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.