Saturday, June 30, 2007

Overheard in Pittsburgh

A guy walks in to a Donnie Iris concert, and gets rocked to death. It can happen, in a small venue.

The next thing he knows, he's up in the clouds, standing before the Pearly Gates.

"Come forward, my son," says St. Peter.

The man looks up behind the saint, and sees all these clocks -- thousands upon thousands of clocks. Some are moving fast, some very slowly. A few aren't moving at all.

"What's with all the clocks?"

"That's one way to tell who gets into Heaven," says St. Peter. "There's a clock for every soul on Earth. Every time a person tells a lie, the hands on his or her clock move once."

One clock was stuck squarely at high noon. "Who's is that?"

"That is the clock of Mother Theresa," answered St. Peter. "It has never moved."

He sees another one, that had stopped at 12:02. "Who's clock is that?"

"That is the clock of Abraham Lincoln," St. Peter said. "He only told two lies in his whole life -- so the clock only moved twice."

The man thought about that for a bit.

"Alright, I have to ask. Which one is Luke Ravenstahl's clock?"

"That one isn't here," replies St. Peter. "We keep that one in Jesus's room. He's using it as a ceiling fan."

(h/t somebody)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Promotions Happen

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will not demote three police officers promoted June 18 despite domestic abuse accusations, but he is implementing, starting today, what he described in a press release as "a new policy that will set a standard of zero tolerance for domestic abuse." (Rich Lord, P-G)


He said Chief Harper has been reprimanded.


The mayor maintained that he wasn't told of the circumstances surrounding Lt. Rodriguez or Sgt. Hlavac prior to their promotions, and that if he had known, he "would have urged that extraordinary steps be taken to further look into their respective issues."


The Trib's version by Jeremy Boren runs a quote that expresses a degree of skepticism:

"(Ravenstahl) still has not taken responsibility for the fact that he was the one who actually promoted these people," said Jeanne Clark, a member of the Squirrel Hill chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Earlier today, Boren had cold-cocked the Mayor with a front-page headline that read, Ravenstahl Skips Promotions Backlash. One almost wonders if the journalist bears some kind of grudge against the Mayor.


Also earlier today, P-G columnist Tony Norman described a similar incident between the Mayor and the Police Chief six months ago.

"It was a decision that was made by the chief, and I supported that decision," Luke Dufresne said, shifting the blame to "Red" Harper when a judge reversed Ms. McNeilly's demotion a month later.

Okay, there was some Shawshank Redemption iconography at work there, but you get the idea. We cannot help but wonder what Norman's take on these new developments might be.


Sidebar: The city has been told it would be on "thin ice legally" if it demoted the officers at this stage. Recall also that the city had been told it would be on "shaky legal ground" if it rejected the UPMC signage. Is it impossible to get clear-cut, confident legal opinions? Or is the city just easily intimidated?

The Bucco Protest

The demonstration against 15 years of incompetence and / or willful ownership negligence will take place tomorrow, Saturday the 30th, during the 7:00 Pirates vs. Nationals game at PNC Park. (LINK)

If you have no interest in the game but would like to check out the protest, frustrated fans will be streaming out of the stadium after the 3rd inning, so you can join them outside around 7:45.

In what has become the go-to MSM piece on the subject, Bob Smizik of the P-G qualifies his support of the demonstration by writing:

Nutting is not a bad person. He is not dispensing social injustice. What he is doing is not illegal, unethical or immoral.

We're not so sure. In any sporting endeavor, it is understood that the participants are expected to try to win. Adult baseball fans, even if they are already jaded as to the business of sports, bring children to these games who wear mits, expecting to see good examples of sportsmanship.

If a batter fails to run out a ground ball, he gets booed, and for good reason. Especially if a fielder bobbles the throw, and it turns out the batter might have been safe at first.

Kevin McClatchy and Bob Nutting have been jogging for well over a decade. And by the way, guys? This is Pittsburgh.

The Comet will be attending this protest in our Steelers jersey.

The Great Hearing

An expectant hush fell over the jam-packed council chamber.

"Five, four, three, two..."

The cameraman cued council president Doug Shields, who obediently gavelled-in the hearing regarding recent promotions in the Police Bureau of officers embroiled in accusations of domestic violence.

15 out of the first 16 speakers spoke out firmly against the promotions. Most represented some kind of salient women's organization, although a few private citizens offered personal perspectives.

Many advocated a "zero-tolerance policy." One insisted upon a policy of "one strike and you're out," which drew a rare round of mid-commentary applause.

Heather Arnet was the lone exception among those first 16 speakers. She spoke ruefully of the dynamic pitting unions against women's groups, reminding us of the shared values and history of cooperation between the two. She was encouraged by the prospect of new procedures within the Bureau, and hoped women's groups would be involved. However, she voiced no opinion as to the fate of the three officers at hand.


The 17th speaker was an attorney, who spoke on behalf of the three accused officers. He reminded us that charges against the officers were never brought, were dropped, or are still pending. The Comet confesses that we thought to ourselves, finally!

We were shocked that none of the previous speakers seemed to challenge, or even acknowledge, the innocent-until-proven-guilty argument that is very real and no small hurdle.

The attorney also said, "Zero-tolerance isn't an answer, it's a political slogan," and the Comet further confesses to have thought, yes!

We have long held a zero-tolerance policy toward zero-tolerance policies. Life is too complex not to take into account situational specifics. Mercy and redemption are too important to dismiss so readily. So-called zero-tolerance ideologies often result in further injustices, and sometimes in absurdities.


Next came a school teacher named Billy Hileman, who swayed the heart of the Comet.

He pleaded with us that many women are currently struggling with the decision to come forward against their accusers. He reminded us that women are already likely to believe that the cops will not defend them. Now they will soon pick up a newspaper with an encouraging headline -- or a headline that warns them to stay silent and alone.

Hileman insisted that officers who fail to be promoted -- even if they are unjustly accused -- will remain fundamentally "okay" in their lives. Yet the women who perceive that the police do not take domestic violence seriously, will most certainly not be okay.

This returned the Comet to the only position it ever held with confidence -- that this bungled mess should never have happened.

Right after the Trosky promotion became so explosively controversial, how could Mayor Ravenstahl not have asked Chief Harper quite clearly, "These next guys don't have any similar problems, do they?" How could it not have been top-of-mind?

It is good that the Mayor is taking steps to prevent this in the future -- but a lot of damage is already done. Police officers are being dragged through the mud. Women living under duress are losing what confidence they have in the authorities. Unions and women's groups are in fact making enemies of one another. And it was all totally needless.

Somebody is doing "a heckuva job."

How to make the best of a bad situation? We believe this Billy Hileman had it down. Reverse all three promotions. Take your lumps with the police, showing that you can. Resolve to start fresh with them tomorrow. Meanwhile, be a hero to the many women who could really use one.


A handful of speakers remained, including a few who spoke out in support of the three officers.

Chuck Hanlon of the police union did so with much grace. He went out of his way to acknowledge his great respect for the work of women's groups like those present, describing them as partners. He testified to the horror of having to deal with the aftermath of domestic violence as part of their jobs. Yet of course, he testified to the good character of the three accused officers in question, and reminded everybody again that accusations are just accusations.

After the public comments, Councilman Bill Peduto said some fine words about the need to help police cope with the real and somewhat unavoidable psychological results of their considerable occupational stress.

He also thanked the speakers for getting the Mayor to respond to this issue, reminding us that Ravenstahl's office had initially declined to discuss the matter.

Peduto reiterated that many qualified officers were passed over for these jobs, particularly a Lieutenant Dixon. He asserted plainly that these could only have been politically motivated promotions.

Many council members expressed eagerness to follow-up on these issues with a more inquisitive "post-agenda session", which will also be televised.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Mashergate: Sifting for Clues

Here are two key selections from the unedited Q & A session with Mayor Ravenstahl and Cynthia McCormick (WTAE, h/t Burgher).

Q -- Why do you think these promotions should be rescinded?

CM -- I think it's the feeling of the group that the process was not vetted in a way that -- (loooong pause) -- it wasn't vetted in a way that made this, these problems apparent to the mayor. Or to Chief Harper.

In other words, no one in the room was female, or particularly sensitive to women's issues. Any discussion of the abuse allegations -- which probably did reach Luke in a technical sense -- only occurred in an offhand and understated fashion.

Q -- Do you have second thoughts about your Trosky decision now, which you had defended the day of the swearing in?

LR -- Our goal is to focus specifically on the policy from here. I believe that Mr. Trosky has shown -- although he has had cases in his past -- that over the course of his 30 years, and more specifically over the last 8 1/2 to ten years, has had no history, and proven himself once again to be capable to do the job.

That's why I made that decision before he was promoted. I had input into that decision and I stand by that decision, but I think myself, Cynthia, the chief included, recognize that there was a disconnect in sharing of information regarding the other two, and that's unfortunate, and it won't happen again.

Ravenstahl looked and sounded genuinely contrite about the other two promotions, more so than the text suggests. We feel he "gets it," and really will institute procedures to help prevent such oversights in the future.

Our guess is that the Mayor, in the manner of King Solomon, will try to split the baby -- standing by Trosky, while bouncing Hlavac and Rodriguez. The calculation is that although this will please nobody, at least nobody will remain furious with him.

Final Note: Transcribing our mayor is exhausting work.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Editorial: Planning Board Needs to Step It Up

Our previous visits to the City Planning Commission (here, here, and here) led us to take a strong liking to one caustic and active board member in particular, whom we later discovered to be one Barbara Ernsberger.

Although we admire the intelligence and professionalism of all members, we were especially impressed by Ernberger's willingness to ask uncomfortable questions, demand due diligence, and constructively challenge chairwoman Wrenna Watson.

So it came as no surprise to read that Ernsberer cast the lone "no" vote on UPMC's do-over on the matter of advertsing on the USX Tower.

"I do feel this sign does counteract the historic presence of what used to be the U.S. Steel Building, which was certainly significant in our Pittsburgh history and also to some extent in our national history. So I think that UPMC really ought to consider whether it needs to place a sign on top of the U.S. Steel building," she said. (Mark Belko, P-G)

The skyscraper is, in fact, a uniquely designed architectural landmark, which absolutely merits the attention of the Historic Review Commission, if it is not too late.

Left unstated, however, is that allowing a huge advertisement on the city's tallest building, for a company with a less-then-enlightened sense of corporate responsibility, can be considered plain bad taste.

Why the change of heart? Although it is obvious that UPMC brought its overwhelming resources and influence to bear, the official rationale went like so:

They did so after Pat Ford, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's director of economic and community development, told them that the decision to reject the sign put the city on "some very shaky legal ground" given that UPMC had met all of the legal requirements in the city zoning code.

What is this nonsense? Can we replace the City Planning Commission with a stack of 3 x 5 notecards? Our civic framers surely recognized that all development propositions are unique, and it takes the educated judgement of an active panel of feeling humans to chart a course for the city that is has its consistency, yet responds to nuance in each case.

It would be worthwhile to go to court to establish that truth now.

The Planning Commission's reluctance to act decisively is also playing out to the detriment of the casino and the science center.

In this case, Ernsberger rightly inquired if the Commission had the power to adjudicate and enforce a settlement to protect the viability of all parties; a course she plainly would have favored. The result was an embarrassed silence from her fellow board members, and later an incredulous outburst from officials with Carnegie Museums.

North Shore casino developer Don Barden offered concessions to the Carnegie Science Center in an 11th-hour bid to get an agreement over issues relating to bus access and lighting.

But the science center's director, Joanna Haas, said last night the moves proposed by Mr. Barden do not solve transportation problems and in fact may make them worse.

Ms. Haas said center officials are moving ahead with their plans to file an appeal to the state Supreme Court over the city's master plan, which was approved last month. (Mark Belko, P-G)

Another board member actually suggested that their primary responsibility was to expedite business, and stay out of the way. The result of this institutional timidity, we all now realize, is legal wrangling that may delay casino revenues even further -- to say nothing of possible damage to an important cultural institution.

The City Planning Commission is charged with the responsibility -- and is in fact invested with the power -- to do much more good for our community than they dare now to attempt. The board could use many more members like Barbara Ernsberger, who have the gumption to actively assert our collective interests.

DeSantis's Chanceses

Comet senior political analyst Morton Reichbaum differs sharply from local pundit Bill Green (James O'Toole, P-G) concerning the outlook for Republican mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis.

"I think this DeSantis is going to give your ... your Ravenstahl a run for his money," he assures us. "It's not going to be a walk-in, or you know, a shoo-in."

Unlike previous scandals weathered by this fledgling administration, he believes that the promotions of three "no-goodniks" in the police department will leave a lasting impression with many voters.

Yet a reversal at this point would also entail political risks. "The unions would really give him hell over that," he speculated.

Sure enough, this item appears in a story by the P-G's Lord and Silver:

Any reversal, or change in procedure, would prompt the Fraternal Order of Police to "file every kind of an action I could to stop him from tampering with state civil service law," said union President James Malloy.

The mayor is "getting pressure, probably from women's groups, and now he wants to crawfish and go back the other way," he said. "That's a sign of immaturity."

How the mayor attempts to resolve this Catch 22 -- whose opposition would he rather endure -- may be construed as his first tough campaign decision of the general election.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Last Chance City Paper

Every time we read John McIntire, we find ourselves tempted to make a small contribution in his name.

Seriously, how did this guy get where he is today? Was it some sort of Damn Yankees arrangement?

That's all for this week.

The DeSantis Kickoff

The young lady who gave a brief introduction for Mark DeSantis identified herself as a registered Democrat.

However, with Pittsburgh having reached a "point of crisis," she could "no longer support the status quo."

DeSantis opened by saying that he is "all about change, in a city that desperately needs it." To illustrate this, he claimed that every man, woman, and child in Pittsburgh bears $10,000 worth of debt and liability.

His first applause line was that "when faced with 4th and inches, we've punted every time, and the clock has run out." (Sorry, Agent Ska.)

DeSantis packed a bigger wallop at the podium than he has on recent TV appearances. He was at his most animated on issues of sound management and accountability. He punctuated his remarks with a sort of dart-throwing hand gesture.

He said pointedly that Senator Heinz had taught him that it is only through selflessness, not self-promotion, that a person can (something something).

Of the three pillars of DeSantis -- efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency -- he said we currently have none. Yet these three pillars now support just one corner of a whole hexagon, which includes such items as fewer taxes and sustainable economic development. He said we can't build a strong economy on restaurants and shopping malls alone.

He acknowledged that public safety is a growing concern. Rather than let it slide year-by-year, he plans to "nip it in the bud."

We should not ask anyone for help, he said, until we prove that we can manage our own affairs, in an obvious reference to Ravenstahl's attempts to organize a state-wide pension liability pool.

DeSantis pledged to sign a "management contract" when he takes office. He will require his department heads to sign the same pledge, and then post it online. He seemed very excited about this.

As he was wrapping up, DeSantis referenced Herakles of Athens, whom he called "history's first great mayor." We believe he may have misspoken. Herakles never held political office, but did help to retrieve the Golden Fleece, and rescued the city of Troy from a sea monster sent by Poseidon.

FINAL CORRECTION: DeSantis did say "Pericles," whom he quoted as saying, "All good things on this earth flow into the city, because of the city's greatness." (LINK) The Comet can not honestly say it regrets the error.

Several Republican notables were in attendance, including former congresswoman Melissa Joan Hart, whom we understand still has a ton of campaign cash burning a hole in her war-chest.

Tuesday: Ready to Rumble

Photo: Dave Nernberg delivers a short pass around the hard mark of 2006 Playoff MVP Andrew Boyer. (Rebecca Droke, P-G)


A new front opens on city policing issues: the alleged harassment of immigrants. (Rich Lord, P-G)

Mr. Barquera, a 35-year-old Mexican paralegal who has lived in Pittsburgh for 10 years, said he was in a car with two women and three children, traveling from a meeting on the North Side, when police pulled them over.

The officer "wanted to see our documents," he said, and became angry even though the driver presented an international driver's license, a Mexican driver's license and the vehicle title. They were made to sit in the hot car for an hour, while six squad cars came to the scene and police called the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, he said.

However, the Trib's Jeremy Boren delivers the impact quote:

"(Ravenstahl) committed in front of about 1,000 people last year that he would meet with us in January 2007 to begin talking about an immigrant-friendly policy, but we haven't met with him directly (since then)," said Scott Fabean, the group's vice president.


City council president Doug Shields, amply demonstrating his continued presence at the City-County Building, moves to limit the amount of time acting directors can act (P-G, Team Effort), and also to schedule a public hearing on the promotion of the three officers accused of domestic abuses (Trib, Jeremy Boren).

Jeanne Clark, president of the Squirrel Hill chapter of the National Organization for Women, said police brass haven't adequately explained why the three men were promoted.

"Women and a fair amount of men are, frankly, pretty outraged about this," said Clark, of Shadyside. "The best they can tell us is 'trust us,' but they don't say why we should trust them."


Predictably, the state legislature is watering down the proposed state-wide smoking ban. (P-G, Tom Barnes)

The vote on an amendment laced with exceptions was 29 -21. Including so many loopholes angered Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, the prime sponsor of the smoking ban. He was so upset that he wasn't sure if he'll even vote for the amended bill when it comes up for a final vote today.

"I am torn because of all these exceptions, which will expose thousands of people to secondhand smoke," he said. "No one challenged the medical or scientific evidence that exposure to secondhand smoke is dangerous. There is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke."


The Pissed-Gazette wants us to be outraged about a proposed state tax on parking spaces, that could apply even to residential driveways. The Comet wants to stay on Char's good side.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Luke Ravenstahl G.P.A. = 2.78

The Post-Gazette has issued letter grades to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

We do not know whether the grades were issued by the Editorial Board, or the Political Desk, or the Committee of Reporters Hanging Out at the Market Street Ale House Last Friday.

According to the Comet's calculations, the full 38-category report card yields a grade-point average of 2.78, or a B-/C+.

The headline for the accompanying Rich Lord article reads, Report card on Pittsburgh's mayor: Not bad.

We wish we had the P-G for parents in high school. When we came home with grades like this, it was difficult to get our hands on the car keys over the next quarter. A more accurate headline might have read Report card on Pittsburgh's mayor: B-/C+, or to be more descriptive, Report card on Pittsburgh's mayor: Meh.

We also wonder whether or not the P-G graded him on a curve, established by 24 semesters of Tom Murphy.

It should be repeated that these grades evaluate Luke's progress on his own agenda. So this is a key graph:

Whether that agenda is aggressive enough, and whether it's being achieved, is likely to be an issue in the race with Republican mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis.

(We expect this issue to rise in a roughly parallel trajectory to the issue of the politicization of Public Works.)

Since a normal college course-load is five (5) classes, the Comet has taken the liberty of selecting what we believe are the five most important items on the P-G report card. In making our selections, we honestly attempted to turn a blind eye toward the marks he actually received.

Negotiate agreement on Hill District community involvement: C
Improve racial diversity in public safety bureau hiring: D
Maintain integrity: C
Unite state mayors to fix unfunded pension liability: B
Create effective "anti-crime cabinet": C