Thursday, October 2, 2008

Thursday: It's Called Follow-Through

Pittsburgh's acting building inspection chief submitted his letter of resignation Wednesday, about a year after his predecessor was fired in a staff shake-up. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

This seems to be a troubled position.

Cipriani recently has overseen a building code enforcement crackdown on negligent landlords, particularly in Oakland where derelict student housing has created dangerous living conditions for the neighborhood's many college students.

On Sept. 17, Cipriani accompanied Ravenstahl and other city officials in a "code walk" through Bloomfield.

One of Bill Peduto's cronies complained to us some time ago that the press is never going to follow up on the results of Ravenstahl's spate of neighborhood crackdown tours -- each one meriting its own front-page articles with the giant color photographs of the mayor pointing and walking with rolled up sleeves and tough talk and Diana Nelson Jones treatments and things of this nature.

Maybe this will spark some follow-up. Like we indicated, there may be pressures impacting the work of the Bureau of Building Inspection -- though this may be yet another generic manifestation of things bouncing around and getting lost in the shuffle.


The City Paper takes a dim view of the newly announced Pittsburgh Contracting Best Practices Commission, likening it to one of those blue-ribbon do-nothing Presidential commissions, and adding that it seems like a stall tactic. (LINK)

414 Grant Street take an even dimmer view. (LINK)

The Angry Drunk Bureaucrat goes dim but funny. (LINK)

Progress Pittsburgh: Dim but short and to the point. (LINK)


Tom Barnes or maybe Timothy McNulty go all-out trying to get us jazzed up about state politics (of all bizarre topics) at Early Returns.

Why? Because state revenues aren't rolling in the way state legislators and Gov. Ed Rendell had hoped back in July, when they adopted the 2008-09 state budget. According to a hot-off-the-press report by the state Revenue Department, and reported on in today's Post-Gazette by the ever-alert Tracie Mauriello, state revenues are down for the third straight month in this fiscal year.

Okay, interest piqued. When some of the colorful characters in Harrisburg start going at it like the cast of Telemundo, please let us know.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Blogjammin' the Vice Presidential Debate

Yes yes y'all, the Pittsburgh Comet will be taking part in the Post-Gazette's multiple bloggers blogging at the same time extravaganza tomorrow evening, hosted at Early Returns.

Now as you watch Joe Biden and Sarah Palin go at it on CNN -- which is electing to broadcast debates via a split screen with six pundit "scorecards" framing both sides and a focus-group reaction graph scrolling along the lower third of the screen -- you can glance down at your computer to see what us brilliant yinzers are saying about it. Who needs to think for themselves?

This is the vice presidential debate after all -- so you know neither candidate will be allowed to do so. Both of them, because of their respective foibles, will be kept on shorter leashes than a pit bull in an intensive care unit, though either one is liable to break those chains like King Kong at a banana factory. I'm Dan Rather.

We're not clear how this will work, actually. We know we're supposed to type info-taining data into our keyboard an hit the Enter key. We do know we have been asked to write a short bio to describe ourselves to the P-G audience. You can vote if you'd like.

Bram Reichbaum blogs about local politics and policy on The Pittsburgh Comet, and he is also a regular contributor on the Burgh Report. According to the city's Director of Information Systems, blogs are "untrusted web sites" that can transmit viruses which can "knock out the whole city." That is an apt description of what Bram tries to do on a daily basis.

Bram Reichbaum blogs about local politics and policy on The Pittsburgh Comet, and he is also a regular contributor on the Burgh Report. He embraces -- when he should resist -- fragmentation of media and perspective, of philosophy and ideology, that allows us to consume only news and opinion that we like, and to ignore or dismiss any we do not, so that we perceive reality only as it fits our long-held beliefs.

Bram Reichbaum is a whore who will provide free written or audiovisual content to any outlet in exchange for the merest whiff of greater exposure. However, as whores go, you've had far worse.

You can sample previous Pittsburgh Comet liveblogging exercises here, here, here, here, and here. And just for good measure, let's say here.

We are confident that the P-G's innovative format will make all previous liveblogging expeditions Palin comparison. We are Biden our time in eager anticipation. Remember to stop by and get an Ifill of what Blogjammin' looks like.

Wednesday: I Feel the Earth. Move.

Here's an interesting dynamic that we just learned about:

A lot of people seem to be talking down any likelihood of anybody conceivably unseating Luke Ravenstahl in 2009 because a surprising number of them fancy themselves the one who ought to be challenging Luke Ravenstahl in 2009.

That's all great fun, but if all the potential challengers play this game long enough, they are likely to end up psyching each other and everybody else out equally. And then no one actually runs against him.

That would be a very Luke Ravenstahl thing to happen to Luke Ravenstahl.


So if anyone happens to be collecting stories of city initiatives that get kicked off to great fanfare but are never executed, here is another one. (P-G, Rich Lord)

"We're very close," said Public Safety Director Michael Huss, attributing the delay to the challenges of hiring clerks and preparing Web pages.

Bill Peduto sounds critical. Darlene Harris sounds confused. Jim Motznik (even) sounds disconcerted.

"It's gone on longer than I wanted it to," said Mr. Huss. "Internally, it kind of got bounced around."

I told the same thing to my 7th grade English teacher all the time. I should have thought to get my Public Safety Director to say it for me.


Maintaining that there's no problem with the way the city awards contracts, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced yesterday the creation of a panel to bring in the best governmental practices. (P-G, Rich Lord)

"Maintaining that there's no problem" isn't going to fly with anyone, but openly acknowledging the existence of these kinds of "problems" is a little too much to ask of anybody.

"Mr. Mayor, have you been a dirty politician?"

"To a degree, yes, but not nearly as dirty as people are saying. However, this effort will help me to become more ethical more of the time."

Patrick Dowd and Ricky Burgess were appointed to Ravenstahl's panel, which is as good an indication of what's going on dahn City Hall as anything.

Kraus, Peduto and Shields obviously were not named for fear they would politicize the thing up too badly. Deasy, Harris, Motznik and Payne were not named because -- why? The mayor feels they would not be perceived as credible?

The political opportunities for Dowd and Burgess should be obvious -- they can be seen to help reform city government, and they should find the Mayor even more likely to support their own agendas.

There are also political risks. What if the board is demonstrated to be ineffective? What if it can only manage to provide a veneer of cover for ongoing political self-dealing in city contracting? What if, in the fullness of time, it is used to justify maneuvers with which the council members would not like to be associated?

The best move these two can make might be to take an increasingly vocal, hard-line stance on that panel -- towards not only transparency but extending to other forms of contracting regulation, until they get booted from that board at the Mayor's discretion at some later date. It's not like it's an Authority board position, or anything of significant value.

"Contractors should be required to disclose any relationships that they have with representatives, or lobbyists, or people who are helping them get business with the city," suggested Controller Michael Lamb, who was not named to the panel.

Sounds almost as though Mr. Lamb feels he should be on the panel. It's not much of an intergovernmental effort. Everyone on the panel has motivation to be deferential to the Mayor.

At any rate, the Trib and Jeremy Boren captures things precisely in their lead paragraph. That is in fact the news.


It's kind of a must-read post, if property taxes and basic fairness mean anything to you. (Pgh Is A City)

Yes yes yes. We are inviting pastors to snitch. Can we start doing so real quiet-like??? Maybe starting right now? (P-G, Edit Board)

More whittling away. (Trib, Tim Puko)

When exactly did ACORN become Al-Qaeda in America? (Trib, Edit Board, and every other right-of-center human being in the country)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tuesday: More On Crime

Churches "will be asked, for example, to volunteer a lot of information up front, to communicate with our Police Bureau on identifying and coming up with the gangs, organizations, et cetera, ... so we'll have a good gauge of who these criminals are in our communities," Mr. Ravenstahl said, after honoring 18 faith-based organizations that joined his 52 Weeks of Peace effort. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Oh, right. We remember the press conferences. How did that go?

That effort had churches host anti-violence presentations for youth and encourage their members to anonymously report crime tips. Mr. Ravenstahl said that getting the organizations involved with law enforcement resulted in an increase in the number of anonymous tips, but had no statistics to back that up.

The effort didn't lead to a placid year. The city's 58th and 59th murders took place on Sunday, keeping it on pace to outstrip the decade's worst year -- 2003, when 74 were killed. The record is 83 slayings in 1993.

Didn't we just receive something from the mayor's press office about crime being at a 40 year historic low? Did anyone get any statistics to back that up?

Thank goodness (and the council representative of District 9) that something more palpable than the same tired old expressions of outrage and concern finally seems to be on the way.

"We're terribly concerned by the recent spike in violence," said Mr. Ravenstahl. "It's unacceptable. It has to change."


I know. I know! It must sound like an unending, one-sided drum beat. But does this Mayor have any notches in his belt?


Be that as it may, just because the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime sounds good to people like me and likely you, that does not mean it is playing so great everywhere. Not even among some of the constituents of the aforementioned rep from District 9.

Rashad Byrdsong, founder of the nonprofit Community Empowerment Association in Homewood, said access to jobs and affordable housing, not more aggressive policing, is what will stem violence in predominantly black neighborhoods.

He said programs like Operation Ceasefire are a "quick fix" to quell gang violence that won't last.

"It's a Band-Aid. They're using a broad brush to get young people into a gang database," he said. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Hard to imagine how more knowledge about the problem is a bad thing.

Frankly, it's also a little hard to turn up one's nose at a real life "quick fix", so long as "more aggressive policing" means more aggressive appropriate policing of prosecutable offenses, not more indiscriminate brutality -- as Byrdsong's terminology might suggest.

My understanding is that the community, as part of its end of the bargain under such plans, is to speak up vociferously if and when the cops do screw up their end of the bargain. The theory is that with better knowledge of the criminal landscape, and with more structured interaction with the community, there should be less screw ups.

Judith K. Ginyard, a real estate broker and mother of two, said a lack of jobs for the unskilled is the biggest reason that some turn to crime.

"That's really the biggest issue -- that it's very hard to earn money here in Pittsburgh," said Ginyard, of Homewood. "And when you're unable to provide for yourself and receive a decent salary, you're not able to purchase your basic goods and services. It's a domino effect."

That sentiment is huge -- that crime prevention is less about policing than providing opportunity. We have a lot of sympathy with it, though many who hear it persist in regarding it as a demand for a handout.

There should be more resources available for job training and job placement. Businesses themselves get repeated and truly massive handouts from the URA and other agencies because we so dearly need to spark large-scale economic activity; why is there no money available to spark individual economic activity?

Unfortunately, there are not a ton of jobs to be had in Pittsburgh (as we'll get to in a moment), and some of that can be traced to there being no place to work within these very communities. Businesses will not locate to these large swaths of Pittsburgh until crime goes down and stabilizes that way.

It's kind of a chicken and the egg thing -- but if a "Band-Aid" can help move us toward a prosperous chicken coop, I'm optimistic about it.


These could be the first in a whole new genre of stories about how local political leaders are trying to help us weather the storm -- or the End Times -- whatever it is we're weathering. Before long, the skill of "relating to the struggles of hard working families" will be at a premium at every level. (P-G, Mark Belko; P-G David Guo)

Schultzy points out that it's all Altmire's and Murphy's fault. (Burgh Report)

Our Acquaintance is a little more politically liberated to prosecute whomsoever she might deem appropriate. (Trib, Jason Cato)

Telling you. Restoring street grids is the new black. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

Until the city boldly rebrands itself by changing its name, nothing will help in terms of tourism -- not the biggest, greenest, shiniest, swoopiest, collapsingest convention center in the world. Or an adjacent hotel. More on this point eventually. (P-G Edit Board)

Monday, September 29, 2008

That Serendipitous Digital Billboard Proposal

A draft plan by California-based consultant The Active Network, picked by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration in January 2007, calls for a new network of electronic signs -- among other things -- to bring millions of dollars to the city. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Utilizing our Rich Lord Secret Decoder Ring, our very first question is whether The Active Network indeed suggested this plan involving more electronic billboards, or if the administration suggested to The Active Network that it suggest this plan to the administration.

Our second question is whether The Active Network has done anything else whatsoever for us since this extremely ancient Comet post of almost two whole years ago.

The Active Network started work in January [of '08]. A month later, news broke that Lamar Advertising got approval for a 1,098-square-foot digital billboard, Downtown.

We're getting mixed signals from the Decoder Ring on that tidbit.

That approval -- granted without public hearings or votes, later revoked, and now the subject of a zoning fight -- led to the resignation of Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford and calls by some for state or federal investigations.

Nonetheless, the first plank in The Active Network's plan, floated to officials this month, is signage.

Never mind, now the dang thing is going berserk. This seems like A Curiously Active Network indeed.

Some city officials are leery of over-saturation, especially in parks.
"If [any] advertising would be involved, it has to be in an area where the public would expect to see it," said Planning Director Noor Ismail. A logo on a basketball court may be O.K., but a soft drink ad at a playground might not.

I don't ever expect to see a digital advertising billboard, personally. Every time I see one outside of the Cultural District and promoting something other than cultural events, I am surprised. Surprised and dismayed.

Now, that's just me, but that brings me to my third and perhaps largest question: what is being suggested sounds vaguely reminiscent of the "6 for 36 Deal" and the Memorandum of Understanding all over again.

We have ordinances. We have a zoning code. We have a process for determining where and under what circumstances ... yada yada yada. What is being proposed here precisely? We trust someone will reassure us soon that we're not going down the rabbit hole again.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ravenstahl was just interviewed on WDUQ in regards to the grand opening of the Grant Street Transportation Center. Apparently, it's exciting because it's on a boring street corner where "nothing was ever really going on," and now the building can be the gateway to the Strip District and be really exciting.

(Maybe you had to be there to see why that's a little humorous).

Monday: Shock Therapy

Norman Harrison (sic) fears Hill District landmarks like the Crawford Grill and the Granada Theater might eventually fall prey to a wrecking ball.

"The Crawford Grill is like Stonehenge or the Blarney Stone. It's a shrine," said Harrison of Shadyside, a retired clinical psychologist who was among 40 "Heroes of the Hill" (sic) recognized Saturday at the Build the Hill community conference. (Trib, Rick Willis)

A fundamental point of contention during the movement towards the Community Benefits Agreement conjoined with the erection of the new Penguins arena was whether and how to address the root shock suffered when the neighborhood was decimated during 1960's "urban renewal", and further aggravated by riots sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Did the Penguins "owe" the Hill District community for affronts in the past? Did the City of Pittsburgh? Did the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority? If "owe" is not the right word, was there any special moral obligation entailed in this next arena-induced neighborhood transformation?

If obligations or imperatives do exist, how best to address them? Job guarantees? Economic empowerment? Strategic reinvestment? Creative city planning?

Are we trying to heal wounds? Are we trying to manage trauma? Or is redemption of any kind an illusion -- will it be enough to avoid "repeating the mistakes of the past" and move forward with new development? (It's a serious question.)

One concrete thing to consider is to what extent does the CBA that is now all but fully ratified enable, facilitate or encourage the kinds of things which will address the specific historic malady of Pittsburgh's Hill District.

It is one thing to arrange for a tranche of public benefits to justify public subsidies, or even for public rights-of-way and considerations. It is another thing diagnose a specific problem and prescribe an appropriate remedy.

It is also interesting to consider (and hard to avoid noting) that this Build the Hill conference seemed to be organized by folks more associated with the Hill Faith & Justice Alliance, formerly the Minister's Group, formerly the "Hill District leaders" who had taken the lead in advocating for and negotiating for community benefits prior to the inception of the One Hill coalition.

The Hill Faith & Justice Alliance did not sign on to the contract, which pledges the parties to support arena construction as long as its enumerated obligations are met. Preservation Pittsburgh and the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP), both significant member groups within One Hill, according to our information (we do need to fact-check this) withdrew shortly before the signing of the contract.

Justice. Preservation. Empowerment. Root Shock.

Carl Redwood of One Hill was clear that this CBA is an important step in the right direction, but there is still work ahead -- and much left to be determined. That seems like a fair assessment. It will continue to be a very interesting story for all to cover.


It's too early in the morning to think about this shit. (P-G, Rich Lord)

If this guy doesn't win his case, there ought to be a law. (Trib, Jason Cato)

A life sentence without parole is a long time for a minor -- that's all we're saying. (P-G, Moriah Blangit)

Revenue is hard to raise. Money's too tight to mention. Are we the only ones who would rather Our County Exec did the politically unpalatable thing on this occasion as well, and found a use for that little windfall? (P-G, Edit Board)

Everyone who's worth their weight in salt has discovered already that this election over. (