"They have a personal financial interest in this," Dowd said of the four, noting that Pittsburgh's Home Rule Charter states that council members must refrain from voting on proposed legislation in which they have a "personal or private interest." (Trib, Jeremy Boren)
Although Patrick Dowd filed his appeal as a private citizen, he was sued by Lamar Advertising both as a private citizen and as a member of Council.
So either Lamar either didn't understand the distinction, or it took Dowd's actions as initiated only because he is a member of Council. A reasonable assumption, if nothing else about the lawsuit was reasonable.
Now. Because of concerns that Dowd's appeal would be rejected by the Zoning Board of Adjustment due solely to lack of standing, Ricky Burgess, Bruce Kraus, Bill Peduto and Doug Shields joined the appeal as members of Council. In so doing, they basically carbon-copied the work of Dowd's attorney and affixed their names and titles. Then they hired an attorney, as their position would need to be defended.
For their efforts, they also were sued by Lamar Advertising explicitly as members of Council.
Once Lamar went after these five Council members as Council members, with a real lawsuit in a real courtroom, they are entitled, right or wrong on the merits, to be represented at the city's expense.
If one disagrees with the courses of action taken by any of the five, that is why we have elections.
It makes no sense to demand that city officials sued in their official capacity must either shell out for their own legal representation, or submit to the will of their accusers. Such a system would lead to weak leadership and to shoddily served residents.
In this case, it is lucky that the four did not turn tail and run from Lamar's attempt at strongarming. It was only after the five were sued on bogus pretenses that Hugh McGough, the attorney contracted by the four, sprang into action in his own right -- counter-suing Lamar Advertising in federal court.
It was obviously this maneuver that caused the belligerent advertising company to withdraw its own charges, and submit the electronic billboard to the ZBA and the Planning Commission in fantastically short order.
A stickler for process, Dowd objects that Council should have voted to retain counsel on this matter beforehand. Would Councilman Dowd have supported such a measure? Would Mayor Ravenstahl have signed it? One would have to ask them, though we suspect they would have recommended that the four seek aid from the City Law department.
Would the City Law department have opted to take Lamar Advertising to federal court, threatening to file attendant motions of discovery? The question scarcely survives its statement.
An immaculate process might have seen Council voting to retain a lawyer beforehand -- but any hope of a pristine process was shattered by an up-is-down, black-is-white ruling by a city Zoning Administrator, and by a well-financed corporate interest assaulting those who dared to protest it with the encouragement of the mayor. To retroactively sanction this attorney's activity would not be any high crime or subversive wickedness -- it is a simple judgment call.
In short, there never was a "personal or private interest" at stake, and it should not be interpreted so. Attorney McGough did the taxpayers of Pittsburgh a considerable service in defending their rights to due process, thereby avoiding the establishment of onerous precedents that might apply to any neighborhood and on many issues.
He deserves to be paid for it, and no council member deserves to suffer for it personally.