A top executive at Lamar Advertising, which has filed a lawsuit against five members of city council over an appeal to a controversial ruling by the city Zoning Administrator, has a personal history with Ravenstahl development czar Patrick Ford that may raise questions about possible conflicts of interest in the Mayor's office.
Mayoral press secretary Alecia Sirk, who is married to Ford, confirmed to the Comet that Jim Vlasach of Lamar Advertising is the "JV" she had occasionally written about on her blog, Love of Chair, a tongue-in-cheek diary of Ford's personal and professional exploits.
Here is one excerpt:
Our Hero and his best buddy got together to share a stogie during the holiday break.
they have such a blast together, it's fun to even watch. and the best part was that I got a christmas gift! jv brought me surround sound for my DVD player! it is like knock you over one of the best things evah.
The entry was written on Dec. 30, 2006, when Ford held the newly created position of Director of Community and Economic Development under Mayor Ravenstahl.
Prior to that, Ford was Mayor O'Connor's Director of City Planning, and for a time served as Zoning Administrator under Mayor Tom Murphy.
Precedents established under previous Zoning Administrators, outside of codified city zoning regulations, played a significant role in the approval of Lamar's application by current Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczo, according to statements by Tymoczo and Ford to city council.
When asked whether such a gift, from the owner of the region's largest outdoor advertising company, to a public servant overseeing planning and zoning functions, ought to be considered inappropriate, Sirk replied, "No I don't. Of course, I'm not an expert."
The Comet failed to reach out to Pat Ford himself for a comment before the Tribune-Review broke the story early this morning.
A warm friendship
The sound system was a Christmas present, according to Sirk. Vlasach bonded with Ford and Sirk during the period the couple lived in Florida, after Ford had departed the Murphy administration in 2004.
"First, you have to understand," Sirk explained. "Jim is like, the funniest man. He is..." She was at a loss for words.
Ford and Sirk made frequent visits back to Pittsburgh in order to check up on family in West Virginia. It was during these trips that friendships developed that have familiar overtones in city politics today.
"Patrick and Luke. Patrick and Jim [Vlasach]. Patrick and Jim Motznik," Sirk said.
During council's discussion about the questionable sign permit, Councilman Motznik took personal credit for having recruited planning maven Ford back from the south.
Here is the most salacious-sounding tidbit from Sirk's Love of Chair, dated June 13, 2006, when Ford was O'Connor's director of City Planning:
Our Hero and his Partner in Crime, jv, spent a wee bit of Tuesday afternoon playing hooky.
as i understand it, they disappeared from their offices around 3:30 pm and headed over to bloom's cigars on the southside, where they bought a beer from a nearby bar and lounged in chairs outside the cigar shop (smoking and drinking and looking at girls, no doubt) until dinner.
Sirk describes the time in Ford's life when he became acquainted with Vlasach as a period of personal growth.
"He was such a different person before that. He was buttoned-down. He had that hair."
Sirk describes a more conservative, less sociable Pat Ford back then, before he found this new circle of Pittsburgh friends -- some of whom he works with in government today, and others with whom he occasionally must deal as petitioners to that government.
After the couple returned to Pittsburgh, and as Ford rose through the mayor's administration, the closer aspects of that personal relationship started to fade away according to Sirk. She stressed that Ford is very mindful of issues regarding propriety in accepting gifts, and other perceived conflicts of interest.
Although she was straightforward and nonplussed concerning the inquiries about Vlasach, Sirk was sensitive about her purple prose getting held up once again for public ridicule.
Even so, she was appreciative that someone preserved a copy her electronic journal, which she neglected to do when she took down the blog after ascending to press secretary.
"These were memories I thought I'd lost."
Further complicating matters, Lamar Advertising was a major contributor to Mayor Ravenstahl's election campaign. It also donated the use of many of its billboards to the City of Pittsburgh, several of which bore Ravenstahl's name and smiling photo in the heat of an election cycle.
The Burgher contributed to this article.