Days after I conducted this little interview with City Controller Michael Lamb, I attended the introductory workshop for something called PittPoint.
The project's mission is to provide "citizen journalists" with the training, resources and organization to eventually produce a collaborative online web-zine about local government.
As I left the workshop, I couldn't help but think that if I already had access to a roomful of collaborators and mentors, the interview with Mike Lamb would have gone much better.
The "professional journalist" who was present on the first day to lead a discussion and answer questions (from what I understand, he wasn't the main paid journalist who is going to be involved, but he is involved all the same) said that the most important factor for conducting good interviews is PREPARATION.
I had a pretty clear idea what I wanted to ask our Controller about, but I imagine if I had enunciated my thoughts to a roomful of collaborators -- hearing their suggestions and benefiting from their own researches -- that would have enabled me to bring a much tighter game to the table.
Case in point: the first thing I asked about was the street-salting audit.
"What was that again?" I asked.
Basically, Lamb says the Department of Public Works already adds a chemical additive into the salt used for snow removal -- but only when the weather dips below a certain temperature. We typically have the stuff in stock; we just don't go through very much of it.
The Controller's Office audit suggested there are benefits to using that additive all the time. Even factoring in the increased costs, doing it that way he says would net the City about $300,000 in savings.
I asked what was the reception to that audit.
"I think the reception to that is that is something to take a serious look at."
From his understanding of conversations with the Mayor's office and the Department of Public Works, Lamb says it looks like we might be about "a year to eighteen months out" from implementing that little reform.
When asked about exact monetary figures involved in the calculation, Lamb referred me to the full audit that is online. He swivelled over to his computer and searched through the City website.
"That one is not on here," he said eventually. "Why isn't that one on here? It was on here."
In this case, my lack of preparation actually led to a neat discovery. He said he'd put it online quickly (and he did).
Also included in the "Salt Audit" was the "Pothole Audit" -- Lamb says "We observed a number of pothole patch techniques that are not best practices."
"Throwing cold patch in a hole and driving a truck over it," for example. "We compare [the efficiencies of] that to best practices."
We asked what was the reception to that portion of the audit.
"[The Department of Public Works] didn't disagree -- I think they said what you said."
What I had said was, what about a circumstance in which a large number of pretty serious potholes broke out all at once -- would not time be of the essence, from the perspective of sheer public safety?
The impression that we got from Mr. Lamb was that is certainly a temptation -- but under critical examination, it's still not the superior practice.
Speaking of putting data up on the web, I asked Lamb about his efforts to get City contracting information online and easily accessible.
"I just signed the contract with the company we're using," Lamb informed us. "God that got tied up in C.I.S., the Mayor's office, the Law Department".
However, Lamb says we are now on track to show every City contract, by vendor and with detailed descriptions, in a fully searchable format, "by the end of the 1st quarter of this year."
Campaign finance information is also going to be put online, in a separate but similar user-friendly database. Updated information will go up shortly after it's filed with the Allegheny County Department of Elections.
"The goal," explained Lamb, "and this is something Peduto and I've been working on -- then what we want to do is go back and enter the annuals for everyone."
"My feeling is, this needs to be independent" Lamb said of the effort and the need to contract out the work. He says he has a lot of respect for the personnel staffing the city's C.I.S. division, but since everyone has an interest in the information that is being made transparent, the city really needed a disinterested manager.
I asked if it makes any sense to merge the two databases -- contracting and contributions -- so that one can enter the name of a firm, and receive a list both of City contracts and of campaign contributions. Lamb said he appreciates the sentiment behind that, but doesn't think that would illustrate anything.
A lot of these players change the names of their firms so often, he said, using what amounts to so many aliases. Presenting the data like that could provide users with a false sense of completeness and security where none should exist.
"I'd rather just put the information out there," Lamb said, "and let people make what they want to make of it."
As far as the contracting information goes, none of this applies to contracts awarded by the city Authorities, which are run by mayor-appointed boards but are technically "instrumentalities of the State".
"Right now we have finalized our end of the ALCOSAN audit," Lamb informed us. Once fully completed, the Authority has two weeks to respond to the audit before it goes public as per usual.
A Housing Authority audit (the Matt H audit) has also been completed. "I think ... did we send that over yet? Yeah, I think they should have that by now."
Right now Michael Lamb says he has moved on to auditing the Mayor's office -- it'll be "the same audit we did for Council." This will be another performance audit -- not just an accounting of numbers, but hopefully demonstrated recommendations as to "best practices".
"Grants. The Mayor's Service Center. Board appointments" he listed as examples.
"Board appointments?" I asked.
"Yeah, that came out of the Housing Audit", replied Lamb. Apparently, there are potential inefficiencies to be had if board, commission and authority positions remain vacant -- or perhaps if they are filled in a certain way.
We asked about the URA's Streetface program -- wasn't that coming under some scrutiny?
"Streetface was audited in 2007", Lamb pointed out. He said he was "a little reluctant" to open up Streetface again so soon, considering how much stuff there is to examine in city government. But he did readily admit the 2007 audit, conducted by his predecessor, was "not particularly enlightening."
"I was [involved] with Bernardo Katz," Lamb clarified. What was occurring over there in Beechview he twice described as not Streetface itself, but "like Streetface."
The funds in question Lamb said came from a specific state fund -- a state grant delivered by former Republican state rep Michael Diven. We asked Lamb what he knew about federal prosecutors now getting involved in this Bernardo Katz situation --what is falling under the microscope, who is interested, what activity appears to be the target of the investigation.
"We actually know what was going on over there," Lamb says -- Katz was acquiring property with public funds, he says, and then mortgaging some of them near-simultaneously at two separate banks.
"It's amazing that this can happen," he said. According to Lamb it has been federal Treasury agents examining Katz for mortgage-related fraud.
We asked if Lamb knew anything about the other two names appearing as targets in that federal probe -- financial guys and alleged co-conspirators hailing from eastern suburbs. He didn't have a clear picture.
We asked about earlier reported efforts of the City Controller to solicit the cooperation of Pat Ford on matters such as these.
"Pat Ford has no legal obligation to respond to me," Lamb acknowledged. However, he went on to disavow any particular need for him to do so. "We're still proceeding".
Those published reports made it sound like Lamb obliquely threatened to refer his review of some controversial parking lot contracts to State Auditor General Jack Wagner, who wields a form of subpoena power. "That's what they [the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review] made it look like I said," Lamb said, by way of explanation.
This review is in reference to contracts awarded to a firm that did not appear remotely to be the lowest responsible bidder for the work -- one that had also made significant political contributions to the Mayor prior to winning the contract. A lot of transactions over the past year have come in for scrutiny -- in the absence of a roomful of citizen journalists, it was getting hard to keep track.
"We can audit the record," Lamb said of the troublesome McTish, Kunkel & Associates parking lot contract which instigated his review. "We can do a fair audit. Make recommendations as to best practices. Highlight some of the inefficiencies."
For the record, we asked Controller Lamb whether he or his office had ever been approached personally by any state, federal, or other official investigatory bodies who may be inquiring into these several situations. No, never. Would he be happy to cooperate if asked to do so by an official investigator of any kind. Yes, yes he'd be happy to cooperate if it were ever asked of him. Would he comply with any subpoena. Yes, yes, he'd comply with anything.
There you have it. More data points, loosely tethered, Pittsburgh Comet-style. This may not have been the most cohesive blog product I've ever presented to you, but with the help of well-intentioned folks like those involved with the Public Square Project, we can all expect to do better and better in the future, making our government ever more transparent and accountable.