Friday, February 15, 2008

Interview: Jim Motznik

"I'm not the big bad wolf," Motznik begins. "I'm not the old-time Democrat making back room deals."

Councilman Jim Motznik is keen to tell us that he originally ran without the party's endorsement, in the special election of 1999.

In fact, he took the extraordinary step of running as an Independent (he switched his registration back the next day).

He did serve on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee for some time previous to that. He ran for a committee seat initially because he was frustrated that the city was not salting his street. He had heard that was how to ensure services like plowing and salting. "It gives you a voice. Nothing was getting done."

"That's why I'm in politics," he states plainly. "I wanted my street salted."

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We asked Motznik about the good and positive things on which Council has been working. He was quick to bring up splash parks, like one in Beechview. The pool and the recreation center have been closed for years and years. Retrofitting these pools will transform a part of the neighborhood, and do so within the city's means.

He is also thrilled about the new nuisance property ordinance, which he says is "huge!" He says it originated in 2005 under then-Council President Gene Riccardi. Unfortunately, according to Motznik, the legislation was necessarily "disruptive." Mayor Murphy thought to himself, "This is way too much for me."

Today, in the era of Mayor Ravenstahl, Jim Motznik is our most senior city councilman.

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"Those days, we had issues that we talked about and argued about. It was our jobs." He refers to the era of Riccardi, Hertzberg, and Ferlo as "the golden age."

What's so different today?

"These days?" he asks. "These days, if I have a difference of opinion, I'm stupid."

He thinks very little of the familiar trope of counting exactly which council members have a college degree and which do not. The way Motznik breaks things down, three things matter more than anything else for a member of Council: street smarts, common sense and compassion.

"There's also a jealousy out there, because I've been here the longest, and I'm not gonna back down."

"There's a little jealousy also," he allowed, "because I'm close to the mayor."

How did that come about?

"He's a hard worker, no-[redacted] guy. First year, we rejected the Mayor's budget."

Motznik paused to let that sink in -- he informed us that that does not happen every year, maybe not for decades. Mayor Murphy's budget had a $17 million line-item for gambling revenues, which still haven't arrived. It was a "placeholder", Motznik says, but a bad idea that had to be rejected.

"That was created in my office, at my conferences."
As we know, those were the conferences at which Councilman Ravenstahl learned a lot about the city budget process. According to Motznik, Ravenstahl then got into the habit of coming down to his office for general advice. The rest, as they say, is history.

We asked if such closeness to our mayor is still as good as it's always been -- with reference to the Shields presidency, and his reshuffling of committee chairmanships. Motznik maintains that the committee chairs have no real power. "Just smoke and mirrors."

"The real power is on the authorities, and look who got those." He counted them off -- Payne, Deasy, Harris and himself.

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We began the great airing of grievances of the local blog community against Jim Motznik, starting with those the Comet itself recently espoused.

Why did he oppose Act 47 upon its inception, oppose the legal changes required in its recovery plan, and recently vote to ask the state to end state-assisted recovery early? Doesn't that lend credence to the impression that he caves in to public employees and union pressure, and would sell the city down the river?

Motznik points out that contrary to popular belief, the final vote to put Act 47 in place was 9-0. The 5-4 vote was a preliminary vote, to which he said he was opposed in order to amend that law, and get certain things done.

The problem is, Act 47 went "above and beyond" what it was supposed to do: control spending and generate revenue. It did those things, Motznik says ruefully, but it does much more.

For example, "City employees lost a week's vacation. Does that save you money?"

Similarly, he says his opposition to the state-mandated 5% parking tax reduction was meant as an improvement and a revenue-enhancer. Taxpayers would not have been ill-served; the revenue lost by lot owners would have went towards civic debt and pensions.

"We could have frozen it, but the state would have played hardball."

Next we mentioned the social issues cited in that blog post: reproductive choice and gay civil rights. Does his positions on these kinds of issues leave him feeling at all on the wrong side of history, at least within his own party?

He corrected a few of our misconceptions, which we based mostly on endorsements he either won or failed to win in previous elections. He says he believes very strongly in not legislating one's personal beliefs, nor restricting anybody's basic freedoms.

Motznik has attended and spoken at gay pride events, for example. He also voted to support the "bubble zone" ordinance to protect abortion clinics and their patients, and "I even put a bubble zone around my office" to make a point to other council members. We didn't understand that part fully, but it sounded hysterical.

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For the rest of the grievances, we used this post from the Burgher as source material.

Running away from WTAE cameras: The whole story was about an innocent foul-up. He accepted a $150 mileage reimbursement that he shouldn't have. Reporter Jim Parsons already had an appointment with him, but he wanted to go after him on the street. It was a set-up; Parsons was hiding in the bushes. Motznik regrets both having run, and having not run fast enough.

Unloading on KDKA radio about the earlier Council Prez vote: He was angry that certain people lied to him. He called them liars; what else should he have called them? Jeff Koch gets singled out for mention. He does regret not having maintained perfect decorum.

Proposing cat licensing legislation: Cats are a problem. It was good legislation. It had nothing to do with any koi fish.

Wearing sewer boots to a budget debate: This is one of Jim Motznik's fondest memories of public life. The budget, as previously addressed, was crap.

Allowing a reporter to listen in to a conference call with the Governor and others: It wasn't him. It was somebody else. Doug Shields let the information about the forthcoming call out to too many people.

Attempts to bring back rodeos to the city: "Yeah, what's wrong with rodeos?" Counties to the north, south, east and west all allow rodeos -- it's just like the casino issue. A single rodeo at the Mellon Arena could generate $20,000 for the city.

Attempts to eliminate the Shade Tree commission, put advertising billboards in parks: As to the billboards, he was only talking about ballfield signs along the outfield wall, which is entirely appropriate. As to the Shade Tree commission -- come on, do we need one? The only complaints he gets about trees is about dead ones and dangerous ones.

Defending continued use of "walking around money": That money gets put to good use. It's a way to help his constituents. Calling it "walking around money" is unnecessarily disparaging.

Blogging: We strenuously encouraged the Councilman to return to blogging, for which we felt he showed much promise. He would have none of it -- it's too easy for people to take what he writes, chop it up and twist it around, he says. At the time, he felt he wanted to get his side of the story out regarding the whole John McIntire story, but no more.

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We launched into our routine about creating a win-win-win-win-win situation in the Hill District, by reestablishing the street grid with Downtown -- an actual civic and regional asset that has lain dormant and unrealized for too long.

By splitting up a portion of that land in the lower Hill into smaller lots, we told him, and by encouraging a greater variety of stakeholders to hold those stakes, we can create new opportunities and improve multiple fortunes. Instead of arguing about who is getting a bigger slice of some pie, we can simply bake more pies.

Councilman Motznik was unimpressed.

"Council will have a say so ... but the main person who'll have a say so is their representative. It wouldn't be right for me to jump into that."

Councilwoman Tonya Payne has taken some criticism for doing a poor job representing her constituents, and perhaps even for being too close to the Penguins organization.

"I don't believe that's the case at all."

The URA has been taking a lot of heat as well.

"My only dealings with the URA have been positive," Motznik contends. "Of course, the URA doesn't do a lot in my district." He describes how his district composition is not a good match for many of its initiatives.

We suggest that it seems as though the residents of the Hill District, if either One Hill or the Hill Faith and Justice Alliance are at all to be believed, are unhappy with the way things are going. They want to see something else.

The Councilman in turn suggested that the Comet has been talking to some particularly "disgruntled people."

Tonya Payne has "a firm grip" on her district, Motznik said. She makes all the residents aware of arena doings by holding community meetings, and she receives all their input in return. Motznik has full confidence in Payne on all matters Hill District.

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We asked if, much like the United States and Great Britain, there was a "special relationship" between Councilman Motznik and Councilwoman Payne.

"Sure, absolutely," said Motznik. "I hit it off with her because we're in it for the same reasons." Besides telling the truth and not being full of [redacted], Tonya Payne, like Jim Motznik, is in city politics to provide city services and to help her constituents.

Well, we asked, isn't everybody?

"Are they?" he asked. "I don't know." He suggested some council members seem more concerned with running for something else.

This put us back on divisions in Council, of which he mentioned one more.

"I think a lot of it's because I'm from the South Hills ... and they're East Enders ... and there's a disconnect there," he said, apparently puzzled himself. "But we're all Pittsburghers."

In fact, Motznik sees reason for optimism in the new council year.

"Things today are better on Council. Those three guys [Burgess, Dowd, Kraus] are here for the right reasons. They weren't out looking for a job.

"Which I don't know if you can say about the guys that left."

4 comments:

  1. Very good interview and kudos for Mr. Motznik for sitting down for the interview.

    You have both set the bar high for everyone else. Hopefully more public figures will likewise go on record and actually say something.

    Bram, great blog. Thanks for taking the time to pull it all together in a thoughtful manner. Keep on trucking.

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  2. So Jim Motznik defends the money given to council persons to spend however they see fit. A quick glance at the city website shows Mr Motznik does not list his spending on his district page. Even Len Bodack did that.

    You deserve credit for getting as much out of Mr Motznik as you did. But for him to list street smarts, common sense and compassion as his way of evaluating himself and other council persons ... these are absolutely so nebulous as to be meaningless. I'm sure he would say if I don't get it, he can't explain it.

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