Pat Ford did not speak to the Planning Commission on behalf of the mayor, nor on behalf of the URA. In fact, you probably will not find his name on any official record of that hearing.
Pat Ford's role was to sit just behind Chairwoman Wrenna Watson, whisper instructions in her ear, and basically run the room.
Before we go any further, we should remind everybody that the hearing was captured on video by no less than three television news cameras and two documentary filmmakers. If our impressions and recollections are in error, surely there will be a way to check our account against the facts.
As stated, Ford was seated just behind Chair Watson. Throughout the hearing, he would lean forward to initiate whispered conversation with her -- most frequently on the occasion of any confusion as to procedure, or when any objections were raised that were not easily dispatched.
The most obvious example of this was when the Commission finally considered whether or not to admit public comment by thirty or so residents who had not signed up at the first session three weeks prior.
Since the microphones around the table were broken that day (a separate issue we hope), commissioners passed around a cordless microphone. When the commission finally opted to discuss whether or not to allow new speakers, Ford himself "ruled" that the microphone be shut off.
Chairwoman Watson complied, setting the microphone almost ceremonially in the center of the table. When objections rose from the crowd, causing some of the commissioners to look unsure, Ford hissed at them twice to quickly go ahead and talk -- whereupon the board leaned in close to each other, and held a minute-long whisper session.
All of this was conducted without any indication from the Chair that the panel was doing so, or justified in doing so; the whole episode probably is not reflected in the public record.
Once again, Ford was seated just behind Wrenna Watson. To his immediate left was commission member and Walnut capitalist Todd Reidbord, to whom he would also lean and hold occasional discussions. When Reidbord got up to go to the basketball game, Ford followed him outside for a time before returning.
On Ford's immediate right stood a very polite, very imposing police officer. When Ford decided the public was getting too ornery or asking too many questions, he took the responsibility of goosing the officer forward to demand order and quiet.
That is the portrait of Patrick Ford at the Planning Commission -- sitting behind the Chair, whispering, making rulings, leaning left to confer with Reidbord and leaning right to exert a police presence on the assemblage.
A powerful and active presence that officially did not exist.
There is reason to infer that Ford had even more influence on the meeting behind the scenes -- and not only in the congruity between the legal argument he offered at the USX Tower hearing, and the scripted exchange between a commissioner and the City Solicitor at this Hill District hearing (both of which neutered the commission in precisely the same way).
For example, after public commentary, Sidney Kaikai stepped forward to introduce and explain 16 amendments to the Master Plan having to do with parking. On every other occasion, it has been customary to make these presentations beforehand, precisely so the public can understand the amendments and comment upon them if warranted.
Instead, the late-night presentation served to drain all the energy and many of the people out of the room before the controversial vote.
There is also the issue of how the hearing came to be split up into two sessions to begin with -- how the first session had to end promptly at 5:00 PM, and how the second session came to start only at 4:40 PM but rolled on through the night. This is to say nothing of the effect of scheduling so much other business -- the casino included -- prior to this Hill District matter on both occasions.
The neighborhood opposition to the master plan was thereby divided, diffused, and thrown into considerable confusion. More time was spent arguing about procedure and propriety than examining the Master Plan.
How can we infer that these scheduling machinations were also the result of Pat Ford's influence? The administration has been hinting for months that the URA and City Planning are going to work closer and closer, if not merge outright.
Ravenstahl said he has been examining ways to streamline the city's planning and development functions for months, but it's "premature to throw out a number" estimating possible savings. "I think if you look at our history over the past year as an administration, we've been very clear and steadfast in trying to find a more streamlined process for the business community and economic development. We're going to continue along that line very aggressively," Ravenstahl said. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)
Then there was this seeming teaser from a mayoral press release upon Ford's ascension to URA director:
“The URA is the economic and community development arm of the City of Pittsburgh,” Ravenstahl said. “With Mr. Ford at the helm we will have strong continuity between my Administration and the URA. Expect to see further structural changes taking place under our leadership to increase efficiency and further streamline permitting in the City. Stay tuned.”
Just last week, the City received a $200,000 grant from the state (Trib, Jeremy Boren) to hasten the work of dividing the city into 16 sectors, complete SNAPshots of them, and centralize the whole process of City Planning. Sources indicate to us that this funding is essentially going towards folding more City Planning functions into the orbit of Pat Ford's URA.
Last week, we asked mayoral press secretary Alecia Sirk if she would forward to us the latest press materials on a possible merger between the URA and City Planning. She answered that a merger between the two outfits has really been put on the back-burner, if not taken off the stove altogether.
It could be that the URA has found ways to surreptitiously exert the control it has determined it requires over City Planning, without the political risk of overtly encroaching upon what was designed to be a far more public and transparent decision-making process.