Friday, May 9, 2008

Friday: Just One Last Thing's Been Bothering Us...

Pittsburgh's long-strapped government has a healthy surplus, but shouldn't lower its guard against overspending, city Controller Michael Lamb said yesterday in presenting the yearly audit. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Those of you who picked "It's time to overspend" in the pool are out of luck.


To Pittsburgh City Council. In a preliminary vote -- 5-2 -- it's agreeing to pay the $11,000 legal bill of four council members who, on their own, sued to stop a questionable electronic billboard project. Indeed, the suing council members were on the right side of the issue. But they sued without the full council's consent. Taxpayers should not pay for their freelancing. (Trib, Edit Board)

Minor factual inaccuracy: they joined a protest appeal with the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which is a routine and process-oriented approach. It was only when they got hit with a SLAP suit by Lamar that they counter-sued as an (effective) strategy to rid themselves of the annoyance.

All the same, the Trib does not approve. Feel shame.


Former councilman Sala Udin questioned the transfer's legality because of a previous licensing agreement between the URA and the Hill Community Development Corp. that allowed residents to build a civil rights memorial on the land. (Trib, Bonnie Pfister)

It would be more instructive for Udin to speak out publicly on the circumstances surrounding the controversial draft Community Benefits Agreement, which is being voted upon tomorrow by the membership of One Hill. He can hardly avoid it.

Many Hill residents linked to Mr. Udin in some fashion have had their voting privileges formally revoked in One Hill, for having allegedly broken coalition rules, although One Hill continues to have no written bylaws. Bomani Howze, son of Mr. Udin, has been stripped of his elected role as Vice Chairman of the coalition, ostensibly for a conflict of interest regarding his role with the Heinz Endowments.

This would seem to be in keeping with Councilwoman Tonya Payne's statement to the Comet that, "Carl [Redwood] and I basically started One Hill", and did so to provide an alternative to the leadership of the insufficiently democratic "minister's group", now formally the Hill Faith & Justice Alliance.


The Comet is further troubled by two facets of the draft agreement.

First, it states that all development funds garnered from the Neighborhood Partnership Program will be administered through the Hill House EDC. Evan Frazier, lead negotiator for One Hill, is the executive director of the Hill House EDC -- and Ron Porter, hired last year as the Penguins Senior Consultant in charge of negotiations with the community, is doing so only on a temporary leave of absence from its board.

Second, the CBA would require the community to stand down not only from protesting construction of the new hockey arena, but from protesting development upon the 28 acres on the site of the old civic arena. There are as yet no plans publicly available for the 28 acres, which would link the Hill District to Downtown. How that land is to be intelligently planned without active and at times necessarily contentious input from Hill District residents is an enigma.

The vote will take place over the course of the day tomorrow, not at a large community gathering, and will be overseen by One Hill leadership. We'll have to wait to see what happens.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Thursday: The Fall of Camelot

City taxpayers will cover an $11,000 attorney bill incurred by four Pittsburgh council members in their battle with Lamar Advertising if yesterday's first vote -- taken after a testy debate -- holds up in a final tally Tuesday. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Testy may well turn titanic.

Councilman Patrick Dowd, who also challenged Lamar and paid a lawyer from his own pocket, said council shouldn't pay "after the fact" for an expense it never voted to authorize.

The several nuances of his position were effectively lost on the other council members, who had been caught up in a rapidly escalating war with the administration and its allies.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris joined the members who incurred the bill in voting to pay it.

Any more of this, and they'll have to reassign seats.

"I was sued for $2 million," Mr. Peduto said. "And you're telling me I shouldn't hire a lawyer?"

Typically, one does not pay out-of-pocket for legal expenses that one incurs on the job. The question is, did the foursome have to play their hand in the way that they did? Or was their hand forced by administrative and corporate malice?

At any rate, we believe this all a good argument for council activating § 310. A., and retaining in the future a humble attorney for the purposes of securing independent, timely and routine advice, and official or unofficial representation as necessary. A vigorous government can expect to have its share of intramural squabbles. Why pay retail?

Missing from the P-G account is the effect of Dowd's decision to be content with Lamar's agreement to send the LED billboard through the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Planning Commission -- while taking a pass on the golden opportunity to subpoena records of contacts between Lamar and the administration. Which might have been illuminating.


Weather permitting, crews will hoist UPMC's giant letters atop the Golden Triangle's tallest structure this Saturday. (P-G, Edit Board)

See, we already have one Fordian artifact being erected on Grant Street. One should be more than enough.


Speaking of all of the above, those who would be troubled by $11,000 going down the tubes due to legal tussles with Lamar would be apoplectic at the prospect of missing out on 14 months and $134,000 worth of planning and zoning expertise. Yet that may be the cost of the paid leave requested by Pat Ford and granted by Mayor Ravenstahl, while we await the outcome of a State Ethics investigation also undertaken on Ford's recommendation.

Ford's lawyer questions whether even a 2 month "preliminary" inquiry will be necessary, due to the nominal nature of the gifts.

The Comet, which is in agreement that a surround-sound system does not seem a major scandal make, continues to wonder how then our rather vanilla inquiry resulted in a hastily-arranged confessional to the Tribune-Review, followed by a dismissal, a temporary suspension with paid leave, and a State Ethics inquiry all within 27 hours -- and all arranged at Pat Ford's request?

There has got to be more to this story. There has got to!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wednesday: Sparkle, Sparkle!

A month after battering the design as bland and too mall-like, planning commission members voted unanimously in favor of the project after architects tweaked certain elements to address their concerns. (P-G, Mark Belko)

As you can now see, the building will utilize electric power.

Asked about the criticisms commission members made of the Uptown arena's design April 8, Sawyer said: "The last time they didn't see what was shown today, the evening shot, which really tells the story of this design. The atrium in the front allows everyone to see the energy and electricity inside." (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

See? Electricity.

Planning Commissioner Todd Reidbord complained last month that the...

What is he still doing there?


Come to think of it, what ever happened to the slew of board moves and appointments that Mayor Ravenstahl seemed to make last month, only to table? Are the Housing, Parking, and Stadium authorities actually permitted to transact public business without an active member of council sitting on them?

T.W.M. and the Audacity of Hokum

On more than one occasion, I've been dissed or emailed or insulted by people who, closing their minds and opening their web browsers, decide they can happily dismiss and reflexively vilify me just because I, on occasion, happen to agree with a guy (or a gal) they can write off as a neocon kook. You know -- as if the world is divided into good and evil, as if they have the exclusive right to decide which is which, and as if that stance is not in direct violation of the ideals they, by supporting Senator Obama, claim to espouse.

And yet those sorts of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do sorts of hypocrisies these days abound in Camp Obama, as Mr. Krauthammer -- who is, I think, wrong about many things but still right about these (see how easy that is, kids? just a simple, substantive, case-by-case judgment; that's a new kind of rhetorical politics you really ought to try sometime) -- neatly observes: (Teacher. Wordsmith. Madman.)

O poor, maltreated blogger! For whom it is a necessary labor to judge Barack Obama savagely, compulsively, uncritically and exclusively on the basis of an association with a pastor -- but to take the author's own professional associations into any consideration of his work? How cruel, how unfair!

Someone was saying something about hypocrisy?

Because one important thing changed: [Rev. Wright] had the (what's that word again?) audacity to insult Senator Obama. To question his sincerity. To suggest that he was just playing politics. In other words, as they say in those bad movie trailers: This time, it's personal.

I suspect that, as much as the National Press Club bully loony pulpit, was the reason for the change of heart. And the sudden willingness to disown someone he once said he could no more disown than his own grandmother. Combine those two factors, mix in a newly energized press corps that, in the middle of a surprising but almost certainly inevitable course-correction, has finally decided to draw some fresh blood from Senator Breath of Fresh Air, and you get what we saw and heard but did not quite buy in North Carolina this week.

So much for unity. So much for a new kind of politics.

Well, there is another explanation.

It could be that everything having to do with Rev. Wright, and everything having to do with Sen. Obama's descriptions of his posture towards Rev. Wright, is and has been so obviously remote from anything even tangentially related to the future of our nation or the selection of its president, that the two individuals are content to hold a partially scripted falling-out for your benefit, to say whatever words are necessary to comfort their respective audiences, and move forward.

(Unless you really think Sen. Obama hates America and is a one-man sleeper cell. In which case, we have no option but to write you off as unpersuadable.)


Which brings us to the confusion of many about "a new kind of politics." As far as we can tell, Obama's new politics basically consists of:

1. No stupid or personal attacks on opponents
2. No stupid public policy because it sounds good

Now, given that for most politicians this simple code of conduct must seem astoundingly angelic, it is no surprise that for them, every instance of an issue-based attack, every cleverly-framed argument, and every (perish the thought) public relations adjustment from Team Obama will be considered a betrayal of revelatory proportions, to be met with HAHAHAHAHA YOU'RE A HYPOCRITE!, thereby completing the Catch 22 with HAHAHAHA YOU'RE NOT TOUGH GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN!

However, in reality, we are learning that even in the 21st century, sometimes the only defense against a barrage of hogwash is a little more hogwash.

Because that's what it was, and is.

The Comet does not, and has never purported to, support Sen. Obama's candidacy because we expect him to magically unite the country and bring about a new kind of politics. As far back as we can remember, every presidential, gubernatorial, mayoral and dog catchorial candidate has attempted to escalate the drama and import of their candidacy just a wee bit. We're not going to hold it against Barack because he's good at it.

The Comet supports Sen. Obama because we want government subsidized health care, fair taxation of the wealthy, sustainable environmental regulations and a swift conclusion to our unconscionable military adventuring -- the very same reasons we also support Sen. Clinton to a degree.

The difference is, if Obama can pull off a victory in the manner in which he is attempting -- by staying focused on issues, eschewing personal attacks, rejecting false machismo and remaining a proud educated intellectual who is not somehow at odds with common folk -- then he may actually usher in a period where sincerity and seriousness come into fashion.

It will not last forever -- but in the interval, pundits and political advisers will warn their charges ominously, "Isn't this like the gas tax holiday all over again?" "Isn't this like voting for the Iraq War when you know it's wrong?" "Isn't this like obsessing over Rev. Wright for months on end, just to keep voters alarmed and distracted?"

As long as Obama can keep it going, the hogwash will be seen to fail and so will be utilized less, and we will all be the better for it.

That is our rationale for whom we support and why. If it pains our friend Mr. Hermann that others are defining him unfairly, he can always choose to put forth his own politics in a similarly affirmative fashion.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Monday: Whither Forward?

"It's a very difficult time to be raising hundreds of millions of dollars," said Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, an industry consultant. "I don't think any industry looks forward to going to the market right now." (P-G, Mark Belko)

Word on the street has turned in terms of the seriousness of these concerns about Mr. Barden's capacity.

Asked to name a single economist who supported [the gas tax holiday], Mrs. Clinton instead got in a subtle dig at her opponent, who she has repeatedly tarred as an elitist after Mr. Obama made remarks describing small-town Pennsylvanians as clinging to guns and religion out of bitterness with government's failure to help them.

"I think we've been for the last seven years seeing a tremendous amount of government power and elite opinion basically behind policies that haven't worked well for the middle class and hard-working Americans," she said.

"You know, it's really odd to me," she added, "that arguing to give relief to the vast majority of Americans creates this incredible push-back. When the federal government, through the Fed and the Treasury, gave $30 billion in a bailout to Bear Stearns, I didn't hear anybody jump up and say, 'That's not going according to the market. That's rewarding irresponsible behavior.'

"We've got to get out of this mind-set where somehow elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans," she said. (P-G, Mackenzie Carpenter)

Word on the street is turning about a lot of things.

The paper cites two other common miscues: "motivated blindness," in which people are unable to make an objective ethical decision if they have an interest in the outcome (think Enron's auditors) and "the slippery slope," in which people fail to blow the whistle on unethical behavior if it happens gradually. (P-G, Mark Roth)

Just saying.


Some commercial real estate agents estimate the 28 acres at the Mellon Arena site -- near the confluence of Downtown, Uptown and the Hill District -- could be worth as much as $70 to $100 a square foot, or between $85.3 million and nearly $122 million. (Trib, Boren and Vellucci)

And every penny worth it! Splendid negotiating! The Comet will wear this grin though CBA negotiations until it gives us lockjaw!

Although One Hill Chairman Carl Redwood said there are a few companies "lined up" to contribute to the program, he would not say who they were.

When asked if the Penguins were one of them, he said, "Not necessarily."

Penguins' officials were more frank. "[The contributor] won't be the Penguins," said Ron Porter, the team's senior consultant. "The Penguins will support [the program]."

According to Frazier, "The Penguins have agreed that they would help identify the right corporate sponsors." (C-P, Chris Young)

UPMC decided to contribute matching funds, up to a certain point, to its Pittsburgh Promise. How can anyone be motivated to contribute to this Neighborhood Partnership Program if the Penguins themselves are not willing to demonstrate that it is a worthwhile venture?