Friday, April 4, 2008

North Side: The Next Big Thing

On Monday, representatives from the North Side Leadership Conference, Northside United, and the Charm Bracelet project will meet informally with Stadium Authority chair Debbie Lestition and others to discuss ways that development between the stadiums might benefit all three parties, and open broad new possibilities across the North Side.

Relations between the well-established NSLC and the fledgling Northside United got off to an acrimonious start six months ago, when some members of the latter accused the former of cutting a presumptuous CBA with casino developer Don Barden.

Since that time, Northside United has toned down its rhetoric considerably -- contending on numerous occasions that the two community groups are not in opposition, and that NSLC acted in the best interests of its membership at the time.

Likewise, the NSLC has always maintained that other neighborhood organizations are encouraged to be active, to represent for themselves, and to pursue their own objectives as they see fit.

NSLC executive director Mark Fatla in particular is to be praised for burying the hatchet to some extent, and for approaching these talks with an open mind. So too is the rest of the leadership of both groups. Furthermore, both deserve accolades for agreeing to include the Charm Bracelet project, a club among family-friendly institutions on the North Side that may have a lot to offer.

Finally, the city's Stadium Authority is to be lauded for doing its level best to pro-actively explore Win-Win-Win-Win-Win (Do we have that right? Yes!) scenarios for community-friendly and developer-friendly development.

There are no guarantees for what may come out of this meeting -- nobody has made any commitments going in -- but the very fact that Pittsburgh is starting to operate in this fashion ("Let's just see what we can do!") gives the Comet reason to celebrate this weekend.

Narrative: Hijacked

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

1. Promote the merger
2. Merge the county into the city
3. Ed Rendell moves on to bigger and better things
4. Dan O becomes governor.
5. Luke becomes the new leader of Pittsburgh/Allegheny County.

That would appear to be the size of it. There is a degree to which this will be the Pittsburgh Promise rebooted -- only different, because this is really big and ultimately necessary.

One does hope Step 2 is not entirely optional in this arrangement.


There is a vast consensus out there that the merging of governments, in some form or another, will be an absolutely necessary adaptive technique for Pittsburgh and for Allegheny County.

The question is, how are we are going to consolidate?

Mergers between governments must be a great deal like mergers amongst businesses -- there are talks, offers are made, negotiations take place over time. Creative minds develop win-win scenarios, skeptical minds guard their own interests, suspicious minds guard against everything. Time will be made a factor at various points.

You can see how mergers are a daunting business -- and how a lot rides on who is in charge of the merging. Ultimately, the final decision will be made by the voters, but that is only in an up-or-down, yes-or-no kind of sense.

The real action will be in how a merger is envisioned.


Mark DeSantis, a longtime champion of the city/county consolidation movement, gave some hints in 2006 as to the kinds of choices we will be making.

An infinite variety of consolidation plans are possible.

Write that on your hand, now.

However, experience across North America in recent decades suggests any proposed plan will fall within a continuum of two extremes. At one end is a complete fusion of all or almost all Allegheny County local governments into one giant “Pittsburgh Metroplex” government. Despite its size, Metroplex would be far simpler to comprehend in form and function than what exists now. However, it would also be very hard to bring about and would come with a big downside.

After a bit of explanation...

At the other end of our continuum is a scheme far more complex in form and function than Metroplex. Though the opposite of the Metroplex is probably easier to bring about, it too comes with a major downside. In our alternative and hypothetical “Pittsburgh Alliance of Governments” some, most, or all local governments would remain intact as separate entities but would be joined through a series of interlocking contractual agreements. These legally binding agreements would, among other things, compel all parties to base all major decisions solely on efficiency and effectiveness criteria and work together in a coordinated way.

Mr. DeSantis went on to advocate for something more like the Alliance; it sounds a bit from Ravenstahl, Onorato and Nordenberg like they are aiming at something in the middle.


City Council President Doug Shields yesterday dismissed the report as "an essay."

"It's history," he said. "We know the history. There's no specificity. There's nothing that deals with legal implications, home rule, you name it." (P-G, Karamagi Rujumba)

That is the truth, no doubt about it.

Pages 1-12 deal mostly with impressing upon us that consolidation is necessary; pages 13-15 provide an outline of recommendations that does little more than tell us, "Start doing it".

Pages 16-19 serve to identify some of the problems that would have to be worked through in envisioning this new government.

1. Meeting the continuing needs of the urban center
2. Ensuring adequate minority representation
3. Dealing equitably with current city and county employees
4. Segregating legacy costs

Depending on how one looks at things, these problems were glossed over, swept under the rug, waved away with vague assurances, or simply left to future architects.

One comes away with a slight impression that the means and methods of coming consolidating overtures must exist at least in the minds of several major players.

Which is fine, because the committee report was submitted respectfully (it pointed out several times), so its highest purpose may have been to help fashion the political will to begin confronting this challenge in earnest at last.

After 17 months of study, looking at places like Louisville, Ky., where the city merged with Jefferson County in 2000, Chancellor Nordenberg issued his report yesterday and concluded that city-county consolidation "is an idea from which good things will flow." (P-G, ibid.)

We are now well and truly moving forward, for which our Mayor is to be saluted.

COMET POSTSCRIPT: By all means, go about your business as usual. We do know we've still got a city on our hands.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Thursday: V-C Day

Pittsburgh City Council yesterday tentatively rejected proposals to cut its own staff and surrender leftover funds, capping eight days of turmoil... (P-G, Rich Lord)


All right. How about we all take a five minute break?

Smoke 'em if you got 'em!

On Tuesday, council approved new rules that require written descriptions of any spending not covered by contracts. Previously, lists of invoices under $1,000 from all city departments were routinely approved with little documentation or discussion.

Also, all legislation -- whether crafted by the mayor or a council member -- must now be accompanied by a statement of its budgetary impact. Council committees have been reshuffled, and chairmen overseeing each city function will be announced next week, said Council President Doug Shields.

Expect Councilman Motznik to chair the prestigious new Puppet Shows, Origami and Light Beer Committee.


Solicitor George Specter sent an opinion to City Council yesterday saying that the city should no longer "swap" approvals for digital billboards for agreements to remove older billboards. (P-G, Team Effort)

Had we known that earlier, we might have avoided the cluster..

Mr. Specter's opinion found that city Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko "acted appropriately" in her December decision to permit Lamar Advertising to place a 1,200-square-foot digital sign on the Grant Street Transportation Center. That permit, granted without public votes or hearings, was consistent with a 4-year-old city practice of trading one digital sign approval for removal of six traditional billboards.

So that swap was appropriate, due to a 4-year old practice which the city should now cease.

However, he also wrote that a Downtown billboard "would require the grant of a variance by the Zoning Board of Adjustment." That did not occur in the case of the Grant Street Transportation Center permit.

So Tymoczko acted appropriately, except that she did not follow the required procedure. Somebody unpack this for us.



As you know, Patrick Dowd requested of the URA that it refrain from utilizing Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) money being returned to the city, without first having those expenditures approved by the city, of which City Council is a part.

The URA's administrative expenses are up 25% over the last year. According to the budget Dowd managed to wrangle from the URA, most of that increase is funded by "revenue" from the UDAG money.

The Comet has no idea what would necessitate a 25% spike in administrative costs -- salaries, leather furniture, gearing up for the assemblage of the Comprehensive City-Wide Development Plan (AKA the Death Star) -- but it seems clear that Councilman Dowd feels he is obligated to exercise some oversight over these funds.

URA director Pat Ford responded to Council concerning Dowd's inquiries. The Comet has obtained a copy.

The staff of the URA is revisiting the documentation, available to us, relating to the long-established retention of UDAG proceeds, by the URA, for purposes of supporting redevelopment activity within the City. I will also add that the URA has been acting in good faith in the administration of the program proceeds and disbursements over the past 30 years.

Long-established retention of UDAG proceeds by the URA. So we are acting on precedent again, rather than legalese.

I hope you can appreciate that the effort that is required by my CFO. Ms. Eads is reconstructing a 30 year old transaction that goes back to, I believe, the Caligiuri administration. We look forward to sharing our reconstruction of these understandings, face to face, in the near future.

Our reconstruction of these understandings. That's hot.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

T.W.M. and the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy

Captain Ahab of the U.S.S. Teacher Wordsmith Madman has finished up his work criticizing Barack Obama's landmark speech A More Perfect Union in a Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3 and Vol. 4.

The blogger's overarching themes are as follows:

1) Any attempt to discuss Rev. Wright within the context of what he was saying, where he was saying it, the history of black churches or the history of black people in America was deceitful trickery. What the voters need are more simple, declarative statements on complex issues.

2) The Rev. Wright is so nuclear, so hateful, so irredeemably ghastly that condemning his statements and expressing disagreement is not strong enough; Obama must leave his church and cast the totality of the church community and what it means to him overboard.

3) Telling the story of his grandmother in order to illustrate that racist thinking is not only wrong, but also utterly commonplace and familiar to all Americans -- something to deal with and think through beyond holier-than-thou condemnations -- was out of bounds.

4) The speech was not written as well as it could have been.

A similar train of thought can be found in some local mainstream media:

Obama's indoctrination (Ralph Reiland, Trib)
Rhapsodizing Obama's race speech (L. Brent Bozell III, Trib)
Uprooting the new racism
(Pat Buchanan, Trib)
Deepening Democrat dilemma (Robert Novak, Trib)

Now is as good a time as any to report that Chad Hermann, critically acclaimed author of Teacher Wordsmith Madman and scourge of letter-writers everywhere, is currently employed on the reelection campaign of Republican congressman Tim Murphy of the South Hills.

Press official Meghan Jones-Rolla confirms to the Comet that "[they] got the band back together" from the Mark DeSantis campaign -- comprising Hermann, Jones-Rolla, and Republican strategist Mike DeVanney, among others.

CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION 9/28: Mr. Hermann informs us that he merely performed "three months worth of consulting work for Murphy", which is distinct from employment with the campaign itself. Also, that he's presently a Democrat. The Comet regrets the situation.

RELATED: The Busman's Holiday, So Happy Together Pt. 2

Bruce Kraus: Settled In

We asked the councilman what he thinks about the war.

"The war? What war?" he asked, innocently. We explained it.

"Yeah, that's what I want to do is fight the mayor for four years," he answered, dryly.

"Where I'm sitting from, there is no war. It's about principles. It's always about principles, it's never about personality. I'm interested in good government. I'm interested in..."


The day we spoke, City Council had just passed the six-month moratorium on new billboards proposed by Mr. Kraus by a 9-0 vote, after altering some language.

The changes were made after a meeting between himself, Council president Doug Shields, and City solicitor George Specter. Shields for a while resisted the idea of holding some sort of executive session with Specter on the matter. Kraus describes that as more of an initial reaction.

"It wasn't an executive session," Kraus clarified, because it was just the three of them. The bill as written turned out to be "overlanguaged," and in a way that may have been construed to forbid what are in fact permitted uses.

That would have been illegal, Kraus now concedes. The new language says that you can replace vinyl-for-vinyl, and make other normally permitted upgrades -- but nothing new, no enlargements, and no vinyl-for-electronic.

We asked if the new language was open to any other interpretations, based on precedent perhaps, that might negate the purpose of the moratorium.

The councilman brandished the document. "What this is saying is, no."


We tried to get a sense from Mr. Kraus relating to other hot-button issues in the pipeline -- cuts to council's staff budget, for example, and eliminating the...

"Oh, the 'slush fund'," he said, making quotation marks with his hands. "I'll talk about that when we talk about it tomorrow."

Of course, we agreed. Important first to consult with one's colleagues on council, right?

He held our gaze for a second. "Oh, I know how I'm going to vote."

We asked about recent initiatives by Councilman Dowd -- legislation to change the way the city pensions board is appointed, for example.

"You know, honestly, I haven't had a chance to take a look at that yet," Kraus said. We asked whether it was on the agenda for a vote tomorrow.

"No, I don't think so, unless ... did they waive Rule 8 on that?" Rule 8 demands that legislation introduced on a Tuesday cannot be acted upon until the following Wednesday. It can be, and frequently is, "waived" by a majority vote of council itself.

"That's another thing. What's this [redacted] of waiving Rule 8?" Kraus would prefer to take the time to research new legislation, and ponder it. "So it sits for a week, and it gets up to speed."


Kraus made sure to make us aware of a Will of Council resolution calling on the Postal Service to offer the Adopt-A-Mailbox program in Pittsburgh. This dovetails with the councilman's crusade against graffiti -- a major priority of his term in office.

Graffiti vandals like to tag mailboxes, Kraus explains -- but the Post Office does little to maintain them.

Bruce Kraus gets truly wound up on the subject of graffiti. It's costly and time-consuming to clean up, it's bad for businesses, it makes a neighborhood appear dangerous. He wants to crack down on graffiti vandals in any way that he can.

We admitted that in some cases there are some graffiti artists that we have some sympathy for -- the really talented ones, or the ones that climb to outlandish, out-of-the-way places.

The Councilman would not give an inch. "If you vandalize my home, if you vandalize my business, if you vandalize my neighborhood, you should be made to pay for it."

Constituents are concerned about vandalism just as they are about violent crime, about crack houses and guns on the street. These all together you could call his number one issue: crime and public safety.

We asked what a City Councilman can do about such problems as crack houses and guns on the street.

"Well, first, you have to be aware of it."

Kraus joined Shields on a lobbying trip to Harrisburg in support of mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms. He believes this can have an impact on straw purchasing of handguns.

One gets the impression talking to Kraus that a million small things need to be done in order to make progress on any of his major issues -- another good reason that ongoing pitched battles among branches of city government are undesirable.


We referred back to the Bruce Kraus's comment about not wanting to spend "four years" fighting the mayor -- and asked if that meant he was definitely ruling out a run for mayor in 2009.

"I'm so happy to be here," Kraus began. He took the suggestion with good humor, made his explanations as to how much work there is before him on council, and concluded in a mumble, "It's not something that I'm at all considering at this time."

Oh my goodness, we asked. Does that mean he won't rule it out?

"Well, don't ask me to -- oh, do you mean in 2009?" He thought we were talking about some future year. "Oh, that I can rule out. No."

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Marriage Amendment: Kill It

There are so many reasons to deny this amendment's passage to the floor of the legislature and to the voters of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it's pathetic.

We would not have expected the 13th Amendment to figure in.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Is the denial of living with loved ones as one pleases a form of slavery? Slavery is the forcible compulsion of a people to act against their will, for some perceived benefit by the master.

This is called the "Marriage Protection" amendment instead of the "No Gay Marriage" amendment presumably because the institution of marriage is of value to the people, and it should therefore be strengthened and held in high esteem. How can we justify subjecting another people to live without this good, so that it can be enhanced for others?

Have we appropriated their freedom? Are we compelling them to live against their will, for someone else's gain? To assimilate or perish?


Yes yes yes. Homosexuality is different. Homosexuality is a scourge upon civilizations and a cancer to be eradicated.

This is where the 1st Amendment comes in.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

Free exercise. Every one of us can to choose to believe your gobbledygook, or choose not to.

Your formal religion may be your evidence -- but you may also hold your beliefs because of your culture, experiences, inclinations or intuitions. That also is a religion, a belief system -- and you are welcome to it, and welcome to share it.

You shall make no law establishing it. If you want to ban homosexuality because it's dangerous, you had better show exactly how it is a public health issue or a national security issue.

That is when you are at your most amusing.


Amending constitutions is serious business. We generally do so only when we have problems that the present government can not deal with. Almost always, we do it to expand our rights, not to crack down.

In this case, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania already has outlawed gay marriage. It is illegal. If you don't like gay marriage, you should be happy.

However, times may be changing slowly, and the people may be on the way to petitioning their government to change the status quo. At that time we will have a lovely debate, wherein we will utilize this good government that has been handed down to us, and we will come to an answer.

We are now being asked to add an amendment to the Constitution simply to prevent people in the future from making their own decisions? What is the reason? Where is the crisis? What is really going on?


Obviously, there are three strong motivations underlying the push for this legislation:

1. Drive a wedge among Democrats
2. Whip up the Republican base.
3. Lash out at homosexuals.

The PA Marriage Protection Amendment is, at its very best, a cynical ploy to further the politics and policies of a certain portion of today's ideological spectrum.

At its worst, it is a raw and very useless statement of loathing, expressed only for its own sake. It would besmirch the rest of the PA Constitution around it.

Have none of it. Don't touch it.

Monday: Why Won't You Wear the Ribbon?

The war rages on. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Pittsburgh Councilman Patrick Dowd plans to introduce legislation Tuesday to give council and the controller some say in the management of the city's challenged pension fund.

Dowd also authored a letter to URA director Pat Ford requesting that the URA refrain from spending UDAG money until it receives approval from the City of Pittsburgh, as is required.

Contrary to popular belief, these requests are in keeping with the Valentine's Day proclamation, in which government officials agreed to work together to improve such things as transparency and accountability.

Brian O'Neill wrote a tremendous column about the Battle of the Take-Home Cars, and the various pros and cons spinning out of it for the public at large.

Unfortunately, he neglects to illustrate the bigger picture by summing it all up like so:

It's very loud, occasionally entertaining, but is more about turf battles than with making Pittsburgh a better place to live.

Cut the mayor's cars. Cap past years' budget leftovers. Leave the rest. Move on.

Move on indeed.

What O'Neill failed to consider is, "turf battles" of any sort have not been waged by the august body of council since the institution of the Home Rule Charter. City Council has taken instead to routinely ceding power to the mayoralty, at an ever-increasing speeds, under ever-more aggressive persuasion.

This habit might be having a distinct effect on our mayors, and thereupon the direction of our city -- even under mayors as seemingly dissimilar as Mayor Murphy and Mayor Ravenstahl.

(All of which is a long way of saying, Go Patrick Dowd!)


Today is BLOG FOR EQUALITY day, brought to you by Sue Kerr of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents and by the budding Pittsburgh Bloggers Guild.

Today is the day we all write about the proposed state Marriage Protection Amendment (tm) making its way through Harrisburg. Feel free to join in and use the attached image. The Comet will chime in later, the better to leech off of our colleagues' ideas. If there was some confusion as to who should have been invited to participate in BLOG FOR EQUALITY day, the answer is Everybody Everybody.

Summon your muses and let them muse. If you would like to learn more about the Pittsburgh Bloggers Guild, register your interest here.


The inaugural edition of the Conversation at the Post-Gazette was pretty good. The black lettering The Conversation floating over Maria's head was a bit of a distraction, as was the Michel Lambesque pantone chosen -- a neutral backdrop full of Post-Gazette logos might have lent the production a more professional air.

Favorite moment: Dayvoe: "Full disclosure: Maria and I are on opposite sides of this."

Comet Suggestion: Make these vodcasts embeddable to the blogs. Yes, we know what you're shrieking to yourself: But then they won't visit our site, and we won't get hits! Pish posh.

There is a natural hesitation among readers toward surfing over to a different page -- especially when one may not feel like watching "now," but would like it to be at our fingertips in a day or two. Bear in mind that a publisher can always put commercials directly onto these things! We the bloggers can be your distributors, and we would do it for free so long as we enjoy the content.

Free the information, plunk yourselves out onto the shelf, and everybody wins.

The music was actually really good.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

This Man Should Have A Major Ambassadorship

Words can't describe how good this guy is.

Our only major quibble is the "clearness" of the Clinton economic plan (see Swampland for an extended analysis) -- along with the short shrift given to the full implications of Obama's superior political ability (the better to move legislation from the bully pulpit.)

Charlie does throw down with the Governor about 8:20, after listening to a little too much media bashing.