Friday, June 13, 2008

On Blogging, Part I of MMDCXXIX

One thing we have noticed among bloggers (at least the political bloggers around here) is an unwavering belief in and reverence for the "organic" nature of their blogs, bordering well past the point of superstition.

With extremely rare exceptions, anything that has been written or committed is fine.

Long, ponderous essays are always just what the doctor ordered when they happen to arrive -- as are bursts of artistic genius, stale and formulaic mass programming, long periods of dead airtime and biting, unnecessary sarcasm. Issues can be championed and then dropped abruptly; we after all must "leave it to the universe from here on out." Old blogs die and new blogs are born.

Bleeding edge, yo. Evolution. Rock and roll.


Case in point was the Pat Ford Post Agenda Series. We envisioned seven volumes, but five will do just fine.

Part I: Introductions, Legalese and Anticipation
Part II: The Problems Surrounding Mr. Specter
Part III: Who's Running Things?
Part IV: Having Fun at Patrick Dowd's Expense
Part V: Pat Ford

To be sure, other conversations occurred during the meeting, but in a way it was all fluff.


Councilwoman Harris got to asking about the saga of the CAPA school sign approval.

Turns out, the city first granted a temporary one-day permit due to the arrival of visiting dignitaries, then a one-month permit, then three months, and only thereafter did it get a permanent permit. No word on when during this Zoning Administrator Pat Ford's unilateral determination that it was an Advertising Sign was vacated in favor of Artwork.

Ms. Harris: And if you do have any information on CAPA in a group of papers there, could I get a copy of it?

Mr. Ford: You would not get a copy of my business log, but I would be sure to have -- you might want to consult your legal counsel and the legal counsel of the school board before you ask me to start sharing information with you that was subject to discussion between me and Ira Weiss and attorneys.

Councilman Dowd would later characterize this to us as McCarthyistic. "I have names. I have names."

Ms. Harris: I'm not asking for the information between you and the attorney, but there was a lot that went on with the school board also at that time.

Mr. Ford: Just take a look at the list that I circulated, and you have everybody that I talked to.

Ms. Harris: I know who you have talked to. I mean, I looked over the list.

Mr. Ford: Would you like to just start randomly going over some of these conversations, Councilwoman? [Ewwww!]

Ms. Harris: Over their conversations?

Mr. Ford: Yes.

Ms. Harris: No, I'm not asking to go over conversations. You said that you brought a number of pieces --

Mr. Ford: All of these are my conversation records going back to 2003 chronologic order, tabulated. So if you wanted to know what I said to Mr. Ira Weiss at 12:30 at August 11, 2003, I could pull that out there, and I could share with you and council what we talked about.

This is where the Internet rumors of Mr. Ford's intense and allegedly damaging hoard of "notes on every conversation he's ever had" got started.

A little later:

Ms. Harris: So you are not circulating the rest of it?

Mr. Ford: I'm not circulating my business logs, no.

Mr. Harris: Is that all business logs?

Mr. Ford: But, I also have correspondence, but that correspondence is related to e-mails that were circulated regarding the 6 for 36 deal, not the CAPA school sign.


Dan Deasy said some fine words about Mr. Ford being a hard-working director, and about the questionable need to bid out rights to remove and capitalize on old billboard stock, in what we would later confirm to be an illegal sign-swapping arrangement, given that Lamar Advertising owns almost all of the existing stock in the city.

Deasy also thanked David Onorato (the Executive Director of the Parking Authority!) for being the kind of guy that was "always in touch with the board members and you let us know what was going on. You negotiated, its sounds like, a good deal on the sign."


Then, He Who Does Not Want To Appear As An Attorney On Television got his turn:

Mr. Dowd: I actually have a large number of questions, most of which are not pertaining directly to this matter. I am curious though, you had made some comments about the CAPA sign, and this was that board for the school system, and I am curious, and maybe that was an important time for city, what did take place in that conversation on August 11, 2003 with Ira Weiss?

This is the example, above, that Pat Ford half-volunteered, seemingly at random, to offer to give to Councilwoman Harris.

Pat Ford drags his big briefcase up on the table.

Button. Button. One strap, other strap. Fiddle fiddle.


Remove. Place. Remove. Place. Unsheathe.

Flip, flip, flip.

A full 30 seconds of physical comedy.

Mr. Ford: What's the date?

Mr. Dowd: August 11, 2003. You also talked with the chief of staff, Tom Cox, at that time.

Mr. Ford: August 11, 2003. What time?

Mr. Dowd: 12:25 for Tom Cox?

Councilman Dowd, you see, had simply picked out conversations during that time frame involving then-Murphy administration Zoning Administrator Pat Ford, Murphy Chief of Staff Tom Cox, and School District Solicitor Ira Weiss.

We would go through voicemails, phone tag, conversations, the outlines of meetings and random inquiries. Here is our fairest possible reassemblage.

Mr. Ford: At 12:30 Ira Weiss, 412-391-9890. "Re: CAPA sign. The administration is having a change in an opinion. I must call Ira Weiss. The discussion should be discrete and confidential. Discussions will be precedence in setting. We won't (sic: want) no advertising, and we have no problem with the changing display of art. The events listed will be okay on the board."

Remember, Zoning Administrator Pat Ford had seen a Coca-Cola advertisement during a test run and interceded to the effect that a permit was necessary. He issued a stop-work order.

Mr. Dowd: 2:15: Ira Weiss, the following day.

Mr. Ford: "2:15, Councilman Gene Ricciardi is interested in preparing an ordinance that will make the sign permissible as originally proposed. Maybe we can split it into art and convenience information. The art is not regulated, and the information will meet the new size requirements proposed by Councilman Ricciardi. The electronic messaging will be permitted by Ricciardi as well, and it is similar to two signs that were already up in the cultural district."

Note to selves: Get Gene Riccardi's take on this.

Meanwhile, temporary permits for the electronic structure (for the benefit of incoming dignitaries) -- would be asked for and granted.

Mr. Ford: "I told Ira that I was attempting to get a ninety-day temporary occupancy permit for the artwork. I will know at the end of the day today, and we will work with a joint motion with George Specter and send it to Specter for review upon his return, and then we will amend the application for 80 square feet convenience information and 520 square feet of art.

Mr. Dowd: And that day you also talked with Tom Cox, and it says, here, "Tom cox, 2:55 p.m., parenthetically secured deal -- exclamation point.

Mr. Ford: Yes. he said -- I told Tom Cox that we have a deal with the school board, and that he told me that take baby -- he said, Pat, take baby steps and he is okay with the temporary occupancy with the sign. However, he wants no advertising.

So at first it would be considered an Advertising Sign on which there were special restrictions to the effect that no advertising would be permitted. This would embolden Lamar Advertising to plead "modernization" and summarily demand 50 or more LED permits from Ford. (After an unknown interval, higher authorities at the Department of City Planning would vacate Ford's unilateral ruling and deem the whole thing Artwork.)

Mr. Dowd: You later talked with Ira Weiss at 3:15.

Mr. Ford: Yes, and I wrote, "I will not require a permit. It is art, if there is no name, numbers or letters. I don't want letters requiring, requesting ninety days for the artwork.

Mr. Dowd: That's enough. Thank you. That's sufficient for now.

Boy was it ever.


Lo, and then Bruce Kraus, city council's fullback, scourge of graffiti artists and champion of civil rights, made allegations and insinuations suggesting that Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko and City Planning Director Noor Ismail must be pushing through this Grant Street Transportation Center permit on orders from URA Director and Ravenstahl administration Development Czar Pat Ford.

Kraus produced administration e-mails and organizations charts and media accounts that seemed to attest to that high probability. What they did was agree to disagree.

Kraus inquired why this was never brought before the board of the Parking Authority. What they did was agree to disagree.

Kraus inquired why legal counsel was never sought or acknowledged to assist in this area of alleged grayness or silence in the city code. What they did was agree to disagree.

Kraus inquired why clear indications of displeasure by the Planning Commission, by Department of City Planning and by the general public, were not heeded over this Lamar billboard, but rather a loophole allowing "minor" amendments to duly approved project development plans was exploited for Lamar's privilege.

What they did was agree to disagree.

Kraus and Ford then would congenially enough discuss Ford's big plans for sweeping structural reform of our city government. Kraus would complain that City Council was being kept out of the loop in all the big excitement, and would bemoan that in this, as in this electronic sign case, nobody was at the table representing the people -- the People! -- of the City of Pittsburgh.

Pat Ford would say something about the plans not being ready for wide circulation yet. (Plans which would soon thereafter be put on hold due to Ford's preemptive media tell-all and temporary self-banishment from city government.)


Next came Shields. Most of it was like this:

Mr. Ford: Right, but I disagree with you, for the record.

Mr. Shields: That's fine. I didn't ask you if you disagree with me. I'm not asking that question.

Mr. Ford: Since it's becoming litigious, I want to make sure --

Mr. Shields: I'm not being litigious.

Mr. Ford: Yes, you are.

Mr. Shields: Excuse me! [This was a bona fide Council President roar.] You are not here to ask me questions or comment on what you think I think. [And we want this on a T-shirt]

Mr. Ford: But I'm here to tell the truth and give my opinion when you give me your question.

Mr. Shields: You know me, Pat, I asked you the question, and your answer was fine, and I got it, and you don't seek precedent to the commission, but you seek precedent elsewhere. You didn't look to the commission for precedence in this particular case. Fine. It's a fact. I'm not being litigious. I'm not suing anyone. I'm asking questions.

They would argue more like this on the laws that were apparently being twisted, stretched or broken to get this LED up, and Shields would wrap up for the moment, but not before Columboing into one more...

Mr. Shields: And how does that square -- have you visited -- just briefly. Hae you visited the Monroeville case at all?

Mr. Ford: No, I have not.

Mr. Shields: That's all I have.


Bill Peduto would say some fine words, and allow Ms. Lubineau of City Planning's Contextual Design Advisory Panel the time to explain why it was that body's belief large-scale electronic advertising surface might not be the best thing for that end of Grant Street. Tonya Payne would voice the opinion of some of her own constituents' that the LED is a great idea.

Patrick Dowd would make some allusions to the need for Councilmatic oversight of the URA, and repeat publicly his fervent desire to see a budget for the organization. Bruce Kraus would reiterate his desires that Council be represented in any negotiations involving governmental streamlining or the like.

Doug Shields got more to the point.

Today this city is embarking on a merger of some sort that we're not privy to between a city department and authority, and I will advise you as executive director, forget it. Don't bother.

And so on. (See? All fluff.)


Reverend Burgess: And I think the last thought is this, we are not just new members of a council. In many ways we are a new council in composition. We are learning. We are growing. We are learning each other. We are learning to function as a body, but I will say that this kind of deliberation I think will be consistent with this council. We are a council that is completely interested in process, in collecting information and are willing to spend time both in the public eye and in private doing due diligence and research and learning information.

And I thought that the information gleaned today was exceptional. It will help us to go forward. I think that this public hearing will also generate other public hearings and other post agenda conversations.

Conversation would die not long after Ravenstahl development czar Pat Ford threw himself at the mercy of the State Ethics commission. Except on the blogs, as of yet.


You may remember that citizen Patrick Dowd filed a protest appeal of the zoning decision with the city Zoning Board, and that Councilmembers Shields, Burgess, Kraus and Peduto joined it. You might also remember that Lamar Advertising sued all five council members for improperly waging a conspiracy, and both sides drew their swords in federal court.

The four interceding councilmen would seek to have their attorneys' fees paid for by the city, since Law Department of the City of Pittsburgh was conflicted and seemingly of little help.

That Law Department would opine that the council members risked forfeiture of their jobs if they pressed ahead and voted on the legislation.

The four would seek a second opinion on the possible conflict of interest and on the consequences of voting about it from who else but the State Ethics commission.

Those four members sent to the commission background information regarding the Lamar litigation at issue, including Pat Ford's and Solicitor Specter's involvement in the issue, the circumstances of Ford's departure, and information regarding other complications that have arisen from Ford's conduct of his many roles in city government.

The State Ethics commission ultimately took a definitive pass on advising council about the vote to pay legal expenses, but as yet has given no indication about the larger issue of presumed investigations into Pat Ford's conduct. Everyone is hoping for a speedy resolution, as Mr. Ford continues to collect on his handsome salary, and the city is being deprived of his vision, expertise and industriousness.

Monday, June 9, 2008


The ordinance before me today is fraught with problems. It provides an unfair competitive advantage for the wealthy and will have a chilling effect on the labor movement. It will inhibit the ability of challengers to mount successful campaigns against incumbents.

Also, Lamar Advertising and Liberty Pacific Media told me they didn't like it.

The title of this bill -- campaign finance reform -- is a common goal that we can work towards. We, however, must recognize that a title alone does not make good reform. I have judged this book not just by its cover, but by its contents and hereby reject it with this veto.

A piecemeal debunking of the Mayor's objections to reform should not be difficult to get across; certainly not while there are a bevy of brilliant examples of cronyism and special favoritism just waiting to be seized upon by resourceful opponents.

In fact, it might be profitable not to dwell as much on defending the bill's supposed drawbacks (and in so doing, waging the dialogue on Ravenstahl's terms), but rather to illustrate the historic nature of gains Pittsburgh could have made against public corruption, and the unprecedented extent of special-interest overreaching now being defended with this veto.

Now. If you egomaniacal chuckleheads can just get it together to settle on a respectable challenger, this will be over before most of us know it.