Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Interview: Michael Lamb

"I decided to run for this office before he got sick -- I actually talked to Bobby about it."

That would be Mayor Bobby O'Connor, and this was sometime around June of last year.

"He was very open about it" Lamb says.

So, does that mean back-slaps, and cigars all around?

"No, no." Lamb laughs. "At the time, Tony [Pekora] was the only other guy interested. He said I should probably talk it over with Tony."

Since the tragedy that befell the O'Connors, had he ever thought about switching gears, and running for Mayor right now in '07 instead of City Controller?

Not really, he says. "You have an incumbent, in a multi-candidate field -- well, I might have given it more thought."


"The city code says there should be fiscal audits of every department every four years" Lamb explains. Some departments, he says, have not been audited in over ten years. He claims there have been years when they have not audited a single department.

He doesn't remember City Council ever having been audited.

We asked if he was sensitive to the intense budget cuts at the Office of Controller. He admitted that conducting the audits to meet the letter of the charter is out of the question right now. And he also allowed that the annual report takes a lot of manpower and energy.

Still, he insists, "There just hasn't been leadership for the basic stuff."

We asked for his priorities on day one, and he kept harping on two themes: improved information systems, and greater city / county collaboration.

The controller's office and many city departments are not even using the same accounting software, he says, and that makes it hard to function.

He has encouraged city government to make some upgrades, but, he says, "I'm dealing with that resistance."

Is "that resistance" what he would call a "Pittsburgh thing"?

"I don't want to say it's not disciplined," he begins, "but there's a failure to stay ahead on the tech curve." He describes a city that reacts to stress by falling back on what is familiar -- even if it fails to address the actual problem.

He suggests that the city piggy-back on some good and flexible software already utilized by the school board. He says that will save not just the cost of a new system, but a ton of work.

That brought up the subject of School Board audits. "Clearly the Controller is the Controller of the school boards -- but we still need permission to do any kind of performance audit." He recommends making a more persuasive case to the school board for these, asserting that these have been shown to save the schools money in the past.

We asked if something similar was going on with the Pavement Management System. He says in that case, when the city could no longer afford to pave all those roads, it solved the problem by generating the full list, and then picking and choosing off that list.

"Once you start picking from the list, though, it becomes a lot easier..." and he kind of trailed off.

This gets him on the subject of data-driven decision making, on which he is passionate.

"When I talk about the kind of government I talk about on the stump ..." he talks a lot about a government Pittsburgh can be proud of ... "the key is having a government where the decisions are data-driven."

Okay, we asked. Aside from science. Will you use the office to advocate for anything in particular?

"I will tell you this. We will not do an audit without advocating a collaborative effort," usually between the city and the county. Although they may wind up recommending against collaboration in a given review, he doesn't seem to think it'll happen that often.

Even on issues of diversity, he recommends a merger between the two redundant offices charged with assisting qualified minority contractors, at the city and county level. He thinks this would be much more efficient for the interested businesses.

Given the city's looming fiscal crisis, we asked, where exactly in the budget he would begin to look for savings?

He wants that decision to be "data-driven" in itself -- he is stubbornly messianic and serious about this. But we pressed him, and here's how he broke it down:

"You need to have someone asking questions. How do you buy smoke-busters for offices in a smoke-free building?"

Lamb also points out that over 70% of city workman's comp is collected by firefighters. Yes, he agrees, that's a dangerous job, but how about the police? Public works, even?

He shrugs. "My guess is it's about training." He even joked wryly that although it's a wonderful thing to have brave firefighters, maybe ours are a little too brave.


Speculation abounds that Michael Lamb is running for Controller as a stepping stone toward running for Mayor in '09. But with all these reforms on his plate -- surely he would rule that out?

He says something about the office of controller being a good challenge for him, for the foreseeable future.

"I've actually stood for office in every municipal election this century" he sighs. "I've had enough."

"Besides," he says, "I have a feeling that by 2009, this current mayor will be doing some things -- he'll be well on his way."

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