Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Interview: Tony Pokora

Tony Pokora lost the party endorsement for City Controller to Michael Lamb by one vote. The Burgh Report even ran a Dewey Defeats Truman update in Pokora's favor, but that was before provisional ballots were counted.

Pokora just lost his court challenge against those ballots. "First of all, nothing in the rules says you can even use provisional ballots" he said. "But the judge said, there's nothing in the rules that says you can't." He also challenged them on the grounds of failing to be secret ballots. Yet the judge ruled that they were cast in secret; never mind they did not remain secret for very long at all.

"I wasn't going to get anywhere." Pokora laughed the whole thing off, with a wave of his hand.


Pokora fared better in court when he sued to restore some employees to the Office of Controller. The state oversight board had wanted the Mayor's office, City Council, and the Controller's office to lead the way in terms of financial sacrifice.

Yet the brunt fell on the Controller's office, he says, because "we're not afraid to stand up for the public's rights." Though he won back about a dozen employees, he still only has about half of what the office had under the last Controller, when Pokora was deputy.

His opponents are demanding all kinds of studies and audits, Pokora says, which is great -- if they had the staff available. He is particularly critical of suggestions to audit school boards; he says this is outside the purview of the Controller's office, and the school boards would just keep their books closed tightly. "It makes you wonder if some of these guys really know what the Controller does" he said.

So far as those audits Pokora's office does perform, he is always surprised what makes news. An "oh-hum" audit involving the police department drew every local reporter, he said, whereas a long-overdue census of the city Urban Redevelopment Authority didn't merit a peep.

"The City did not even know what property it owned," he said. "And did not care for them at all. We should find ways to get rid of these properties before they become even more of a liability -- offer the neighbor a bigger yard."

Pokora would steel the city for tough financial sledding, sooner rather than later. "This will be the high mark" he says of the current budget and its $60 million surplus. He points out that even $9 million of that was garnered from an ill-advised refinancing of our regular debt payments.

By 2009, Pokora estimates, the city will begin feeling the crunch in earnest. We asked him to comment upon a long quote from Mayor Ravenstahl's campaign advertisement "Financially Sound Pittsburgh," and he responded, "Well, saying we're turning the corner, I don't agree with."

If Tony Pokora has a reformist streak, it comes into play with tax-exempt organizations like hospitals and universities. He is in favor of taxing these outfits just on their profits -- but that will have to be legislated at the state level, and over the objections of a seemingly large, well-organized nonprofit community.

"As a Catholic, I really resented the Catholic Diocese getting involved in that" he said of the umbrella group of non-profits that has banded together to oppose any mandates. "No one's talking about the Church, or the Little Sisters of the Poor."

He advocates getting creative with how these institutions can make contributions; colleges and universities, he suggested, are well-positioned to fulfill part of the Pittsburgh Promise of college education for every student.

We asked if levying a commuter tax had to be part of the equation. "It would never pass the state legislature" he said. But ideally, you are for it? "I'm saying, it would never pass the state legislature" he repeated with utter certainty.

Pokora insists new or higher taxes are not the answer -- he would in fact like to strip several "nuisance taxes" -- but he did agree with the Act 47 board's initial prescription for a $165 occupation tax. The state overrode them, and capped it at only $52. He does defend collecting that sum all at once; he argues the savings would otherwise be frittered away on bookkeeping.


With a labor background that ranges from organizer to local AFSCME president, Pokora is proud of his endorsement by the Allegheny County Labor Council, which could easily have failed to come to agreement in a five-way contest. He's also proud of the police, fire, and EMS endorsements. We were far more impressed with his endorsement by the Democratic African-American Ward Chairs, and asked how that came about.

"Some of my opponents don't have as good a record when it comes to women and minority hiring" he said. "Plus, all the candidate forums are out in Homewood or what have you. There are some really impressive young people coming out of the black community these days," and he named a few.

The conventional wisdom is that Tony Pokora is the only candidate that actually wants to be City Controller. We asked him about running for Mayor one day.

"Why on earth would anyone want to be mayor?" He laughed the whole thing off, with a wave of his hand.


  1. Good post, Bram. I'm not sure about the police, ems and fire endorsements (what does that say about Tony's commitment to sound finances?), but you're right, the endorsement from the Democratic African-American Ward Chairs is interesting.

  2. Tony is a great leader and a great guy.

    That's one race I am generally staying out of because I have too many friends in that race.

  3. So is Tony against the lien buy-back program?

  4. The endorsement from African American ward leaders is interesting, sure.

    But don't get your "progressive" loins in a tingle just yet...the city controller's office has always been a reliable source of patronage for the Democratic committee, including blacks on the committee - perhaps even to the exclusion of blacks (and non-blacks alike) who are NOT connected to committee people. Not that there's anything wrong with that, provided they actually do a good job for the taxpayers while on the city payroll. But I'm just sayin'...

  5. First, for transparency's sake, I'm a staffer for Tony. I'd like to clarify his view on the tax lien buy-back. Anything that restores vacant property to ownership in the City is great. That's a problem we have with the URA holding so many properties off the market. The only concern we have with the buy back is that the City, School District, and Water & Sewer Authority have all bought in, but GLS, which holds the county liens, is playing hardball with the value it wants from those 3 entities to clear the titles. When and if we come to an understanding with it, this program should be a big winner for Pittsburgh's neighborhoods.

  6. Mmmmm ... progressive loins.

    Thank you for the clarification, Ron. The Comet does its level best to digest and understand these issues, but much like the Office of Controller, we are working with budget and staffing limitations. Sometimes the odd detail flies over our heads. If anyone ever needs us to issue a correction or retraction, you are welcome to comment or email me.