Friday, March 27, 2009

The War of Fog: Ethics Reform, the Lamar Appeal, RRZ Public Markets

City Council will be discussing proposed changes to City ethics legislation at a post-agenda session this coming Monday, March 30 at 10:00 AM. A public hearing is then set next week for Monday, April 6th at 1:30.

Not that much time to get up to speed. The Pittsburgh Comet's last significant post on ethics reform is available HERE; those are still more or less our thoughts.

The history of Pittsburgh ethics is interesting -- when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl accepted the request of Board Chair Patrice Hughes to appear publicly before the Ethics Board on August 21, 2007, it was the first significant activity of City ethics infrastructure in the City's history. It was also the last.

Following that hearing, there was a stated consensus that the city's Code of Conduct would need to be improved or tightened, and that doing so was important. There also seemed to be a sense that the City's existent Code of Conduct had been ignored for too long for anybody to take entirely seriously. The matter was eventually taken up by a "working group" involving some members of the Council and the City Law Department.

After 19 months of research and consultations, the resultant proposal appears to my eye at least to be best described as a relaxing of our Code of Conduct, with particular respect to the issue of "tickets" as a protected class of gift. However, the whole of Council has yet to apply its legislative elbow-grease to it.

As City Council President, Doug Shields deserves the credit for committing the Council to these two public discussions. To do so in such close proximity to a conversation about campaign finance reform is both bold and I think sensible.

After these are held, the Council will have the opportunity to amend the proposal before them and to pass something. However, they will be under no particular obligation ever to do so. What will occur over the next two Mondays are required steps along a legislative process, but they do not in themselves guarantee completion of that process. So we still have a shot of getting into the Guinness Book of World Records for lengthiest municipal ethics deliberations.


Speaking of ethics (not!), Bob Mayo fills us in on the next round in the billboard battle.

It the Lamar brief, attorney Sam Kamin argues that "this is not an appeal from the issuance or denial" of the sign permit", but instead ""the action requested of the zoning board was the revocation of Lamar's Sign Permit". The Lamar brief cites past court cases to argue that the zoning board's tie vote constitutes a refusal to revoke the sign permit, not a refusal to approve the electronic billboard. Lamar also argues that the split vote means the status quo should be maintained -- and it considers the status quo to be that the sign and its permit remain. (Busman's Holiday)

Wowee zowee!

In the immediate aftermath of the Zoning Board's decision to reject Lamar's applications for the variances and special exceptions they did not have to suffer through during their original run, we asked Patrick Dowd, who protested that original permit, whether Lamar was likely to appeal the ruling. He said that would be like "two kids who killed their parents, and then went before a judge pleading that they're orphans."

The City of Pittsburgh also hired outside legal counsel to argue its own position. What is its own position?

Like Lamar's Kamin, Lucas argues that a tie vote of a governmental body constitutes a negative decision and preserves the status quo. Where do they part company? They differ over what exactly the status quo is in this case. Implicitly, the city is arguing that the status quo is that there is no permit for the electronic billboard. It also argues that the Mitinger opinion (against Lamar) is the one that controls the court's review. (ibid)

Curious. I wonder if the City is trying its very best here. I hope someone is present to represent those who actually have been protesting the sign permit. The City, as it were, is brand new to that position.

On behalf of the city, Lucas opposes Lamar's wish to reopen the record to include public statements by a senior planner with the city's Planning Department about earlier informal city agreements about replacing non-conforming signs. Lucas writes "the only thing that requiring the testimony of Mr. Sentz would open is the proverbial 'can of worms'. (ibid)

Knee-jerk reaction: might as well start popping open cans of worms. Right?


No time at present to delve into the continuing stooooory of municipal bond-swap deals turning all maggoty. Pittsburgh's situation and Patrick Dowd himself are mentioned in this new Bloomberg article (h/t NullSpace), and once again the Butler Area School District and other Pennsylvania entities are mentioned along with Greg Zapalla of RRZ Public Markets in this previous Blooomberg article (h/t Pgh Comet).

We know it's not easy to be that closely associated with AIG right now, but pretty soon I don't think it's going to be pleasant to be seen as an enabler of J.P. Morgan's worst proclivities either. Or at least it shouldn't be.


  1. (h/t Pgh Comet)

    (h/t NullSpace)

    Without question.

  2. So if the new code of ethics (which to me looks a bit like the old, er current code) is adopted, then we can expect that after every Pitt, Steeler and Penguin game, the Mayor will diligently submit a report about who bought him (and his bodyguards) a ticket and that will appear on the City website within a month. And the value of those tickets shall not exceed $250 in a year.

    This may well be meaningless. The Mayor has now discovered that if he shakes a few hands at a sporting event, he can use campaign funds to buy the tickets. If the Mayor does it, then it is by definition legal and ethical. He sets the standard higher.

  3. Often the reform process needs to begin with "replace." Pgh's Ethics Hearing Board needs an overhaul of the people who are ON the board. That, it seems to me, is the first prudent step.

    People who think that a meeting every other month is okay need not fill those slots.

    Replace, then -- perhaps -- re-tool. Expecting do nothing people to also reform and make suggestions as to self-direction is asking way too much and the whole effort will continue to be fruitless.

  4. Current City Ethics Legislation was crafted by Dan Cohen (councilman)...WONK!

    Anyone, that wants to file charge, "File Under State Ethics Law."

    Cohen crafted City Law to keep complaints 'in house'.



  5. The Truth - Don't forget the Busman.

    Ed Heath - Well, the advantage we'd have here is we will have made a statement. If an official is discovered to have attended an event, particularly in the front row or in a Superbox, and it does not fall into one of the exemptions for SA / SEA and other official Economic Development rations (which I'm unsure yet whether we can or should address) and he or she cannot produce receipts or give an answer which falls within the confines of the Code, we can deduce that something we have defined as wrong has occurred, and we can seek sanctions, usually but not limited to a Reprimand. As it stands, we have defined nothing as wrong. (Or rather, we have, but we defined it too long ago for anyone to take seriously or something).

    Using campaign funds -- that has me stymied. Did the Mayor set a precedent we have to live with, now? Should this really have been an issue? People didn't seem to like it when they heard that. The professional class was forgiving -- hey, at least it's not city money! -- but observers in general were disgusted. Campaign funds are free to be employed for personal enjoyment now? How is that different then from just giving someone a $10,000 gift?

    Nonetheless, I think much is to be gained in the long-term by legislating that we ought not do certain things we are now free (and, let's face it, encouraged) to do. And it will spark conversations with generous parties that, "Hey, you know we have these ethics laws" which in itself should have a beneficial effect on the environment.

    Mark Rauterkus- The people who serve on the Ethics board serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. If you'd like to replace the Mayor, well, good luck with that. For its history, the majority of the Ethics board have been religious figures, but that does not necessarily preclude them from being sinners.

    More importantly I think, the only legal staff available to the Ethics board is the City Law department (except for a few thousand bucks for paperclips wrangled by Peduto I think). And the legal staff of the City MOST DEFINITELY serves at the pleasure of the Mayor, and can frame every issue, filter all information, and give all legal advice to the Board. Actually, at one time the Ethics board had its own lawyer aboard, but Ravenstahl appointee Penny Zacharias resigned after a matter of months. I wonder if she sensed the City Law department was giving limited opinions.

    Finally, let us not forget that Council has a role in confirming board appointments and, more importantly, in fashioning our entire Code of Conduct. If the Code of Conduct, once this gets settled if it gets settled, does not meet your standards, you would want to replace some members of Council. Again, good luck with that. I mean that sincerely though sometimes we do disagree.

    I do not know Georgia Blotzer's posture on Ethics legislation -- it hasn't come up quite yet, though assuredly it will. She did indicate cursorily during our Interview that she is hawkish on allowing "gifts". Councilwoman Smith answered the question to the effect that officeholders must certainly personally refrain from abusing their positions, but does not feel like she or the Council is obligated to "police" anybody. It's my personal opinion that Council DOES have the obligation to police themselves to the extent that they have to legislate what is and is not permissible. Of course the Council would not have the role of "policing" anyone; that falls to the Ethics board we have set up for that purpose and to the people, through processes also determined by the Council.

    Monk - So it's your allegation that former Councilman Dan Cohen crafted the original City Code of Conduct to keep our ethics problems "in house" and away from the State Ethics commission, and thereby, if I may extrapolate, cover things up easier. Could be.

    One question - our State Ethics board also, demonstrably, sucks.

  6. An addendum to what I told Mark -- both Blotzer and Smith requested that I send them a copy of the current Ethics law and the proposed changes to it, so they both did have an interest.

  7. The Ethics Hearing Board needs to hire a lawyer like it needs a hole in its head. Isn't necessary -- unless you are a lawyer.

    Lawyers are only necessary if you want to hire lawyers.

    If you think LAWYERS have a monopoly on ETHICS -- you're hopeless.

  8. Well, my point about the use of campaign funds was precisely that the Mayor used them to go the Super Bowl like he had used the gifts of the Penguins and UPMC to play in the Lemieux Tournament. The new ethics rules makes explicit exceptions for office holders to attend those expensive charity affairs on the corporate dime (preferably invited by the charity itself, perhaps), so the Mayor is literally golden. He has, and will continue to have after the primary is over, hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign cash. He needs only raise enough campaign money during the next three years to cover the sporting events he will attend. I’m sure you read the Slag Heap piece on how Ravenstahl can spend his campaign cash anyway he wants, as long as he makes a token effort to introduce himself to some people ( Since it has already worked for the Mayor, I am sure in is now a precedent set in stone. And Ravenstahl will be untouchable be the ethics rules. Now maybe we understand why Ravenstahl wanted campaign limits nine times those of Council-persons last summer, and why he wants such high limits now.

    Don’t get me wrong, I want new ethics rules, I believe strongly in the value of ethics rules. I want the City to have Council persons and administration officials it can have trust in. But for the Mayor, it is the proverbial barn door.