Friday, May 16, 2008

The "Clean" Slate

HARRISBURG -- Gov. Ed Rendell is sticking with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton as his choice for the Democratic presidential nomination. (P-G, Tom Barnes)


But if, as many Democrats expect, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama gets the nomination, Mr. Rendell thinks he should choose U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., as his vice presidential candidate.


Not only will Joe's vast experience and foreign policy credentials shore up Barack's perceived weaknesses, but his own horrible, horrible gaffes will make those of Sen. Obama look like mere child's play!

Lamar 4 Requests Opinion from State Ethics Commission

The five page document contains a succinct history of the entire affair involving the controversial LED sign permit, with frequent references to press accounts, legal opinions, meeting transcripts and court transcripts, all included as appendices.

Although the letter sent this afternoon to the Ethics Commission is not the previously rumored letter to the State Attorney General requesting an investigation, the Ethics Commission has the power (and the obligation when warranted) to trigger investigations by the Attorney General.

Although today's letter never mentions URA director and Parking Authority chair Patrick Ford by name, nor any gift-giving to public officials by Lamar Advertising, it should be noted that the same Ethics Commission is presumably already engaged in the preliminaries of an investigation of Ford and Lamar.

Here is a sampling of what seem to be some of the more notable selections. All of the emphases are our own.

Serious issues regarding process surfaced when the matter came to light in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story (02/12/08) reporting that Lamar had secured a no-bid contract from the Parking Authority to place this LED on its new building without the consent of the Authority’s Board. Under Chapter 161 of the Pittsburgh Code of Ordinances, contracts in excess of $30,000 must be bid prior to being let.

This is an argument against the permit that has not yet been raised with such precision.

Aside from the no-bid contract, there were other problems, specifically the fact that the permit was in direct violation of the city’s zoning code which limits billboards at this location to 500 sq. ft. It seems clear that the zoning code required a higher standard of review and that Lamar should not have been given an administrator’s exception.

There were a number of other procedural matters and questions which are illustrated in a legal opinion rendered by City Solicitor George Specter. It is notable that City Council had to wait for this opinion for almost two months. Accordingly, it was very difficult for Council to determine a clear, lawful course of action.

As a result of this controversy, the Council convened a Post Agenda session on February 27, 2008. Enclosed is a copy of the transcript of that 6-hour meeting. Notably, much of what we were told was later proven false.

The Comet will be excavating and analyzing key portions of that post-agenda session of Council, starring the one and only Pat Ford, over the coming week.

It is noteworthy to add that on March 26, 2008, Yarone Zober, Mayor Ravenstahl’s Chief-of-Staff, sent an e-mail to all Council Members and others that there could potentially be “abuse of power” and “undue influence” by the Council members who joined Mr. Dowd’s appeal. He further stated that the City’s Law Department should determine if there was actual undue influence or any irregularities on their part. These allegations are nearly identical to those included in Lamar’s complaint.

See how easy this is? That which is noteworthy is clearly identified as noteworthy.

We firmly believe that the law had been broken and as public officials, we had an obligation to intervene in the ZBA/Lamar matter. Without legal counsel, we could not act in the public’s interest.

We have grave concerns about the legal opinion rendered by the City Solicitor’s office. Owing to a variety of factors, we cannot have complete confidence in said opinion. Once the issue of a potential conflict of interest was raised, we chose to refrain from any further discussion or votes on Council Bill #2008-0308.

We believe that Lamar’s settlement of the ZBA appeal, the removal of their lawsuit against five Council members and Judge James’ rulings affirm that there was no conflict of interest on this matter. As such, we believe that our actions surrounding Council Bill #2008-0308 did not constitute a conflict of interest as defined by our City Code and/or our Home Rule Charter.

Gravity aside, this letter seems far more reserved than it easily could have been. Anyone hoping the request will instigate more vigorous actions than the issuance of a legal opinion will have to rely on the voluminous supporting materials contained in its appendices, and on the interest and initiative of the Ethics Commission and its attorneys.

We are advised than within two weeks of its receipt of the letter, the Commission must either announce its intention to issue an opinion based on existing precedent, or if none can be found, call for a public hearing to further explore the matter and set new precedent.

That would be one ballgame worth the price of admission.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Schenley Odds: Not Great

As a decision on the Pittsburgh Schenley High School building looms, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt last night provided additional information showing the district's financial condition is improving but remains a serious concern.

Mr. Roosevelt said the presentation, given at the school board's agenda review meeting, was not intended to foreshadow his recommendation on the Schenley building. He will make his recommendation at a meeting Monday, and the board is expected to vote in June.


Board President Bill Isler said he's concerned that the district would "not be able to take on much more debt." After the meeting, Mr. Isler said that statement wasn't a reference to the debate over Schenley's future. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

So they aren't willing to say definitively either way yet.

We're getting a lot of that.

Raw Story: Top State Attorney May Enter Fray

"I'm not one to rush to judge," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "I certainly take [the council members] at their word that they didn't mean to do anything wrong."

An ethics board hearing would help "to get this issue behind us," he said... (P-G, Rich Lord)

Not likely.

The Pittsburgh Comet has learned that a member of council is making a formal request of Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett to undertake an investigation of all matters pertaining to the granting of a permit for an electronic advertising sign at the Grant Street Transportation Center without votes or public hearings, and to the subsequent legal aftermath.

Sources indicate that interest in the situation has been brewing in the AG's office for some time, meaning the receipt of such a written request could trigger an official inquiry more expeditiously than usual.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Wednesday: Kicking Up Some Dirt

"The concept that they are being silenced almost offends me," said Solicitor George Specter. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Well, it's a challenging occupation. We are glad Specter has not yet been officially offended.

Mr. Burgess said he will ask the State Ethics Commission to decide whether the members did anything wrong in hiring Mr. McGough, and to advise them on how to proceed. He also will introduce, or support, legislation to have council hire its own lawyer -- a concept that has been bandied about for years.

Again with the State Ethics Commission. Would it be appropriate to file for state oversight as an Ethically Distressed Municipality? Do we need an Ethics Recovery Plan?


"When we broke it down, there were obvious inequalities as to how the paving services were to be distributed," Kraus said. "According to the numbers I have, I'm next to last and (Councilman Patrick) Dowd is first." (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Apropos of nothing, of course.

Councilman Ricky Burgess said he is not sure politics played a role in the roughly four miles of streets his district in the northeastern corner of the city are due to have paved. Council District 9 is last in Kraus' analysis.

"I think the streets are bad all through the city, not just in my council district. We have potholes everywhere," Burgess said.

Ever the peacemaker. Yet how might his constituents interpret this same data?


Citing his consolidation of six of 10 county row offices and the merging of five 911 suburban call centers into one central location in Point Breeze, [Onorato] said that many small communities should look to "functional consolidation of services" as a way of streamlining government. (P-G, Tom Barnes)

This is a good approach. It sounds like a full-time job (maybe for several dozen municipal diplomats), but it addresses the regional de-fragmentation that would be necessary to make any city-county consolidation a bit more equitable.


An attorney for former Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle agreed to increase the amount of restitution his client owes the city to cover two plane tickets she purchased to fly to Las Vegas with her mother. (Trib, Team Effort)

Good. Because that was weird.

Morning Music

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Lamar 4 Buy Selves a Week or More

Before the legislation to pay the attorney was read into the record, Councilman Shields asked Councilman Motznik to chair the rest of the meeting.

Dumbfounded, Motznik asked that the President Pro Tem (Councilman Burgess) fulfill that duty instead, or failing that the Finance Chair (Councilman Peduto).

However, all four of them were fleeing from the room.

To considerable mirth, Councilman Motznik then ascended to the dais, and asked to bring the legislation to a vote. Councilman Dowd asked for a moment to review the rules of council, but discovering that the absences did not necessarily inhibit council's power to act, Motznik went on to ask the clerk to read the bill into the record.

Motznik started the discussion by stating he was "a bit confused at the animosity" he and Dowd were receiving for requesting a legal opinion, as neither of them wrote the legal opinion themselves.

Dowd stated that "if there were any unintended consequences" of his raising concerns with the Law Dept, he "genuinely apologizes." He also pointed out that the Law Dept had clarified for him that he personally had no conflict of interest in the matter, so he was free to vote after all.

The vote to approve the measure proceeded as follows: Councilman Deasy nay, Councilman Dowd nay, Councilwoman Harris abstaining, Councilwoman Payne aye (a surprise), and Councilman Motznik nay.

Interim President Motznik then began to say that by a 3-1 vote the motion failed, but several in the room corrected him that due to procedural issues of a failure to secure a majority vote, the motion was merely tabled. At this, the remaining four council members poured back into the room, having delayed the vote and having not admitted to any conflicts of interest.

Councilman Shields took control of the dais again, to Motznik's amused chagrin.

The Public Interest: Supplemental

§ 308. PROHIBITIONS Members of council shall not:
yada yada
b. have a personal or private interest in any legislation proposed or pending before council, unless they;
1. disclose the fact to council; and,
2. refrain from voting or participating in the discussion of the matter;
yada yada
Members of council who violate any of the above provisions shall immediately forfeit their office.


Section 1102: DEFINITIONS "Conflict" or "conflict of interest." Use by a public official or public employee of the authority of his office or employment or any confidential information received through his holding public office or employment for the private pecuniary benefit of himself...

With all that in mind, today we read:

Mr. Motznik said the four should have gone through a competitive process to choose a law firm, and then sought council approval before incurring the expense. If they want the bill to be paid now, they should do it out of their office allocations for staff and services, he said. (P-G, Majors and Lord)

Much seems to hinge on who will be identified on the invoice of attorney Hugh McGough, and to whom he ultimately would send collections notices.

Doug Shields and the other three members of Council acted forthrightly in the public interest, as public servants are to be expected. Yet if in the final analysis they acted with greater valor than discretion -- if Mr. McGough cannot or will not simply bill the City of Pittsburgh directly -- it is hard to see how the individuals named on his invoice will not be subject to the harsh strictures placed upon conflicts of interest.

It appears that Councilman Motznik is correct on this one.

(Pause for effect)

These four council members will have to recuse themselves or lose their jobs, it seems -- or else take an extraordinary risk that some higher authority will side with them on the merits, considering the extenuating circumstances and challenges -- a risk few politicians would dare take, let alone all four out of four.

How can we resolve new understanding this with our previous editorial? Very easily.

Since the work undertaken by Hugh McGough was both necessary and useful -- since it was critical in engineering a good and valuable outcome for city residents -- and especially since the city Law Department recused itself from fulfilling this responsibility for the council members as normally required -- those council members who hired him in good faith ought to be reimbursed for their expenses, even if they cannot act to make it so themselves.

Council members Dan Deasy, Darlene Harris, Jim Motznik and Tonya Payne (and Patrick Dowd, if possible) should all support the legislation releasing these funds. Councilwoman Harris is already to be commended for comprehending the justice of this action. The others should follow suit, putting politics aside and declining to simply exact a measure of vengeance on Lamar Advertising's behalf.

Better still, Mayor Ravenstahl should instruct the city Law Department to reimburse the four council members from its own funding allocation. It is not the council members' fault that the Law Department was pulled in several directions at the same time during this fiasco, and it is certainly not their fault that they came up victorious.

To do anything less would be to invite a level of acrimony and mistrust into City Hall that would be entirely unnecessary, and would not heal quickly.

Schenley Community Failing to Acquiesce

"The problem is, because Schenley pulls from a lot of different areas, there are no board members to hold accountable" complained Jen Lakin, one of the Schenley parent-activists.

"Everyone feels that this board already made up their minds" added Stephanie Tecza, another Schenley parent, who ran unsuccessfully for the School Board herself. "At this point, we could stand on our heads naked, and nobody would care."

Nonetheless, over forty parents and students attended yesterday's public hearing of the School Board to protest the anticipated closure of Schenley High School, and to voice their displeasure at the High School Reform plan they believe is driving the decision.

"It's technically like segregation of the school" said Ellie Tecza, Stephanie's daughter. "That's the dumbest idea in the world."

"We're doing better than other schools, if you look at Westinghouse or Peabody" said Freddy Hier, another student who organized the impromptu protest outside the building in Oakland. At the mere mention of "Peabody", there was sniffing and chortling.

The academic performance of Schenley relative to other public high schools was often mentioned, as was the dubiousness of safety issues concerning the school building. By many accounts, the school is in much better shape than recent media reports have portrayed, and repairs would cost far less than the $60 million frequently reported.

After examining school board documents and making their own assessments, many attested with confidence that asbestos remediation could be completed for less than $5 million. The fact that students were allowed in the building this year proves that an asbestos scare of crisis proportions was fabricated to push forward reform plans, say many protesters.

A+ Schools also took on a share of criticism for adding an unnecessary layer of insulation between decision makers and constituents.

"Why is A+ Schools conducting community forums?" asked Debbie Levy-McKenney. "This is the responsibility of the School Board."

"I will simply say that [closing Schenley] is a game-changer for many public high school parents, and I do not mean that in a positive way" said Barbara Danko, joining many who criticized the anticipated maneuver at a time when major initiatives like the Pittsburgh Promise are being unrolled to counter declining enrollment. Large poster boards touting the Promise and UPMC flanked School Board members during the hearing.

"Schenley outperforms district averages," pointed out Lakin during public comments, "and is the only majority African-American school to do so."

Whereas parents were more likely to dwell on superior academic performance of Schenley High School students, those students themselves tended to focus more on the advantages of diversity. Ellie Tecza spoke passionately about her experiences getting to know students hailing from war-torn countries, insisting that was part of her education she would not have experienced elsewhere.

The term "segregation" came up again and again, particularly when reflecting upon the fate of Hill District students feeding into Schenley who will be reassigned to Milliones School, wheras International Baccalaureate students and Robotics students will be shuffled elsewhere.

"What are they going to do when they go out in the real world?" asked Lakin. "Schenley was the real world."

We got to ask Superintendent Mark Roosevelt whether the cost of repairing the building was as low as many Schenley parents are claiming. Although he placed asbestos remediation costs at "about $10 to $17 million" -- considerably lower than originally reported -- the total cost of repairs would be far higher.

"The damn building was let go," he sighed, explaining that worries asbestos put other necessary repairs on hold. Roosevelt continues to estimate the cost of saving the Schenley building at roughly $70-$80 million.

School district Chief of Operations Paul Gill told us that "the electrical system, plumbing system, ceiling, floor and wall maintenance had been deferred for years."

When we asked whether these challenges were out of line with the many other ancient buildings of the school district, Gill conceded, "that's a good question." Yet he insisted that all the necessary repairs to Schenley would cost, by the latest estimate, $76.2 million.

Rumors also swirled in the gallery that Superintendent Roosevelt was currently entertaining offers from school districts in other cities, going on interviews already. Many were concerned that he would "abandon" the school district in the midst of half-completed reforms.

Roosevelt flatly denied the allegations.

"Not interviewing, not looking elsewhere," Roosevelt assured us. "That's just what some of them would like to see happen."

Monday, May 12, 2008

Monday: Comin At Ya

It's been a long race, getting past financial problems, trying to change corporate disinterest, rejecting dead ends and moving on toward a finish line, but after a five-year absence, the Pittsburgh Marathon likely will return next year. (P-G, Steve Levin)


Before its demise, the marathon had the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as its title sponsor. But UPMC's pulling out of that role following the 2003 event brought an end to the race.

We did not know that.


Of course, this campaign at its heart was always about discrimination. The dead giveaway was the inclusion of language extending the same-sex ban to "the functional equivalent of marriage," which one doesn't have to be an activist judge to interpret as civil unions. Banning civil unions would have nothing to do with preserving the sanctity of marriage. It would have everything to do with a powerful majority imposing its will on a vulnerable minority. (P-G, Edit Board)

Good point.


Barack Obama, Mrs. Clinton's adversary and the media's darling, vaulted to the front of the Democratic primary pack by promising to heal our wounds and mend our divisions. But this man who would transcend America's tragic history of racism had as his pastor and "spiritual adviser" a man of the cloth who preaches racial hatred.

Hypocrisy creates the need for irony, but don't point out this disappointing situation to Mr. Obama's college-aged believers, however, or they will call you, weeping at your cynicism. Sigh.

You take a big step from childhood to adulthood when you realize that things are often not at all what they seem. (P-G, Ruth Ann Daily)

Sigh, indeed.

Does it not matter that Barack Obama publicly and vehemently rejected the offending sentiments, expressing to us all the points of his disagreement with extreme specificity? Are all pro-choice politicians who attend the churches of pro-life pastors also base hypocrites? How about the ones who believe in contraception? There are a multitude of reasons to attend church, or to be part of any particular religious community. To ascribe to Barack Obama one particular set of motives and understandings strikes us as a bit ungenerous.

More importantly -- with this ever-present tone of condescending, wholesale dismissal of the great bulk of Obama supporters -- we are beginning to realize that ageism runs both ways, and is outright approved of in one of them.


Some political insiders believe the relatively pricey fundraiser will line Ravenstahl's campaign coffers to the point where no one will dare challenge him next year, when he has to run for a full term. (Trib, Whisper People)

Other political insiders believe that even a trillion skillion bo-billion dollars won't keep a whole swarm of sharks away from this juicy morsel.

Madonna and Young conclude that Matthews is likely to run. "And if he runs, he will start the race well known, highly motivated and well financed. He deserves to be taken seriously."

Chris Matthews will never be taken seriously. However, being a Democrat and all, we may well wind up voting for him anyway. We would need someone to make Al Franken appear serious.


Applications for more than 250 summer jobs for Pittsburgh residents 14 to 18 are available online at and, or at the Downtown office of the Student Conservation Association, 239 Fourth Ave., Investment Building, Suite 1007. (P-G, Team Effort)

Councilman Burgess has been outspoken in the media touting this endeavor, along with Mayor Ravenstahl.


One last big rally for Schenley High School is being organized to coincide with today's School Board meeting. The cause of Frick Middle School is somehow in the mix as well.

When: Monday, May 12 [today] at 7:00 PM
Where: 341 S. Bellefield Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 (Between 5th and Forbes)

Presumably, they are less concerned with the handsome building than with the actual school inhabiting it.

Editorial: In the Public Interest

"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.

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