Friday, December 26, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

City Council President Doug Shields sounds like a candidate in that race, too. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Well that's interesting.

Doug would make a great mayor -- probably a better mayor than a council president -- but as a candidate?

The less informed will prefer the glossier option, unless Shields runs a humdinger of a frank campaign. Picture John F. Kennedy meets Don Rickles. "The only thing we have to fear is this hockey puck."

The better informed? Well ... there are a lot of people out there who would rather Pittsburgh have a so-so mayor that they feel they can manage or get what they need out of, rather than a highly capable mayor who will interrupt the predictability of government by leverage and expediency.

The presence of Carmen Robinson (once she assembles a staff and gets her feet underneath her) will shake things up in an intriguing manner.

One thing is certain: this constitutes last call for anyone who figures they might have a better shot. I count two of you.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

From All of Us to All of You

First of all, just so that everybody who is new can catch up, we'd like to hand out our 2007 holiday presents all over again -- this article about radical transparency.

YOU get radical transparency! YOU get radical transparency! And YOU get radical transparency!

Some of you should really use it this year!

And now, brand new for 2008, we present this appreciation of the late author Michael Crichton.

The entire selection from several interviews we found to be pretty inspiring, but we especially enjoyed Michael's answer to Charlie's patented great / awful question about the precious "X-factor".

YOU get to hear Michael's answer about the X-factor! YOU get to hear Michael's answer about the X-factor! And YOU get to hear Michael's answer about the X-Factor!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Good Kwanzaa, Jolly Decemberween, and may the Lord bless you and keep you this holiday season.

UPDATE: Oh! A stocking stuffer! The ZBA decision. (h/t Rauterkus)

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Pittsburgh Comet: Two Years of Comedy. Chapter 1: Beginning.

I think I must have been between jobs.

I had been following the news regarding the casino license to be awarded by the state to some outfit in Pittsburgh. Would it be Harrah's in Station Square, Isle of Capri in the Hill District, or PITG Gaming in the North Side?

Seemed to me that a Station Square casino would be wedged in too tightly amongst too much other stuff in that strip. Meanwhile, activists on the Hill were protesting the very notion of a casino in a manner I'd only read about in history books. It seemed obvious to me that the license would be awarded to Don Barden on the North Side.

And so it was, but this came to everybody else as a major shock. I decided I'd better invest in some DSL home Internet access, so I could share my gift with the world.


I learned about the Thursday Massacre through PittGirl. My comment: Susan Malie looks like Alice Cooper. Her comment: this is beginning to look like the end for Bob O'Connor.

I majored in political science and had been a news junky with strong opinions for years, but I never knew or even remotely cared about Pittsburgh's politics. In 2005, I voted against Bill Peduto because I thought Burton Morris was a hack.

I can't recall how I ever discovered the Burgh Blog, but there she was -- every day at work, several times a day, right in front of my eyeballs. Another hour would pass and I'd get that little itch -- I wonder if PittGirl wrote anything new yet? I wonder if there are any new comments?

It didn't take me long to figure out, "Hey, you know what? There is life out here, on the Internets. There is arable land. Especially for local stuff."

When I left that job (being addicted to PittGirl had something to do with it) and invested in Net access I took it upon myself to write a local tip-sheet. My influences were ABC's The Note (back when it was authored by Mark Halperin) and to a lesser degree Wonkette (back when it was authored by Ana Marie Cox). I wanted to combine the best of both, and apply them to Pittsburgh, where it seemed nobody else was doing it. I wanted people to be addicted to me.

The Story at Hand is:

Rob Rossi and Jeremy Boren, the Trib. Know it, love it be it.

Now: Is this just a matter of needing someone to talk Mario down? Can anyone do that?

Or: is this just a canny, aggressive bargaining posture going into negotiations for Plan B+++.

The Real Story is:

With lazer-like focus, as always, on the upcoming Tostitos / Bank of New York Ravenstahl vs. Pedutobowl: (PghC, 12/21/06)

I enjoy spectacle.


I would write about whatever was in the news -- back then it was interminable Penguins negotiations and casino ironings-out. My editorial tone was more one of a sportscaster than a muckraker; I just wanted everyone to be on the same page. (Mine.)

Yet I also found myself covering Wal-Mart and landslides in Killbuck County, reconstruction at Point State Park and the endangered remnants of Fort Pitt, and rumored cuts to public transit -- subjects I only discovered I had feeling for once I started really exploring the news. But mainly, I covered headlines.

Which led inexorably to political scandals.

Other blogs (I was reading and commenting actively on other blogs both to do research and to network) were all abuzz about Mayor Ravenstahl's demotion of a certain police commander.

Today, a federal hearing will take place as to whether or not Ravenstahl violated whistle-blower protections and acted improperly by demoting Catherine McNeilly, in retaliation for her criticism of his then-appointee Dennis Regan.

There is no continuing mainstream news coverage of this story. Nonetheless, the blurghosphere has been incensed. Wherefore such a discrepancy? Is the media treating Ravenstahl with kid gloves? Is this too inside-baseball for most readers? Do news editors believe there's nothing to the accusations?

I await the outcome of the hearings and I reserve judgement. However, I have a theory as to why we find so much rancor against Ravenstahl on the Internet: haters.

You heard me. It is naturally offensive that such a young man has achieved such success and prominence. I feel it also; I could have run for city council when I was 23. Why didn't I? Surely, I wouldn't be making such a popinjay of myself, either.

Be that as it may, I do not think "Politician Rewards Political Allies" would make a very newsworthy headline, nor would "Politican Punishes Internal Criticism." If he has violated the law, McNeilly should be reinstated. But I do not expect saint-like forbearance from my public officials, nor do I require it. Even if he lied about motivations, or the details of his internal investigation, I just do not think this rises to the level of scandal. (PghC, 01/04/07)

That's apparently how I felt about life back then.

Just weeks later, yet another scandal would rock our cyber-world -- Luke had gotten into a shoving match with a police officer at Heinz Field, and had apparently lied about it. Better yet, news of this had broken on a blog -- one of us! One of us!

This was thrilling -- but in the days that followed, I felt McIntire was driving the story in a direction that I didn't entirely agree with. Knowing that McIntire was the big dog in the blogosphere and seeing an opportunity to differentiate myself from what was becoming viewed as an angry, monolithic horde:

John McIntire has been fighting the good fight against the Rush Limbaugh / Fox News / Drudge Report machine for over a decade, and it appears he has finally been corrupted by it.

His latest post includes an open plea for more Ravenstahl dirt from his readers, with the vague suggestion that he's heard something juicy. He is not asking for criticism of the Ravenstahl budget, of city services, or of development projects. He wants evidence of frat boy behavior, an overload of testosterone, and immaturity.

Also, since he is done misrepresenting the original Ravenstahl incident -- remember, his claim that Regan was involved? -- he has gone on to misrepresent Ravenstahl's clear misjudgement in denying that incident, once again backed by just enough "truthiness" to inflate the issue. We believe, as most do, that McIntire's account of the denial is shamelessly exaggerated and inaccurate. (PghC, 01/22/07)

So there you have it. The blogs became a little more aware that they were being read, and thanks to the City Paper, for example, the general public was now vaguely aware of us as well.

We would continue to write about whatever outraged or excited us -- off-duty police detail cost-recovery was a big topic back then, as was non-profit payments in lieu of taxes as well as Pittsburgh's general strategy for development.

Eventually, somebody compared one of our fine local journalists to Cringer from the old Masters of the Universe cartoon series. Presently we began merrily comparing various personalities of Pittsburgh politics to the superheros and supervillains from our childhood, as the 2007 Democratic primary elections approached.

Monday: We Are Gathered Here Today

Tune in to 1360 AM at 4:15 PM to hear myself and other bloggers talk about the nexus of technology and politics or whatever on Renaissance Radio, hosted by Mark DeSantis.

In a block where occupied homes are now valued in the $40,000s and $50,000s, the prototype's price tag is comparatively staggering -- from $240,000 to $295,000. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

Stash that one in the "interesting" file.

Is that story over with? Not even close. It's already built right? Somebody is going to be paying for that thing. (Null Space)

Mr. Metz said he intends to "hit as many doors and make as many phone calls as we can" before the Feb. 3 special election. (P-G, Karen Kane)

One possibility we're hearing is that Kevin Acklin may be the man to square off against Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Barring a comet striking his Summer Hill home, Ravenstahl almost certainly will be the Democratic nominee. (Trib Whispers)

In Democrat-saturated Pittsburgh, government functions much as it did in the old Soviet Union. Just about everybody is members of one big happy party. That may explain why there's been little public outcry, even on City Council, about large political contributions that go to the mayor or other candidates from donors who have or get lucrative city contracts. (P-G, Tom Waseleski)

If you can't wait until 4:15 to hear the sound of my voice, check out the Mark Rauterkus podcast that features Mark and I chatting only about half an hour after I discovered the Burgher was missing. It descends pretty quickly into technical bickering, but upon further review I think Rauterkus could be right; we could use some kind of threaded discussion board to handle the daily news inflow. I'm thinking maybe one like this.

DON'T HATE ME: If I had heard that I was being asked "what's left worth reading?", I would have insisted on compiling a list of not less than 20 different blogs. As it was, we were in the context of what other blogs explore local politics with such intensity and specificity, and I must have only heard "what are some other blogs out there?" (P-G, Dennis Roddy)

So I guess it's my turn to be the paid journalist who makes a big deal out of a blog shutting down. Which is fine by me, because I think this one really does matter. (Slag Heap)

Some new blogs have climbed aboard: the Huddler, Pittsburgh Polemics, and WWVB.

NOTE: I now have the 17-page opinion scanned and available as a PDF. If you have any idea how to post such a thing to the Internet, let me know; otherwise e-mail me and I'll shoot you a copy.

Loading for Anniversary Week...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The 2009 Budget: Final Action (Conclusion)

Finance chair Bill Peduto opened discussion of the proposed controversial debt fund by noting that the $45 million had already been transferred from the City's fund balance to the Controller's office via "some mechanism or official component".

Speaking of the forecast in the budget document, Peduto volunteered for us that "this future forecast may change for the year".

He acknowledged that some are framing the central debate as one of "flexibility vs. reassurance", but warned that "a budget is a budget" and better suited toward providing candor and clarity than to leaving options on the table, whilst actually writing off obligations indicated elsewhere in said budget.

Darlene Harris and Tonya Payne raised only procedural questions throughout this portion, the latter yielding her time to colleague Jim Motznik. Bruce Kraus was in attendance but silent. What follows is a paraphrased representation of several rounds of discussion.


"There is before us a flawed budget", Patrick Dowd declared, which contains "an incredible lack of specificity with one of the most important strategic decisions before us."

Dowd pointed out that he'd been having "quiet conversations" with the administration since "early October" -- to defend himself in advance against charges of playing politics. He avowed that he went public only after all other options were completely exhausted.

Of the ICA's plan for how this $45 million is to be invested, he said, and turned into $51 million in savings, "those documents are in draft form". He then pointed out for the public, "none of us have seen them."

"Ask an accountant", he implored us, "ask the City's accountant" whether what is being done is proper or advisable.

In addition, Dowd theorized for us that "if we were to see an agreement with the ICA that extends beyond 2011," that that would amount to "oversight through a backdoor mechanism."


Jim Motznik then delivered his address in opposition to all that; he said after seven years on Council he was intimately familiar with political grandstanding, and "that's exactly what this is."

Recalling Dowd's statement during the preliminary vote, Motznik said "Shame on the Mayor? Shame on Councilman Dowd" for playing politics with the city's budget. He also delivered his line about how based on this budget and its forecasts, Mayor Ravenstahl would be deserving of "a big fat bonus" were he in charge of a private company instead of a city.

Ricky Burgess sounded cautious to the point of nervousness throughout the proceedings. "Working together has to be the flavor -- the statement of the day."

Again and again, Burgess insisted that the implications of that which Council was debating will be addressed as part of the new Act 47 Five-Year Plan, which he was proud to have successfully convinced his colleagues to push forward to a March deadline.

Burgess sounded as though he was claiming to personally have some special influence or credibility with the ICA and with the Act 47 team -- and was pleading with the rest of Council to do nothing which would upset the apple cart or sour the delicate negotiations he was trying to orchestrate.

Burgess did offer that as part of the amended Five-Year Plan, he personally wanted to see all gaming revenue placed directly into the pension fund.

Doug Shields declared his intention to vote for the budget, but did so about as grudgingly as possible. He termed the executive decision to transfer the $45 million prior to the vote to be "illegal, bad form, and bad faith."

"I don't understand how money can be moved unilaterally," he said. "I'm not prepared to accept that at all."

Tangentially on the topic of the administration's management practices, Shields mentioned a report circulating about the performance of the Bureau of Building Inspection. "It hurts to read that report".

Nonetheless, Shields said the ICA made it "very clear" that the intent of the fund is to pay off the debt, and "they did choose a defeasement vehicle". Though complaining that it wasn't made clear to the Council that that's what was going on, he had no particular objection to money going toward the debt in lieu of the pensions.

"Because that's just too big of an apple to take a bite out of," Shields said of the pensions. On the topic of sharing such information in an orderly fashion before it excites controversy, "Pittsburgh deserves to know where the endgame is on this."


Dowd, reiterating that his concerns in this case are not those of technicalities and process but rather of the highest order -- that of safeguarding the City's big attempt to confront its pressing financial challenges -- moved that a letter received from the ICA be included into the budget itself.

That letter of intent for what is to be done with the $45 million fund, Dowd said, is all that the City has in the way of a game plan, and as such ought to be included as an appendix to the budget, in order to keep everybody focused and honest. Without that incomplete sketch as guidance at least, he said, the mayor and the ICA have no justification for expecting $51 million of debt to be addressed -- and for writing it out of the forecasts today.

This motion caused a great deal of confusion, partially because Dowd had apparently written an alternate proposal on another piece of paper. There was much eyebrow-raising and clarifying as to the existence of this other document.

Burgess countered that including some letter into a budget sets an awkward and potentially dangerous precedent. Pretty soon, he said, the Council could be festooning budgets and other documents with all sorts of extraneous materials, confusing legislative intent. Dowd's motion failed 2-6, with Peduto joining.

At length Peduto weighed in on the budget as a whole, stating that what was transpiring today reminded him of what had transpired with one of Mayor Murphy's budgets. Back then, Murphy asked that something not entirely sensible or logical by accounting practices should be inserted into the original Act 47 recovery plan. Murphy had plead the Council take a "leap of faith" in him and in the recovery teams.

Peduto said that in retrospect, it was the wrong decision at the time, and would be the wrong decision today.

Nonetheless, the mayor's budget passed 6-2, with Dowd and Peduto voting no as they did during preliminary votes. Peduto exercised the Finance Chair's privilege of presenting his own budget forecast to his colleagues and to the city, which he did by way of a PowerPoint presentation. His forecasts showed the city's police pension fund on a trajectory to run dry in 2011, which city Finance Director Scott Kunka later disputed. In addition, Peduto presented a list of structural changes which should be made to get us out of this situation, including a state-wide restructuring of pension funds and securing the ability to tax hospitals and certain other mega non-profits.

This last proposal earned significant acclaim from Comet senior political analyst Morton Reichbaum.

"I still think that hospitals should pay property taxes," said Reichbaum. "There's no reason not for them to pay property taxes. They make so much damn money."

"Billions of dollars!" Reichbaum emphasized. "Between UPMC and Highmark, billions and billions of dollars!"