Friday, June 27, 2008

Interview: Chelsa Wagner

The state budget deadline arrives on July 1, and legislators are scrambling in an attempt to get it done on time this year.

Since this is an issue of limitless interest to the Comet, we decided to place a call in with State Representative Chelsa Wagner at her offices in Harrisburg, to get the inside scoop.

Turns out, she could use the same kind of assistance.

"The whole way the budget is brokered in Harrisburg, it's brokered between about 15 people," she says. "It's ridiculous."

As for the major outstanding points of contention, she believes Democrats may be fighting to raise the limit on capital projects, but even that's just "speculation."

"The budget process is somewhat indicative" of problems with an overly large state government, split between two houses, she says. As another illustration, she has been pushing a bill to reform the Port Authority board, but has discovered it typically takes an incoming legislator literally 7 to 8 years to get motion on a new bill.

"Frankly, I think that's part of the frustration Lisa Bennington came up against," she said, making reference to her fellow freshman representative who, citing disillusionment, announced that she will be bowing out after one term.


So what about that Port Authority?

Right now, the 9 member board is entirely appointed at the County level. Rep. Wagner's bill would reapportion the board such that 5 members come from the state, in recognition of the greater financial outlay the state is making.

Such a split would also lead to "better decision making," citing for example the decision to leave the former office to move Downtown, at significant expense to the Authority, but bringing little or no benefits.

We asked then whether it wouldn't make sense to reserve at least a seat on the board for a city-level appointment, seeing as how the city is the hub of the transportation system and the core of the region. Although she agreed, "I think it would be a great idea," she pointed out that since city government does not contribute financially to the system, it would be a hard argument to sell.

Speaking of the Port Authority, she also remains opposed to the drink tax -- although contends that that formulation is really a misnomer.

"I actually voted against the transportation bill. What was clear to me was that was never about the transportation bill, was never about the Port Authority," she says. "Why does a $1 million shortfall [in the budget] require a $30 million tax?"

Going so far as to call the connection between the drink tax and public transportation "deceptive," she also contends that the drink tax is the wrong tax for the region.

"As a young official, I don't think you want to portray that image," going after an industry that actually makes us "vibrant" and attractive.


As to city issues, we asked if there will be any aid forthcoming from the state to address our financial challenges, considering that every local pol is pleading with Harrisburg to deliver more relief in one way or another.

"I think the City is in a better position right now, but there's still a lot of noise" about unfunded pension liabilities, says Wagner, which are the bigger concern.

Surprisingly, when asked whether she would be in favor of amending Act 55, she suggested that it actually "does not preclude the city or the county from taxing nonprofits," if you read the fine print.

"I think the number one thing that sticks out" about our situation "is there's no unified financial system for city government. You can't say what it costs." Wagner would push to put all the authorities and everything else on one concurrent financial system.

"If you want to be cynical about it, it's kind of a shell game," she contends, citing as an example the ability to move City Planning positions to the Urban Redevelopment Authority -- and then poof, the financial outlook for the City looks better on paper.

"One thing I've learned in this position is to be very skeptical of how numbers are presented," she said -- and she waded for a moment into the Schenley High School debate.

Wagner mentioned that she was placing a call in to Superintendent Mark Roosevelt to make some inquiries and do a little light lobbying; obviously it was to no avail.

"I think the arguments that it's bricks and mortar is kind of a miss," she argues. Although not a Schenley graduate herself, her friends attended the historic high school and she "desperately" wanted to join them, but her parents had a Catholic education in mind for her instead.


So what about this city-county merger? Is it a potential solution for these financial woes?

"We don't know very much about this proposal," Wagner points out. "The Nordenberg Report is very vague, almost intentionally vague." She calls it more of a marketing report.

"What advantage does it provide city residents? Right now, I only see disadvantages."

Wagner is on board with some of the preliminary recommendations in the report -- a purchasing compact between the city and the county, and the merging of some services. That would be a "real functional kind of regionalism."

She cites city and county detectives as one example, complaining that city residents are right now "paying double" for the same services as other county residents.

So can we expect to confront this question as a ballot referendum anytime soon, as some city and county officials are pushing for?

"No, not at this point, I wouldn't think that many of my colleagues would support it." A referendum for the merger would require enabling legislation at the state level.

"Right now it would go to a pretty open-ended referendum," and she doubts the state would be up for that. Basically, she describes a scenario in which voters are asked approve a merger of some kind, and to empower the mayor and the county executive to hash out the details down the road. This is a big pill for other stakeholders to swallow.


So can we expect anything from our ponderous, oftentimes difficult state government?

Surprisingly, yes. Maybe.

Campaign finance reform, of all things, is coming up for hearings in Harrisburg in the fall. Her colleague David Levdansky, Democrat of Washington and Allegheny County, is proposing legislation that includes spending limits that are actually more stringent than those narrowly approved by Pittsburgh City Council.

What did Rep. Wagner think of that legislation?

"I thought it was fair. I'd like to have seen it enacted." She didn't think the objections raised by opponents of the legislation held a lot of water, for reasons commonly discussed.

"There's really nothing you can do about that" constitutionally, she said of millionaires self-financing their own campaigns, for example, pointing out that they can just as easily do so right now.


Finally, we asked Chelsa Wagner the same question that Diana Fisher did. We got the same answer, of which we had roughly the same impressions as did our fellow analyst Bill Green.

Friday: Playing with Fire

"It's a point of stability on the street," said Nick Daemous, an antiques dealer who lives across the street from station No. 35, which would see its pumper moved to Marshall-Shadeland under a new plan. "The situation in this neighborhood would be significantly worse if the firehouse wasn't there." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Stop being so emotional. This is about economics and managing decline. That firehouse is crawling with asbestos anyway. It should have been closed years ago!

On Orchlee Street, Marcia Brown hoped the city takes its time, and leaves the station a few houses away open.

"We need them up here, because they're the best," she said as her kids splashed in a front yard pool. "They're always on time."

Always on time for what, Marcia?


The next motion was to approve a $16.9 million dollar loan from Fannie Mae for phase 1 & 2 of the Garfield Heights project. This is the same project that ex HACP Board Chairman Pat Ford claims is bad. Hopefully Ford is singing like a bird to Michael Lamb and his auditors in his office. (Pittsburgh Hoagie)

We don't understand any of this Housing Authority jazz, we're just passing this along. Didn't Our Hero also claim to have reported some major outrages to the District Attorney before he went on the lamb (no pun intended)?

Two, when Councilman Peduto attempted to discuss section 513 of the City Charter -- the provision that explicitly allows for council to take the action that they did -- Specter quickly changed subjects and Patrick Dowd jumped in to distract the discussion. (The Burgher)

We only caught bits and pieces of this council session on the City Channel. Does this sound accurate to anybody else? Because Section 513 does read an awful lot like it vindicates, at least legally, what the Lamar Four are trying to do.

While that is going on, the media is catching on that the Majestic Star financing mystery may be reaching its climax. I will just point back to what I said in some previous posts 1) Don Barden and Gary and 2) Where in the (financial) world is the Majestic Star. To me the key question is not whether he gets his financing or not. I wonder whether the interest rates he appears to be forced into at this point make the casino a viable business venture no matter. Nobody has really looked at that in depth. (Null Space)

There is a two-thirds baked theory out there that the Riverlife Task Force et al (emphasis on the et al) were being obstructive during the approvals process precisely so that Barden would encounter these predictable financial difficulties, and be forced to sell a sizable chunk of the casino to their own politically connected chums at Harrah's. If this was actually the case, they may have overshot the mark, eh?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Some Days, You Win. Some Days, You Lose. Some Days, It Rains.

Voting to close Schenley were board members Heather Arnet, Theresa Colaizzi, Jean Fink, Floyd McCrea and President Bill Isler. Voting no were Mark Brentley Sr., Sherry Hazuda, Thomas Sumpter and Randall Taylor. (P-G, Joe Smydo)


"The closing and the destruction of Schenley High School -- the public's not going to forget this," said Mr. Taylor.



Plans for a supermarket in the Hill District that would include a pharmacy, dry cleaner drop-off service, bakery, deli and flower kiosk were announced Wednesday.

McCormack Baron Salazar, which developed Crawford Square in the Lower Hill, is proposing a 50,000-square-foot, full-service Kuhn's Market. (Trib, Bonnie Pfister)

We don't want to jump the gun or speak out of turn, but this is finally sounding like just the thing for Pittsburgh's Hill District -- in one of several critical areas of neighborhood needs, anyway.

Details on what type of assistance the developers will seek from the URA were not available.

So this must be separate from the $2 million in grocery store "seed money" that was being offered by the URA and the Penguins as part of a Community Benefits Agreement.

Oh, yeah. What ever happened to the Community Benefits Agreement? Remember, the one that our politicians celebrated as nearly complete the day our Planning Commission met to green-light the Penguins arena in January, promptly and utterly forgot for a full three months, revived again suddenly just two days after our city development czar got into a wee bit of trouble, prevailed upon One Hill to painstakingly ratify about six weeks ago, and allowed to remain unsigned and unrecognized by the City, the County and the Pens ever since?

There is so much we've been meaning to discuss...


The decimation of fire prevention and education, decrepitude of stations, and overstaffing in some areas and overwork in others that TriData encountered could lead to suggestions for station mergers and upgrades, restorations of some jobs, and transfer of a few duties from the paramedics to the firefighters.

The plan could generate friction with unions. (P-G, Rich Lord)

That's why we respectfully disagree with the headline. Prove us wrong, Pittsburgh.


It's nice to know you can write a column for the Post-Gazette while being stoned out of your ever-lovin' wits (P-G, Ruth Ann Daily).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shields & Dowd Finally Discuss Lamar Legal Fees

The Pittsburgh Comet has exclusive footage:

P-G: Council tentatively approves paying legal bills
Trib: Council says taxpayers should pick up legal bill
KDKA: City Council votes to pay controversial legal bill

"I don't care if it's one dollar. We can't just dismiss this concept of [not] using city funds for private purposes," [Dowd] said.

Huh? The council members were defending their obligation under the Code to represent their constituents on zoning matters that clearly fall under the Conditional Uses category -- and were doing so in the pointed absence of any assistance from the city Law Department. No one has yet alleged what the council members "personally" stand to gain from any of this.

Mr. Shields suggested that [Mr. Dowd] was a "straw man" for Lamar throughout the billboard battle.

Unlikely. If anything, Mr. Dowd was acting as a straw man for himself and his own position as the Lone Ranger in the legal dispute against Lamar et al. Aesthetically and even tactically, he may have a point that it would have been preferable to handle the protest appeal as a private matter, with a humble attorney and no legal pyrotechnics -- but that is his own judgement call. That is very different from saying, "You are raiding the public purse for your own benefit, and you ought to be barred from considering it."

We Must Burn the School District in Order to Save It!

It is crucial for the district to move forward with its courageous and visionary plans for high school excellence that the individuals and families who have spoken out on this topic know that this administration and school board have heard their concerns and will address them. (P-G, Heather Arnet)

When describing proposed education reforms or the personalities driving them, why is it always necessary to use language more frequently associated with World War II veterans and New York City fire fighters?

At any rate, this op-ed may bury Schenley High School forever.

Read this next, and weep (P-G, Jake Oresick), and ask yourselves one last time whether the closure of this civic phenomenon will somehow benefit the District and the City.

Your Comet editor / author attended not Schenley, but Taylor Allderdice. I will be the first to tell you, if they tried to close Allderdice, we would be sad -- and instead of organizing and letter-writing and attending meeting upon hearing upon workshop, we would instead be channeling our energies into throwing the biggest, most debauched farewell party you have ever seen.

Allderdice is a good example of a school that is successful because of teachers and programs -- but Community? Inclusiveness? School spirit? Forget about it. We have fonder memories of Bagel Nosh than we do of time spent in the actual building. We would party, and we would watch it burn. You can take it to the bank.


Here is the whip count from the Trib's Bill Zlatos:

The vote promises to be close. Board members Randall Taylor, Mark Brentley Sr. and Sherry Hazuda said Tuesday they will vote against closing the school. Members Jean Fink and Theresa Colaizzi said they will vote for closing the school, and Board President William Isler hinted that he would vote to close the school, without specifically saying so.

Board member Floyd McCrea said he is unsure how he will vote, and two other members -- Heather Arnet and Thomas Sumpter -- did not return numerous phone calls.

We had high hopes that newcomers Hazuda and Arnet together would further elevate the May 2007 primary election as a watershed moment for progressivism and far-sighted government -- but it appears from today's op-ed that the latter may have absorbed some of her predecessor's penchant for triangulation and institutional mollification.

One more thing struck us about Arnet's piece:

The new superintendent therefore was charged with a Herculean task; steer the district back to financial health while increasing student achievement. Three years into Mr. Roosevelt's tenure, the district is stronger financially and more money is being invested in academic improvement.

We have two honest questions. Firstly, how precisely is this "more money" being invested? More teachers? Better teachers? More modern equipment? Standardized workbooks and prefabricated syllabuses?

Secondly, and on a related note -- how long will be long enough to fairly begin holding the new regime accountable not for "more money being invested", but for actual improvements in student achievement? Because inevitably, at some point, we have a duty to tie these orgiastic visions of excellence down to real-life standards.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Conflicted Council Members Cast Votes on Legal Fees, Forfeit Offices in Disgrace

Mr. Shields, Mr. Peduto, Mr. Kraus, Councilwoman Tonya Payne and Councilwoman Darlene Harris voted to bring the invoice back for consideration. Voting no were Dan Deasy, Patrick Dowd and Jim Motznik. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Shields, Kraus, and Peduto (telecommuting apparently from a Turkish opium den) were among the four council members who incurred the debt by hiring attorney Hugh McGough to represent them allegedly "in their official capacities" in a protest of the advertising sign permit issued for the Grant Street Transportation Center.

The three voted to un-table the measure despite the fact that in May, Assistant City Solicitor Kate DeSimone warned against even discussing it.

The response, from Ms. DeSimone, bluntly said: "We caution that a conflict of interest has already occurred in this matter. The course urged here will not eradicate the conflict, but it may lessen the likelihood that someone will file an action seeking to invoke the forfeiture provision."

According to the opinion, conflicts occurred when the members introduced the bill, failed to disclose their conflict of interest, participated in the discussion and participated in the vote.

"The home rule charter spells out a truly draconian penalty for the violation," the opinion stated. " 'Members of council who violate any of the above provisions shall immediately forfeit their office.' Unfortunately, the penalty provision is applicable here." (Link)

The Comet presumes that special elections will be held for the three vacant council seats in November. Jeff Koch is in a strong position to retake the seat he lost to Bruce Kraus; the fate of the other two seats is as yet unclear.

Former Council President Douglas Shields relied upon an opinion solicited from yet another alien source, attorney Marvin Fein of Squirrel Hill.

Mr. Fein of Squirrel Hill argued that legal precedent dictates that only the State Senate would be empowered to remove the offending councilmen after hearings and a 2/3 vote. He further argued that Pittsburgh City Council regularly deliberates upon whether or not to cover invoiced expenses after the fact.

Finally, he argued that the four councilmen are not conflicted on the matter at all.

The reason that the permit issuance became the subject of litigation was because Councilman Patrick Dowd, individually, filed an appeal with the Zoning Board days before the appeal period would have expired. Councilman Dowd does not live downtown nor does he represent that district of the City. He did not have standing to file that appeal individually ... On the last day for filing an appeal with the Zoning Board, Councilmen Douglas Shields, William Peduto, Ricky Burgess and Bruce Kraus all filed an appeal which was consolidated with Councilman Dowd's appeal. Like Councilman Dowd, none of those four councilmen lives in or represents the downtown area of Pittsburgh. The only way that the five councilmen had standing under Council of Pittsburgh ... was if the parties to the litigation before the Zoning Board treated the five councilmen as representing City Council.

The present City Solicitor represented the City of Pittsburgh in the Council of Pittsburgh case before the Commonwealth Court and had to be aware of the standing ruling in that case. Yet he did not characterize the councilmen as acting individually before the Zoning Board nor did he attempt to dismiss any of the members of Council for lack of standing. Further their appeal was treated as an appeal by Council before the Zoning Board.

Thus, the City Solicitor does not have a basis for now saying that the council members hired counsel as individuals or acted before the Zoning Board as individuals when he never raised that issue before the Board and allowed them to participate in the only capacity in which they had standing, as Council. (Busman; emphasis ours)

Nonetheless, the opinion by Mr. Fein, whose offices are in Squirrel Hill, cannot possibly be as thorough, nor carry the same weight, as the official opinion issued by the City's own Law Department -- which enjoys the benefits of a large professional staff, access to specialized city resources, and direct supervision by mayoral chief of staff Yarone Zober.

In recognition of this, not all the conflicted council members threw away their offices so foolishly today:

Mr. Burgess did not vote. Because of the solicitor's opinion, "I cannot and will not put my council seat in jeopardy. I will recuse myself. I will not remain in the chamber today or in the future while this bill is being discussed," he said.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Preserving Schenley: The Prudent Choice

That, of course, only opens him to evermore imaginative conspiracy theories for "wanting'' to close Schenley. (P-G, Brian O'Neill)

You see what Our Columnist did there. He put little scare-quotes up around wanting, in order to illustrate to his readers the patent absurdity of Our Superintendent, any superintendent, actually desiring to close a successful school like Schenley. How cynical of us even for suggesting it.

Thing is, that is what Mr. Roosevelt told us quite clearly.

Maybe not in so many words. Yet several weeks ago, when Mr. Roosevelt made his presentation, his pitch, his final recommendation to the School Board in favor of permanently closing Schenley, he did not begin with the dispiriting $76 million price tag for building repairs (which is now under heated dispute) or the extrapolation to an addition $7 million burden of debt financing over the next 20 years (which, being based on the $76 million figure, closure proponents do not seem to think renovation proponents will notice is subject to the exact same dispute, no matter how many "teachers" this is supposed to equal.)

No, Mr. Roosevelt began his pitch with an assertion that today's discriminating parents do not want "old, comprehensive" high schools -- do not want schools that teach math, literature, music and science with the same rigor, and teach students of different abilities and backgrounds with the same forthright confidence. Today's parent's demand choice -- they want to be able to choose while their students are in 8th grade, or even in 5th grade, whether little Sally is destined to be a chemist or a sculptor, and to liberate her from whatever or whomever it might be that would hold them back from that destiny.

It was odd that Mr. Roosevelt did not seem to acknowledge the possibility that some parents, many parents, were in fact that very day demanding the freedom to choose Schenley, and to choose comprehensive education for many reasons that should be obvious -- for the social enrichment, the expansive education, and the ability to let little Sally choose her own career path once she has been prepared and exposed to the lot of them.

For even as he segwayed into the numbers that would comprise the heart of his presentation -- the data, the cold, unyielding data about building renovation that he was keen to insist underlied his proposal-- Roosevelt did not present a bit or a byte of data to support his assertions about what the Parents of the Future will demand.

If there is cynicism in the ranks, this is a big part of where it comes from. Somehow, the closure of Schenley is explicitly and avowedly tied up in high school reform -- in the need to transform the District forward into the future -- but into what? And why? When will it be discussed? When will the School Board get to cast votes on this basis?

We can be relied upon to debate saving our children from dying of cancer. Yet ever since the real facts about the imminence of the asbestos threat at Schenley have gotten around, we do not hear much about that anymore.

We can be relied upon to debate saving ourselves from massive tax increases. Yet ask to pick through the budget and see how much a modest, safe, "spartan" renovation would actually cost -- or try to start a conversation about how else it can be paid for -- and we are told we are being "preposterous." We are either going to fix this school right, or we're not going to fix it at all -- so we're not going to fix it at all.

Mr. Roosevelt will appoint a citizens group to decide what to do with the 320,000-square-foot building so that he's as far away from the end result for Schenley as possible.

We can be relied upon to debate what to do with an abandoned lot. In fact, would we please go ahead and make that decision ourselves, because the obvious result if the administration determined the outcome for us would be politically, ah -- unfortunate.


Yet we the people cannot be relied upon to determine the course of high school education into the future. We are too parochial and sentimental for that.

Point out that high ceilings, plentiful sunlight and natural ventilation lead to better academic performance, and suddenly "data" is quaint and not all that important.

Point out that investing in sturdy, superior build stock is more affordable in the long run than pouring money into newer, cheaper buildings, and suddenly long-term fiscal prudence itself is not all that important.

Point out that splitting asunder a successfully and joyously integrated public high school, which happens to be the best-performing majority African-American school in Pittsburgh, in such a way that the black students are shunted into two comparatively dismally performing schools, segregated from their more affluent classmates and from the rich cultural opportunities in Oakland -- suggest that this may be unAmerican on its face -- and you are being parochial and sentimental all over again.

Mr. Roosevelt ended his presentation that day by going back to the big picture -- the one that had seemingly little to do with data and evidence -- by putting up a slide with a quote.
"We should not fear change, because change is the future, and the future is bright." Or something like that. We are paraphrasing. It was designed to convey that those who want to keep Schenley open are not being very forward-thinking at all.

If we were invited to think about the future, we would. If we were invited to look at some data about what efficient, effective high schools will be in the future, and how best to educate our children, that would be a joy compared to this. Yet that subject never seems to come up. Instead, we are asked to debate things based on our fears, and are informed that the future is rather just out there. Somewhere.

We are reminded of a familiar refrain that Barack Obama supporters used in response to suggestions of their sexism during the Democratic primary. "We're ready for a female president," they would protest, "just not this one!"

With Schenley advocates, it is the same way with change. We are ready for change. We are ready for schools to close, for students to be moved, and for traditions to end. Just not this one.

We appreciate Superintendent Roosevelt, we really do. We appreciate his vision, his focus, his determination, and the way he is challenging us to unglue ourselves for our past. However, superintendents are not ultimately in charge of School District policy, and that is wisdom. Mr. Roosevelt should be grateful for guidance from this board and from this active and concerned City. How else, but through such dialectic, will superior school policy evolve?

Our School Board should apply the brakes to this closure of Schenley High School, and it should initiate a forthright public discussion on where Pittsburgh Public Schools are headed -- bringing forth all manner of evidence as to how we might determine its shape, and how we can best satisfy the wishes and aspirations of every kind of family.

Loading, plus Appetizers...

The reorganization leaves public works with 38 people at the supervisor level or above. Some of them are in positions not funded in the city's budget, but Mr. Victor said the city shifted money from vacant positions to cover them. (P-G, Rich Lord)

38 supervisors. The Comet is not involved with anything that's not political ... but somehow that seems like a lot.

"The City Solicitor did not have a legal basis to preclude Council from discussing or voting" on the bill, Mr. Fein wrote, nor for "threatening them with forfeiture of office." (P-G, Rich Lord)

1. How are we going to pay Mr. Fein for his services in this regard?

2. Didn't this little kerfuffle stem from some ca-raaaaazy situation involving a development official, a planning department, a law department and a mayor all going out of their way to act as inside agents for some advertising company, which was frustrated by previous court rulings and seeking to make end-runs around the law? Is anyone actually following up on that?