Monday, June 2, 2008

The Pat Ford Post Agenda Series, Part IV: Having Fun at Patrick Dowd's Expense

Mr. Dowd: I just for the record want to point out that we are going to have a time issue here. I mean, we are going to have to consider that.

People have said they want to go back to the basics, and so far there has been a lot of -- we have been here for an hour and a half...

AN HOUR AND A HALF!!! Call the FBI, we have a hostage crisis.

... and we'll continue to be here I'm sure. We started off -- to go back literally to the beginning. We started off with the resolution introduced by Councilman Peduto calling for an investigation, and then we agreed as a body, it was suggested to Councilman Peduto that we have a post agenda.

Now I'm new to this, but this doesn't feel like a post agenda. This feels more like an investigation. It feels more like we are playing attorneys on television, and I am not. I wasn't elected to be an attorney.

There was your money quote on the evening news.


More from Dowd's opener:

My point here is that I'm a little confused. I can't state my particular opinion either as an individual or as a legislator on this particular sign. So I'm not allowed to speak to the matter of the sign. So I'm not going to speak to that matter...

Nobody had. All the conversation had been about the permitting process.

... although I do have very strong feelings about that.

Ooh. Teaser.

SIDEBAR: One strong opinion on the appropriateness of the digital advertising sign on the Grant Street Transportation Center can be found in a letter to the Post-Gazette by Donald K. Carter, who hails from Downtown and has a background in architecture and planning (see LINK).

I'm going to start literally at the most basic level, because I am confused. Here is my question to you, Mr. Specter. What is council's role with respect to planning, and then as a subset of planning with respect to zoning?

Mr. Specter: Well, council's basic role is insofar as, yes, number one...


Mr. Dowd: I just want make sure I'm clear. I'm sorry I'm new at this. So council's only role in planning, you are saying, is to confirm or affirm an appointment to the director of planning, the city department?

Mr. Specter: You said let's get back to basics. That would be the basic power of council.

Mr. Dowd: No other powers?

Mr. Specter: Obviously, council has its whole body of legislative powers available to it...


Mr. Dowd: So the council writes the legislation that governs land use. The planning director is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council?

Mr. Specter: Right.

Mr. Dows: And that person has a staff, and that staff also -- it serves as a department of the city government, therefore, under the executive branch, and it also, you said, helps staff and provide support services, if I understand what you are saying correctly, to a planning commission?

Mr. Specter: Correct.

Mr. Dowd: That is a planning commission again? I apologize for my limited knowledge here.

Yes Virginia, there is a Planning Commission.

All three newer council members are known to play this I'm the new guy card, but nobody does it quite as brazenly as Patrick Dowd. "How does a bill become a law? Where do we keep the printer cartridges? What happened to my shoes? Shouldn't you be in jail?"


Dowd and Specter would discuss many arcane topics: the birth of the zoning code in 1923 and the role of the city zoning administrator, the origins and purposes of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the legal process of applying for building permits ("although practicality enters into it as well," says Mr. Specter).

Mr. Dowd: So if I were a citizen and I did not like a decision that was made through the planning -- the zoning director, I didn't like that decision, if I felt that it was somehow made in error, that there was a misreading of the code, that there was something that was wrong in the process, if I had any problem with the permit, where do I go for that?

Mr. Specter: The Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Mr. Dowd: And if I was not satisfied there, where would I go?

Mr. Specter: Court of Common Pleas.


Several weeks later, Patrick Dowd, as a private citizen, would lawyer up and file exactly such an appeal with the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The story goes that Dowd had other city residents lined up to file appeals who had more apparent standing to protest the Downtown project, but in the end, as the deadline approached, they all backed out for their own reasons.

During our recent interview with Dowd (Pist-Gazette), he described for example requesting every bit of public information anew from city offices, just like a private citizen, if only to make totally clear he was not taking advantage of his office.

"I just knew, in my gut, that something good was going to come out of that appeal," is how he recalls his decision making.

Council members Burgess, Kraus, Peduto and Shields would hire their own attorney and join Mr. Dowd in appealing the sign permit in their official capacities -- in an effort both to buttress the appeal's legal standing, and also to take up shareholder interest in the legal contests that would ensue.

Before our ZBA even ruled on the appeal, Lamar Advertising sued all five council members in the Court of Common Pleas for conspiring illegally to revoke a legitimate sign permit, and it issued subpoenas in order to uncover these plots. In response, the attorney for the four members was able to maneuver the case into Federal Court, where the council members might issue their own subpoenas for the purposes of fact-finding about coordination between Lamar and administration officials.


Back to the Post Agneda and Dowd's questions. At length:

Mr. Specter: Well, we might as well get to part of the issue without further ado, so to speak. Councilman Peduto with his resolution has raised the question of whether a what is called a Condidtional Use is involved in this process. A conditional use is a form of zoning approval which is a permitted use but that subject to a level of scrutiny which includes first a hearing and recommendation by the planning commission and then a vote by city council. Otherwise, you do not have administrative powers with regard to zoning.

Mr. Dowd: And does this matter fall within those sort of parameters that you've described?

Mr. Specter: I understand there will be presentations made as part of this hearing to the effect that they do not. [Cue the theme from Matlock.]

Mr. Dowd: Do you as a solicitor for both the mayor's office and for city council feel that we [Council] do not have the authority to act either administratively or adjudicatively in this matter?

One issue, as you can see, is whether or not City Council itself was getting its powers jacked.

Mr. Specter: It depends upon -- there has been a history, and, again, we might as well get to some of it to save some time, some of which I was aware of, some of which I was not on certain approvals which have been made in the past of this nature, the nature of this sign which is the subject of this hearing by Mayor Murphy, by Mayor O'Connor, by Mayor Ravenstahl, and so that will be the questions, whether this policy and practice which was developed years ago -- well, years ago, five, six. I'm not sure precisely, but you'll get that chronology, whether that was an approporiate process and whether council does or does not have to be involved.

Mr. Dowd: When can we anticipate that that would be concluded work?

Mr. Specter: I would say within a couple of weeks.

That would be the answer that would so disappoint Council President Shields, pushing as it would any city-assisted legal resolutions past the 30-day window for appeals.


To conclude Act I of the meeting, we join Patrick Dowd's second line of questioning already in progress.

Mr. Dowd: ... and might Lamar seek some sort of remedy outside the government [if the permit was revoked on appeal after 30 days]? I mean, legally do they have the right to sue the government, in other words?

Mr. Specter: I suspect they would.

Mr. Dowd: Thank you.

Ms. Payne: Could I have my second round of questions?

Reverend Burgess: Yes, you can. Councilwoman Payne.

Ms. Payne: I just wanted to make this clear for Councilman Kraus. We all know that this is our job to be at this table, and all of us are willing to spend hours upon hours, but we still also have obligations to the public who live in these districts that we represent. That's why I clearly said yesterday if we are going to hold public hearings and post agenda, we've got to have some kind of consensus on the day and time, because I had a 2:30 today, and at 2:30 we were just at the president [Mr. Shields] making his speech, and we had listened for maybe an hour and fifteen minutes of Mr. Peduto, and they have all of the right to use as much as they want to use at this table, but I have a 2:30 , and I can't tell this person, you know, well, you travelled all the way here. Be it, because I need to sit here and listen. I do need to be here and listen. Now it's five minutes to four. I have a four o'clock. So now I have to go back here and tell my staff to cancel my four o'clock, probably cancel the six o'clock, because I probably won't make that. That's where we run into these issues on time. It's not that we don't want to sit here. We can sit here until two o'clock in the morning. It's no problem. It's just that we need to find some way to be consistent on days and times if we are going to be having post agenda. And I have never seen it -- I've been here a little into two years, and we have plenty post agenda and plenty public hearings since I have been here, and I've never seen it where a councilmember or two requested someone not come to the table and that's okay. Normally it's like we all agree that someone can come to the table and that's it. We bring them to the table. I have never seen it where we kept people from coming to the table. I've just never seen that.

Reverend Burgess: Councilwoman Payne, I am a new member of council, and I have not been here two years. And so as someone who years in a former life used to teach parliamentary procedure and Roberts Rules of Order...

Oh. No.

... I can only follow it as I remember it and as I've studied it. My understanding of the process is that people can only come to the table when all nine members of the group allow them to come. If any member has some hesitation why someone cannot come to the table, until that hesitation is removed, that person cannot come to the table. I am simply following that. Now, what my preference would be is to have our five minute break. I think that if we have the break, some of these discussions we can talk internally. If there is some parliamentary differences, we can work them out and then bring Mr. Ford to the table. I would prefer to do that. [Mr. Motznik signals] Mr. Motznik, before we break.

Mr. Motznik: Before we break...

A pause...

We all want transparent government, and we have our stenographer typing over there...

[This was new, for post agendas. Hat tip to that guy.]

I would like to know publicly which member of council didn't want Pat Ford to come to the table in this round and why. I'm not comfortable talking about it when the camera is shut off during our five minute break.

Reverend Burgess: That's fine. Mr. Shields, you can respond.

Mr. Shields: I don't think there is anybody that is precluding Mr. Ford from the table.

Mr. Motznik: Somebody is.

Mr. Shields: If I may finish, sir. I have the floor. Is that what the intent here was to have these three people before us to get the foundation questions regarding law and zoning. Once that has concluded which it seems it has, others will be invited to the table, and no one is precluded from the table, and that's pretty much it.

Mr. Motznik: I would just like to respond. We've had post agenda. I have been on this council for seven years. When you have a post agenda, you bring the people to the table who have the information so we can find out what the hell is going on. That's all we want to know, what went on with this billboard and why. Mr. Ford can explain it. He should have been brought to the table, and we should have asked him what's going on and why.

Reverend Burgess: And Mr. Motznik, had you been the chair of this committee --

Mr. Motznik: I'm not blaming you. I'm not blaming you. I'm blaming some senior members of council who are giving some bad advice to the chair of this meeting, senior members giving bad advice to the chair of this meeting.

Reverend Burgess: This kind of discussion, this kind of ongoing discussion does not further our agenda. I do note your exception. I do note your concerns. Now, if those are all of the concerns, I have about five minutes to four. Can we take a five-minute break, a ten-minute break. After that Mr. Ford and other members that council may want to ask question of, have questions with, will come and make presentations, and that order will be in reverse order starting with Councilwoman Payne. Ten minutes starting now. Thank you very much.

It would take them about 25 minutes.

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