of their own household in 2009, and Skrinjar has no prominent patron. Dobkin is a political professional, so jumping from job to job is expected. Plus, there seems to be no shortage of potential replacements for a political operative.

The only one left is Zober, who has a patron in Jim Ferlo - someone who will still be around to cause trouble in 2009 if Luke pisses him off.

Past skeletons are not really the issue - they would be O'Connor's skeletons anyway, for the most part. It's usefulness in the future.

Matt H said...

"O'Connor's advisers was causing problems for Mr. Ravenstahl"

In some places yes but overall no. If they were such problems then why did Bill Peduto call it quits before the kitchen even got hot? The whole Regan/Cassidy thing is blown way out of porportion by members of the blogging community.

I'm not here saying that everything Dennis Regan touched turned to gold BUT there was never any actual evidence anyone could come up with that said he did anything wrong and that's a fact.

I actually though Dick was a pretty good PR person. I know that there were some members of the media who were not happy with him and his lack of access. I'll leave that one at that.

Yarone isn't mature? I'm not so sure about that. I have worked with Yarone on community projects and his level of professionalism/knowledge is pretty high up there with the rest of them.

Char said...

Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt …..

There was never any actual evidence anyone could come up with that said Regan did anything wrong???

If by “evidence” you mean a hidden camera catching Regan in the act … Then you are right, there is no “evidence”. But facts and “evidence” was documented. Had Regan not resigned and had the city not settled with McNeilly, these facts would have been forced out into the light as “evidence” during the McNeilly court case. But, gee, Luke chose to settle.

City Solicitor George Specter “investigated” the whole affair, apparently at Luke’s behest. Specter sent Luke a memo summarizing his findings. It’s on the ACLU’s website. You should read it if you have not:

Some of the “facts” Specter established:

• Chief Costa told investigators that Regan ordered him to promote the unqualified (brother of his housemate) Rende to detective. Regan denies this. In Specter’s own words: “My analysis of the matter is that there is no absolute way in which to determine whether Mr. Regan or Chief Costa is telling the truth. However, the number of transfers [promotions and/or choice jobs for Rende] which occurred in such a short period of time seems unusual, and I believe that Ms. Kraus concurs in that conclusion."

• Commander Brackney told Duke’s Tires (friend of Regan) that they must stop fixing tires out on the public street. Regan admitted he tried to broker a “compromise” with Brackney whereby she would allow Duke to operate illegally on only one side of the street instead of both. However, Regan denied he used vulgarities with Brackney during his attempt to persuade her. Specter concluded that there was no basis to allow someone to conduct business illegally or "half-illegally". Regan was wrong, Brackney was right. As for the vulgarities, in Specter’s own words: “Chief Harper’s report does contain the statements of 2 witnesses, and absent any evidence to the contrary their statements should be accorded credibility."

In concluding the overall picture, Specter says TO LUKE, “I have concluded that the contradictory statements [Regan vs. everyone else] cannot be completely reconciled, so the facts must speak for themselves.”

Matt, this is lawyer code-talk for “Your guy is dirty.”

Anonymous said...

Admiral, you wanted him to clear dead wood and he did. Why are you displeased with this?