Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thursday: News for Yous

HARRISBURG -- State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, was elected today as minority chairman of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees expenditures in the $28 billion state budget.

For 20 years, that Democratic caucus post had been held by Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, who had a reputation for bringing sizeable state grants to his home town for various projects.

Mr. Fumo had to step down as minority chairman in early 2007, after he was charged with 139 counts of corruption by federal officials in Philadelphia. His trial is going on now and he didn't seek re-election. (P-G, Tom Barnes)

Hey -- better us than them!


[URA director Rob] Stephany said he recommended the Kuhn’s deal to the board because it would employ more people, and would yield greater tax returns and boost real estate values.

“But there are holes in the project,” he said. “But we are confident that in three months we can come back and authorize transferring the real estate.”

Stephany also referenced the Community Benefits Agreement, signed by members of One Hill Coalition, the city and the Pittsburgh Penguins in August, that calls for “a full service pharmacy” and “a full service grocery store that contains a minimum size of 25,000 square feet.” (Courier, Christian Morrow)

There are conspiracy theories abounding that Kuhn's was selected so that everyone can get back-slaps for trying -- but in three months Kuhns will almost certainly fail to get its financing together. By that time, Save-A-Lot may no longer be an option -- and we all will have learned a little something about these new-fangled Community Benefits Agreements.

To me, the conspiracy sounds a little elaborate and a lot wrong. I'm sure if everybody buckles down as a team, this can happen. Remember, even the Penguins ran into significant cost-overruns, and all parties were able to work out a friendly accommodation on that.


Do you know there is a Save Race Street movement? Did you know that the real estate market in Homewood is "simmering"? These would be things to know. (My Homewood)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Nov. 18: Just Another Day at City Council

SPOILER ALERT: Actually, it would become Schenley Girls Soccer Team Day in the City of Pittsburgh, but that occurred later. At 10:00 AM, Council chambers was just starting to fill.

Patrick Dowd, former school teacher and father of five, was schmoozing it up at the front of the room with a bunch of uniformed young tikes sitting on the floor.

"And if we think it's a good idea, we'll vote for it. If we think it's a bad idea, we could vote against it, or..."

Darlene Harris entered behind them, and Dowd stopped to introduce her. "Now, not only does Councilwoman Harris care very much about the people who live here, but Councilwoman Harris cares a lot for dogs and cats too! She loves animals!"

In walked Bill Peduto. They discussed how he lives near Frick Park.

"Oh, now here's Councilman Deasy! Now he's really really important, because he's about to be a State Representative!"

Councillors began making their way slowly towards their seats, saying hello to a constituent or media member here and there. Dowd was now entertaining the Schenley High School girls soccer team.

"You guys didn't do very well this year!"

(silent children)

"Just kidding! Ha ha ha."

Reverend Burgess entered and began working the room a little more briskly. "How are you. How are you doing, sir. How are you."

Council President Shields assumed the dais and made some Let's-Get-Started noises, whereupon most everyone took their seats. Dowd had to be gently nudged to attention by the Sergeant at Arms.

The City Clerk was instructed to call the role. Mr. Burgess -- here! Mr. Deasy -- here! Mr. Dowd -- present!

The schoolchildren giggled.

These kids were introduced by Shields as the Ellis School 2nd grade class, and were asked to lead the room in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. In Council chambers, this means addressing two big American flags crossing one another over a gold bust of a Bald Eagle, high above the rostrum. After the pledge, each of the girls was invited to introduce themselves by first name into the mic, whereupon followed an orderly procession of at least forty that was so cute you could stick a fork in your eye.

Next, Shields acknowledged Tonya Payne, who introduced the 2008 city champion Schenley High School girls soccer team. Payne praised the young women not only for their athletic prowess but for their brains and grade point averages. She emphasized how well-positioned they are to do anything or be anything in this world. She then gave special props to her own niece, who is "this good at every single sport she tries," and the Council declared Nov. 18th Schenley Girls Soccer Team Day in the City of Pittsburgh.

Payne had a 2nd proclamation to introduce -- in recognition of the Homeless Children's Education Fund, who are holding it down locally for National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. HCEF was thanked in particular for some initiatives undertaken in Council District 9; Ricky Burgess rose to stand with them during the reading. Council declared the whole week Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in the City of Pittsburgh.

Our final proclamation would be presented by Doug Shields himself, and it would make Wed. Nov. 12th (retroactively) LIHEAP Day, or Low-Income Energy Assistance Program Day. Equitable and Dominion gas companies, Shields said, took part in an event at Heinz Field on that day recognizing and promoting the program. He also thanked Franco Harris for his advocacy.

Shields stressed that "low-income" pretty much means "any income" these days, and he was keen to note that several council members' households would certainly qualify for assistance. Larger families in particular were encouraged to investigate, but at $23,000 in income or less, even a family of one can qualify. Others can pitch in for the holidays by checking a little box on their gas bills that adds $3 or $5 to the Dollar Energy Fund.

The City itself should get further involved in bringing down the cost of energy, he insisted, since working families are in need. He recommended that the URA conduct energy audits on all its buildings, since there are programs available from state and federal governments to fix up existing buildings. Things like that have been delayed for too many years, he insisted, while draping the President's rostrum with black-and-gold LIHEAP t-shirts.

After the public comment period -- in which mayoral candidate Les Ludwig urged us to move from "Yes we can" to "Yes we will", and assured us he is the same man he was in 1960 -- and after some routine approvals, one important piece of legislation was considered.


Dowd sponsored a resolution authorizing the Mayor to enter into an agreement with the URA to develop "a single, uniform, and readily administered set of requirements concerning the Authority's retention and use of the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) loan repayment proceeds".

As Jim Motznik explained to me the following day, a previous URA director had earmarked these moneys to be spent directly on salaries at the Authority. Dowd's bill was seeking to provide clarity on what this grant money can be used for, and to reestablish the Council's oversight over it.

Darlene Harris proposed an amendment putting more strict regulations on use of UDAG money right away -- Bruce Kraus seconded it. Dowd objected to these changes, declining to go through them point by point, but assuring the Council that many of her concerns either already are addressed in the nature of UDAG money or will be in the process of developing the standards. Bill Peduto praised the intention behind this amendment, but marked his intention to vote against it to keep reform moving clean and orderly.

Shields allowed that it didn't look like Harris' amendment had the votes, but declared his own support for it, saying that both UDAG and CBDG monies at the URA should be brought under closer scrutiny, and hers were perfectly solid measures. Then he called for a vote.

Burgess -- no. Deasy -- no. Dowd -- no. A cell phone began beeping loudly.

Motznik fiddled with his phone's controls to no avail. He then rose, opened the door, set his phone on the marble floor of the hallway and slid it about thirty feet away, like an Olympic curler. Then he shut the door and returned to the table.

Harris -- yes. Kraus -- yes. Motznik -- no. Payne -- no. Peduto -- paaauuse -- yes, after all! With Shields the Chair voting yes, the amendment was defeated only by a close 4-5 margin. Councilman Burgess could be seen leaning back in his seat with his eyes closed, rubbing his forehead.

The vote for final action on Dowd's legislation succeeded 8-1, after which Harris thanked Dowd for taking leadership on the issue, and Dowd declared his expectation that more will be done to straighten out URA budgetary issues by January.


Since there was no more pressing business and no announcements, the Council would recess for an hour and a half before holding a special meeting on a proposed handgun ordinance. Shields flagged me down to ask me to promote the LIHEAP program on the blog.

Dowd came over and somehow we three started talking about Facebook and MySpace, and then the future of the Democratic party. Dowd floated the idea that since he's such an "extreme" Democrat, a real Democrat's Democrat, he was thinking of maybe switching over to the Republican party.

"Oh, no," advised Shields. "You don't want to do that."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ethics Made Simple

Our own Ethics board's guide (or one of them) along this mission of re-crafting Pittsburgh ethics laws has been Carla Miller, former Federal prosecutor and founder of the non-profit organization City Ethics.

Robert Wechsler is City Ethics' Research Director. He writes the blog, and maintains the City Ethics Model Ethics Code Project which includes an annotated version of a "model" municipal ethics code.

After bulleting four "essential elements" to all good municipal ethics codes in the Forward to the model code, our authors identify a fifth:

The other essential element of an effective ethics code is that it be the center of an ethical environment. Rarely is the passage of an ethics code the result of an ethics environment. More commonly, it is a response to a scandal or series of scandals in an environment where unethical behavior has been accepted, up to a point.

Boy, howdy!

In such instances, work on a new or revised ethics code can be an exercise in political oneupmanship.

Everything in moderation. Oneupsmanship is a term of art. If a bidding war develops among several grandstanding council members, each of whom would like to appear More Ethical Than Thou, things can get ridiculous pretty quickly.

Then again, if no one at all takes a stand in favor of rigorous ethical standards -- do we all pat ourselves on the back for not oneuping ourselves?

But the writing or revision of an ethics code can also be an occasion for, and centerpiece of, the founding of an ethical environment. The discussion of a new or improved ethics code can help a community determine its goals and ideals, and identify conduct that is consistent and inconsistent with an ethical environment. It can also provide guidance that will help people in and out of government think and act more ethically. Out of this process should come, besides the code itself, an ongoing ethics education system and an organized as well as informal system of rewarding ethical behavior and the examination of issues through an ethical as well as a practical lens.

SOLD! We like it.


From the model code itself:

It is central to gaining and retaining the public's trust in our city's government that public servants seek to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Fulfilling one's role as public servant sometimes means sacrificing rather than gaining opportunities.

So far so good. Skipping ahead to the juicy stuff:

4. Gifts. a. An official or employee*, his or her spouse or domestic partner*, child or step-child, parent, or member of his or her household*, may not solicit nor accept anything of value from any person or entity that the official or employee knows, or has reason to believe, has received or sought a financial benefit*, directly or through a relationship with another person or entity, from the city within the previous three years, or intends to seek a financial benefit in the future.

If in doubt, the official or employee should refrain from soliciting or refuse a gift, and should first inquire into the person or entity's relationship with the city.

And from Rob's annotated commentary:

Cities have taken a great variety of approaches to the gift problem. The approach here is to limit only gifts from people and entities that do business with or otherwise get financial benefits from the city, including permits, zoning approval, etc. Other common approaches are to limit the amount of gifts or to limit the type of gifts or the type of givers.

That seems pretty cut and dry.

Officials and employees must file with the Ethics Commission, on or before January 31, a list of all gifts received during the preceding calendar year by them or by their spouse or domestic partner, child or step-child, parent, or member of their household, to the extent that the aggregate amount of gifts received from an individual or entity (including gifts from all employees, partners, or investors) during the year is $50 or greater. Information to be disclosed is as follows:

Well then. It seems in a model code, gifts may only be accepted from sources that have not had any recent significant interest in city business (even though it's a small town), and in this example all gifts greater than $50 must be reported.

There is no section marking an exception for tickets.


107. Penalties for Violation of This Code

Now we're talking. It's all well and good to tell people you can't do this and you can't do that, but how are you going to enforce it?

1. Resignation, Compensation or Apology

Violation of any provision of this code should raise conscientious questions for the official or employee* concerned as to whether resignation, compensatory action, or a sincere apology is appropriate to promote the best interests of the city and to prevent the cost - in time, money, and emotion - of an investigation and hearings.

Yeah yeah yeah. Those would actually be swell in certain circumstances.

2. Disciplinary Action

Any person or entity that is found to have engaged in action or inaction that violates any provision of this code may be reprimanded, suspended, or removed by the Ethics Commission, or the Ethics Commission may seek or impose any of the sanctions or remedies listed below or in 215.

There it is!

The commentary notes that many cities do not empower their Ethics commissions to suspend or remove city employees. Indeed, this can at times be acutely problematic from a legal and collective-bargaining perspective, as can be the levying of fines. However, reprimands are cheap, and easy, and effective.

I would have chosen the word "censure", but that's purely semantics. What politician wants to walk around with two or three Ethics Reprimands on their rap sheet? That would make it hard to get ahead in life.

Sure, one could always argue that the Ethics commission was full of beans in your case, or that the Pittsburgh Ethics code is notoriously restrictive and bothersome and written by twits. And you could be right. That would depend on how reasonable and lenient our code turns out -- a code which must also be strong enough to encourage good citywide ethics, and to establish a strong ethical foundation. It's a balancing act.

So what should Pittsburgh do with its ethics code when it comes to the narrow, hot-button issue of accepting gifts? In the New Haven Model Code, no gifts at all are acceptable from givers directly affiliated with city business -- and gifts given by unaffiliated individuals must disclosed if worth more $50.

Let's call the approach inferred by the Post-Gazette on Friday "the opposite extreme". It's a very worthwhile project that we're embarking upon and it's good we're underway.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama of Wasilla

"Just gonna have a good conversation about how we can do some work together to fix up the country..."

(Early Returns; AP photo)

Polamalu Clearly Inhabited by Beowulf Again, and Other News

The situation has become further complicated by financial issues, including County Executive Dan Onorato's refusal to release $27.7 million being collected this year from the county's drink and car-rental taxes until the authority increases operating efficiency and reins in long-term labor costs. (P-G, Joe Grata)

We were watching the panel on OffQ discuss this, and everybody was like no, no, no, the Port Authority workers can't strike, not now, and besides which their demands are unreasonable. And perhaps they are.

Yet thus far, workers appear perfectly willing to work without a contract -- they simply don't want to be on-record "giving away" anything by sanctifying the imposed labor terms. That being the case, this withholding of county and state subsidies in order to "bump forward" a fiscal crisis and perhaps trigger a lockout seems too cute by half and as likely to backfire as not.


Meanwhile also on OffQ, they discussed the new grocery store coming into the Hill District. Nobody had much to say about Kuhn's having beat out Save-A-Lot for the contract (we are pleased and a little shocked!), but what was notable was that after blasting Wall Street bailouts and possible Detroit bailouts, uber-conservative local attorney Heather Heidelbaugh stated that unlike, say, stadiums and amphitheaters, this is what government should be doing -- providing a few million here and there to make sure neighborhoods have things like grocery stores. It was absolutely grand.


Meanwhile on OnQ, Chris Moore interviewed School District superintendent Mark Roosevelt for a full half-hour. There was way too much discussed to represent here, but we jotted some notes:

1) We keep hearing that the Schenley students are doing fine in their temporary home at Reizenstein. If we are not mistaken, only some of the Spartans made it into Reizenstein, no? Didn't others get distributed elsewhere already -- I think some of them to "University Prep" schools? Has anyone yet checked out how those kids are faring?

2) The "Managed Institution Curriculum" and the "Positive Intervention Behavior System" sound like good topics for further discussion -- and as always, any coverage on Pittsburgh's new CEP-managed school for disruptive youth (which may account for the "drop" in undisciplined behavior) is always welcome.

3) During a discussion about how what goes on elsewhere in a child's environment is important to their performance, Roosevelt offered as an example, "there's a lot of tough stuff going on in the North Side right now." Question -- really? Has there been a backslide we haven't particularly noticed? That's a good topic in itself.


Friday is Light Up Night, the start of the holiday season, and the museum will have extended hours that evening. From 5 to 9 p.m. visitors can mingle with craftspeople, artists, musicians and re-enactors dressed in period clothing.

The following morning, the museum will be the site of a final "Hinge of History" seminar. The focus of the daylong event will be Gen. John Forbes. He led the British and Colonial army that forced the French to abandon and burn Fort Duquesne in November 1758.

Tuesday, Nov. 25, is the 250th anniversary of the date when Forbes arrived at the smoking ruins of the French outpost. Fort Pitt Museum, which ordinarily is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, will be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. that day for a celebration that includes cake for all visitors. (P-G, Len Barcousky)

You've probably missed all the Pittsburgh 250 hooplah so far, but it's okay because the good stuff is just getting started.