Friday, February 27, 2009

Weekend: Where Are We?*

The forthcoming Dan Onorato Cyberhall write-up is not in this post, nor is Edmund Fitzgerald, nor is something else that we might have promised directly to you.

Everything else is.

What's going on, [Patrick Dowd] said, is "robbing Peter to pay Paul," manufacturing razor-thin surplus predictions without disclosing how they'll be achieved, and a steady worsening of the pension fund's woes with only "liquidation" of the parking garages offered as a solution. (P-G, Rich Lord)

It would be illustrative to see the balance sheets of all our City Authorities and whether or not they have worsened over the same three years that Ravenstahl has been either A) rescuing the city from the abyss or B) cooking the city's books with the ICA.

In a related story at the Trib, it looks like increasing employee contributions to the pension fund is absolutely off-the-table, Lukewise. The administration is focused on massive "infusions".

More on mayoral politics later.

The next overseas project for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center will be a hospital on a beachside property in Paphos, a tourist town on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, officials will announce today. (Trib, Luis Fabregas)

I'm sure this is going to be a very useful institutional amenity to show off and increase the medical center's global stature, and attract the very best of personnel and collaborators. It's also another excellent example of why we need to tax these guys.

"The implications of not having a well-educated and trained work force to meet future demand [have] the potential to create a lasting negative impact on the region, and it is inspiring to see our community rally to support this worthwhile program," R.K. Mellon Director Scott Izzo said in a statement. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Is this program really the highest and best use of so much of the region's charitable capital? It seems like it's going to be a splendid benefit for middle-class families whose children are already prepared for college -- but it will do nothing to improve educational outcomes for the masses who do require investment, and it will do very little (in reality) to tempt affluent suburbanites back into trusting public schools, given alternatives available to them. The whole shebang seems designed more for popularity than effect.

The district administration has touted the University of Pittsburgh's involvement with the University Prep High School as a key to this school's success. To date, the exact nature of this collaboration has not been clearly articulated. (P-G OpEd, Kathryn Fine)

Oy vey, Patrick! Are you reading this? Somebody explain to us what all is going on in our public schools. It seems one must either be with Roosevelt or against Roosevelt. I would like to hear from someone (Heather?) how the School District is ensuring safeguards for transparency, public process and accountability -- particularly in reference to "University Prep" schools.

Ignored for five years, the city of Pittsburgh's curfew will be back on May 1 in a form that will be both stricter and more kid-friendly than it was in years past, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said yesterday. (P-G, Rich Lord)

I grew up in Squirrel Hill. I get the feeling me and my friends circa 1991 could shortly be on the streets at midnight smoking cigarettes, playing blackjack and taking cellphone pictures down our trousers yet we'd NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS get swept up. Yet equally rambunctious young ruffians from other parts of town are going to get hauled into a pen and told, "You are the bad ones!"

Political note: Our new Curfew Center is due to go online May 1, a couple of weeks before election day. Not incidentally, the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime in all likelihood is due to begin taking effect tentatively and approximately around that same enchanted period*.

*UPDATE/CLARIFICATION (3/01) - Or maybe not; it is in flux.

The Allegheny County Community Infrastructure and Tourism board, which will dole out $80 million in state gambling revenue over the next decade, approved a $91,000 grant to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to help stabilize the dilapidated structure on Centre Avenue. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Although this is state money, this is almost certainly the kind of thing where it's appropriate to say, Way to Go Dan Onorato! And mean it. Now can we start talking about the fun part -- actually developing the site.

"This isn't a blind populous screed, and there really needs to be a measure of equity," [Mayor Fetterman] said. "Somebody needs to explain to me why AIG gets over $140 billion over a couple weekend powwows and we can't get a Subway franchise or a youth center." (P-G, L.A. Johnson)

Is it too early to start looking forward to the year 2019 and County Executive Fetterman?

It looks like McArdle Roadway did not make the cut on PennDOT’s ambitious project list for 2009. Check out the bridges and roads that will be repaired here.

I’d be interested to hear how these decisions were made. Perhaps McArdle Roadway repairs can be paid for via some other funding vehicle. For those of us that drive it regularly and for the millions of tourists that see a road, barriers, fences and a hillside in various stages of decay and disrepair, this is confusing and disappointing news indeed. (Mountain Girl, 15211)

That's just interesting.

Guests at the fundraiser were treated to the stylings of DJ Omar Abdul and delicious cabbage rolls and peirogies prepared by Helena Rudiak, Natalia’s mom. There is only one way to talk about this Cross CIty Fundraiser and that is as a booming success. (, Lizandra Vidal)

Everyone from the HUDDLER to President Obama seems lately to be coming out for Natalia Rudiak.

"I don't have any comment," Wheately told me last Friday when I confronted him with allegations that he ordered his office staff to perform political work on the public's time.

The allegations were brought to me by Brad Young, Wheatley's former campaign manager. (KDKA, Andy Sheehan)

Ouchy and possible complications for Danny LaVelle. Since these allegations were brought directly to KDKA and not part of any official investigation, this hasn't come in for much further scrutiny.


Back to politics. Patrick Dowd got his radio feet wet during an interview on the Mark DeSantis Show with a bunch of bloggers.

Chad Hermann asked something along the lines of, "How will you package your nuanced message and policy prescriptions in a way that will be effective in today's media environment?" The first thing Dowd said was that he's not into negative campaigning, because "that's not what wins elections".

I would politely refer Mr. Dowd to Barack Obama, who talked a big game about taking the high ground, yet at the same time could (and can still) get snarky, sassy, indignant and outright angry when discussing the policies and the performances of those who preceded him. How many times has he laid down the, "I won't take any lectures about X from somebody who Y?" And remember -- Iraq was a "dumb war". Barack Obama called for Change, and one way he did that was by tearing into the Status Quo in no uncertain, allusive terms.

Then again, when discussing the budget, Dowd said we should examine the city's real situation and "not put lipstick on it" so he's probably gearing up for all that. He also said there is a financial "crisis upon us", which differs pretty strikingly from what may be implied by someone having presided over a "$100 million surplus".

Julie Gong was given the floor to ask a question, and you just knew it was going to be the best question of the program because that's how these things work.

"So what have you heard when you go doorknocking?"

Dowd answered, believe it or not, garbage cans. He said he must have heard about those cans 20 or 30 times. When put on the spot, Dowd (it seemed rather spontaneously) pledged on the Mark DeSantis Show that never as mayor would he put his name on any city stuff.

When talking about retaining our young people, Dowd asked Julie, "What more than anything else would keep you in Pittsburgh?" Julie answered, "Jobs, I guess". Dowd replied, see? Jobs. Job growth. Jobs blabity blabity blah. In the absence of any fleshing out of what it means, "job growth" sounds downright platitudinous and Republican, unfortunately.

Now. Speaking of which:

Against my better judgment (why talk about what the other guy wants you to talk about?) at one time I thought I'd spend further posts critiquing the top portion of that campaign mailer. On first reading, it was impressive and even a little daunting. By the second reading it seemed somehow less daunting. By the third reading it was an outright joke document.

I am however deeply grateful (and maybe a little honored) that the official Ravenstahl campaign slogan is, as of this moment... GETTING IT DONE.

Where to start? Here? Surely there are even greater treasures to be uncovered further towards the back of the closet.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Luke: Telling His Story

Our Mayor is making his case for reelection via direct mail. Thanks to Matt Hogue we all get the scoop.

Here is what is being given top billing at this time:

Restoring Pittsburgh's Financial Health
I have moved the city from the brink of bankruptcy to three balanced budgets, no new debt and nearly $100 million added to the city's savings account.

If the city was on the brink of bankruptcy, it must have been very difficult to get it where it is today. Assuming that today is much less brinky.

Otherwise, someone would have done whatever it was beforehand, right? So what did he do that was so special? I know he submitted balanced yearly budgets, but the state oversight boards require balanced budgets. The true feat of strength may have been not allowing chaos to reign in the streets given our limited financial resources. Who cares if the streets themselves are like garbage.

But what did he do to get us from Point A to Point B? And again, where is this alleged "Point B"? Are balanced paper budgets showing a $100 million "surplus" in these years going to be good enough?

Given that our annual debt and pension payments are definitely going to skyrocket in the very near future, putting even more pressure on the city's operating budget (parking garage sales or no parking garage sales) are we doing things as well as we should be? Has Mayor Steelershizzle made any difficult choices to help us do any better?

That is a story I'd like to hear.

Image cap: Michael J. LeBrecht II (SI)

People Be Tweetin'

Braddock's Mayor Fetterman On Colbert

Near as I can tell, this is a blueprint for how a dynamic young mayor might parlay some minor celebrity and personal charisma into meaningful exposure for his or her city. (Early Returns)

Progressive Energy

We cribbed portions of this Bill Peduto missive care of Maria at 2PJ's:

On Wednesday, Pittsburgh City Council will vote on a plan to create an aggressive program of replacing all of our street lights with energy-saving LED lights

Councilman Peduto introduced his vision in December to make Pittsburgh a global leader in 21st century urban lighting. He has solicited and earned the support of The Clinton Foundation's Climate Initiative and Carnegie Mellon University's Remaking Cities Institute.

Councilman Peduto also earned the support of Mayor Steelershizzle. Whether he solicited it or not is a matter of interpretation.

It is important for Council to take action on Wednesday. Savings from LED lights have been as high as 85% and the life of the light is expected to be ten times that of an incandescent bulb. Pittsburgh can be a world leader in smart, sustainable, and cost-efficient government. Pittsburgh can be a world leader in smart, sustainable, and cost-efficient government. Click here and tell Council you want them to support the LED bill on Wednesday.

So did the bill pass? Looks like not yet. Darlene Harris introduced another amendment, and the bill is being held in committee until next week. When we find out what that's about, we'll update the post, but my feeling is this is a slam dunk waiting to happen.

One thing, though. As I understand it, pursuant to consultations and a prior amendment by the Mayor's office, the City will first solicit bids from research firms to conduct a study of which kind of 21-st century lighting technology we ought to use: LED lighting, magnetic induction, or fairydust.

(I forget the other two technologies).

I suppose this is a good thing, because randomly selecting one technology over others is uncomfortably analogous to awarding no-bid contracts. We should be clear on why we are choosing this over that -- it's a big investment and we want to make the superior choice.

It will be entertaining to see if Peduto's proffered technology -- LED lighting -- turns out to give the biggest bang for the buck. One would think that there are human beings in America that have already studied this very question, but who knows?

The real concern I have however is that it would be a shame if the study-doing process harshly stalled or somehow halted the doing-it process. These studies tend to add several steps through several bureaucratic layers, during which time the work can get placed on any number shelves. If the wrong shelves pile high enough at the wrong time, things can get very unfortunate. I suppose this is one reason why no-bid contracts are tempting in some circumstances. Some people get anxious about spending money; I get anxious about saving it.

Fortunately, this initiative seems too big and exciting to fail. Pittsburgh can be a world leader in smart, sustainable, and cost-efficient government.

The Song: Cheap Sunglasses

The place: Texas.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wednesday: The New Frankness

Former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo was assailed yesterday by a federal prosecutor as a glutton, a liar and a thief with a "royalty complex" who obliterated the line between public service and his own enrichment.

"The corruption in this case, ladies and gentlemen, is as astonishing as it was pervasive," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer told the U.S. District Court jury in his closing argument in Mr. Fumo's fraud and obstruction of justice trial. (P-G/PI, Lounsberry & McCoy)

The arguments on Monday were vivid and provocative.

A derisive federal prosecutor ripped into former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo for a second day yesterday, mocking him for telling "wildly shifting tales" as the FBI zeroed in on how he allegedly looted a South Philadelphia charity. (P-G/PI, Lounsberry & McCoy)

Tuesday was also highly compelling.

In media interviews when the Citizens' Alliance scandal first broke, Mr. Fumo said he had gotten no benefit from it.

Mr. Zauzmer said Mr. Fumo was forced to jettison this position after FBI Agent Vicki Humphreys followed the money -- using store receipts, credit-card bills, and bank records to reconstruct 5,000 suspicious purchases made with charity money.

Never in Mr. Fumo's "wildest dreams," Mr. Zauzmer said, did the senator expect Agent Humphreys and her colleague, Kathleen T. McAfee, to dig that deeply into the financial issues. (PG/PI, ibid)

I would actually be surprised if crimes this lurid and complex broke out on this side of the state. Nobody seems quite that hard-working.


There they stood, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, shoulder to shoulder on the reviewing stand for the Super Bowl victory parade. The politician seemed mesmerized by the reflected glory washing over the athlete.

Both young men, not yet 30, have had fame thrust upon them. One knows about football and little else. The other one was Ben Roethlisberger. (Trib, Joseph Sabino Mistick)

It's like everybody woke up on Sunday morning and had the same idea: time to be brutally honest about the state of our city's executive.

And if the city is upside down -- more going out than coming in -- with no end of this trend in sight, maybe the mayor should be tackling the big question in this campaign: How must the city be reshaped in order to survive? (Trib, ibid)

Reshape the city? Transform something? The suggestion that we need to transform anything is unfortunate. Let's just keep building big shiny pyramids and mausoleums in the Downtown area either with public money or with prodigious public assistance. As far as the nuts and bolts of government go, let's keep clinging desperately to our "Pittsburgh Voice" as though our lives and our jobs and the jobs of our committee henchmen and their relatives depend on it.

Then there was this, regarding the a North Shore Amphitheater:

But Mr. Dowd said the goal of improving the public spaces on the North Shore is a good one, and while he'd prefer to spend capital money on "critical infrastructure needs -- water, sewer, bridges and public transportation," he didn't simply kick this project to the curb. He'd want to see the developers' feasibility study first. He has his doubts that their assumptions still hold.


But Mr. Dowd was careful to say that the Rooneys, owners of the Steelers, were looking to breathe life into an area that had been nothing but a sea of asphalt for decades and "to the extent we can laud that, I want to laud that." (P-G, Brian O'Neill)


Personally, I'm looking forward to that ongoing tussle. But the reason I linked to the column is because in addition to calling him "Steelerstahl" twice, O'Neill points out that a project Luke strongly supports through actions (though he may not defend with words anymore) is actually very very very silly.

Then of course there was this. It seems to have occurred to a few people at the same time that it is time to cut Our Mayor down to size. It's a shame it all occurred on the same day exactly because it almost looked coordinated. Folks on the mayor's campaign like to joke that they're glad Dowd is running, because it's getting tiresome having no one to run against besides the media. There could be some bias, but the question would be why? It's not like the liberal media is railing against a Republican executive. (Is it?)

I think it can be more adequately explained by the fact that the media has to pay attention most every day of the week, and so is in a position to apprehend the reality better than most others. The challenge is that if our reality is that city leadership is unusually weak, directionless and self-serving at this time, that needs somehow to be illustrated with repetition, so that it can be apprehended. Yet at the same time it cannot be presented too simplistically, lest it be interpreted as personal animosity and therefore uncouth.

Fortunately there have been many specific examples to illustrate the truthful general themes, and we can be optimistic that more examples will arise. We simply need to be of a mind to capitalize -- it is after all our most vital responsibility to seize upon opportunities to reveal truths to our readers. I am going to lead with my Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald gambit. What are you going to do?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Gettin' On the Midnight Train to Georgia

From the P-G:

Georgia Blotzer, 59, of Mt. Washington, will try challenge Theresa Smith, 49, of Westwood, who took office last week. The other announced candidate in the primary is Rob Frank, 40, of Duquesne Heights.

Ms. Blotzer took 25 percent of the vote running as an independent after Ms. Smith won the Democratic Committee nomination, and said in a press release yesterday that she's now "liberated to run as the Democrat that I am." (P-G, Rich Lord)

This is an opportune moment to disclose that I am now doing some part-time communications consulting for the Blotzer campaign. You could call it pro-bono work, but it would probably be more accurate to call it volunteerism.

The views expressed here on the Comet obviously do not and will never in any way represent the views of Georgia Blotzer, Democrat.

She offered a four-point platform of improving services in the city's western neighborhoods, reforming campaign finance and contracting, developing strategically and holding regular meetings at "neighborhood hot-spots." (P-G, ibid)

MORE: City Paper Slag Heap.

Now then. This is also a good time to mention something that had been percolating in my brain since Theresa Kail-Smith's inauguration speech. I would not confuse this with a message that will resonate strongly among voters, but it does encapsulate some of the reasons why I find myself so supportive of Ms. Blotzer.

First, let us recall some of the speeches by the last crop of new members of Council:

"Our steel mills are gone and our economy is declining," [Mr. Burgess] said. "Our population is dwindling and our residents are becoming older. Our neighborhoods remain economically and socially homogenous, and our city's poor remain trapped in a cycle of inter-generational poverty."

The remedy: "Equity, in every contract proposed, and in every development planned. Equity, in every public dollar allocated and in every public policy recommended." (P-G, 1/07/08)


Mr. Kraus, who is openly gay, cited gay rights icon Harvey Milk, a San Francisco politician who was assassinated in 1978 "so that one day, some 30 years later, one's orientation would no longer be a factor in determining their ability to serve as an elected official."

He called for "a city where all people are invited to our great common table, to share in an equal voice and have every opportunity to participate in the stewardship of their futures, and have access to every resource that will lift them and their loved-ones up [to] the very highest quality of life." (P-G, ibid)


Mr. Dowd called for "ending the old politics of personality" so council can help "craft a new vision for Pittsburgh." He said he decorated his new office with "some smelly shoes" that he wore every day while knocking on hundreds of doors during the campaign. "They will stand in my office for the next four years, and they will remind me ... of the importance of communication and connection" with the people who elected him. (P-G, ibid)

Not quite as powerful, but a quick look at his campaign website reminds us that his message at the time was all about ending "patronage" and government's "culture of entitlement", which I think is where "the old politics" comes in.

These folks came into office wanting to make a lasting mark.

Smith had comparably far less to say on her big day -- aside from several appeals for "unity" and a great show of appreciation for the Committee ward chairs who made her victory possible (Mark Rauterkus). As far as an agenda, she did approach the question of "what is in the best interests of serving our constituents, and how are we going to make it happen?"

These were her thoughts on that:

When we can answer that by working towards compromise with respect -- decisions with dignity -- we will have one voice that will extend beyond the united community to a pulsating Pittsburgh.

Pulsating Pittsburgh? I wonder whose office wrote that. The speech was probably written by committee (no pun intended) but that wasn't the Theresa Smith with which I was familiar.

Respect and dignity were both underscored for effect. How do we unpack that line? It's tempting to assume, "It means nothing, it's an inaugural speech, it's just platitudes", but I really think she said something there. Translated:

By keeping the real debate about the city's future behind closed doors, and by ignoring calls for what would be disruptive "reforms", those who are accustomed to our way of government can continue to spend the public's time and energies on large-scale new construction that excites our constituents, caters to our suburban neighbors, and enriches our contributors. If we support this agenda faithfully, District 2 may finally host some of this development.

It's not as though that strategy doesn't have its internal logic -- but it's nothing District 2 hasn't tried before. Hopefully, this campaign will be about ways to craft practical, ambitious solutions to District 2's challenges (and to Pittsburgh's challenges) and bring about what we are all clear the District's voters seem to want: CHANGE.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Dowd, Ravenstahl Discussing Debates

Here is an excerpt from some Dowd correspondence back to Ravenstahl:

I do not, however, worry whether we are standing or seated when those conversations take place, nor is it acceptable that, nearly two months in advance, your admittedly busy schedule demands a near month-long gap (April 20th - May 19th) between the last proposed debate and the actual election. (Early Returns)

Mr. Ravenstahl is excellent on camera.

Here he is in 2007:

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mayor Ravenstahl, you must be joking...

Dizzle, my yizzles:

Mr. Ravenstahl sought to take several issues off of the table. He touted an order he signed last month requiring vaguely defined competitive processes for city contracts. (P-G, 2/20/09)

First of all, HA! The New Vagueness does not even take effect until April 15th. What's the holdup?


Noting that he won't get details today on which projects get stimulus funds, he said that process is "too important for us to be playing mayoral politics with. ... I would hope that the councilman, rather than casting criticisms about this, joins with us in this effort." (P-G, ibid.)

Oh, Luke doesn't think it's fair to play politics with the Obama stimulus funds? Because he's so on top of that stuff, and it's too important for Pittsburghers to worry their pretty little heads over?

While nearly 400 cities have gone public with ambitious wish lists they'll submit in hopes of getting some of the hundreds of billions of dollars in anticipated federal aid, Pittsburgh is playing catch-up, keeping what officials say is a $500 million list and another $1 billion in follow-up projects under wraps. (P-G, 12/18/08)

Later in the afternoon on the day that story broke, Mayor Steelershizzle decided it might be a good idea to release a wish list that either they'd been cooking up behind closed doors or had just thrown together in a state of media-induced panic.

The city's list was written by city and authority officials. Councilman Patrick Dowd suggested that more organizations be brought into the process -- and that appears to be starting. (P-G, 12/19/08)

Yeah, do you think it might be a good idea to discuss this as a city? Circle the wagons a bit, if only for our greatest opportunity to move forward ever?

This was very comforting:

Even as President Barack Obama told the nation's mayors they now have a friend in the White House, he warned that he would use the "full power" of the presidency to expose and crack down on them if they misuse the economic stimulus dollars meant to boost the economy out of its doldrums. (Chicago Tribune)

The President glanced up from his prepared remarks and addressed Pittsburgh's young mayor directly. "I'm looking at you, Clinton."

Mayor Steelershizzle never pays attention to anything important until somebody calls him on it. Take the 2008 budget for example. Which we also just found out about, even though yes -- it is 2009.

The city of Pittsburgh missed out on getting money from a coalition of nonprofit institutions last year, and will get less in the future than it did under a three-year pact that ended in 2007, officials said yesterday. (P-G, 2/17/09)

Oops. Only about $5 million less money there. Would we have even known about this were it not for the Council's special meetings chaired by Bill Peduto?

So the next day, we see some action:

"My understanding is that it will be signed soon, but I don't have a signed agreement," said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and for the fund. He said that once it is signed, the fund will wire money meant to apply to 2008, which will be considered the first of the three years of a new deal. (P-G, 2/18/09)

To UPMC et al's credit, they saw that this was embarrassing. Statewide tax-exemption for health care and health insurance enterprises is a real political "hot potato". These institutions amass great wealth, consume great resources, gobble up land, WE CAN'T TAX THE LAND, we all try our best to keep actual fisticuffs from breaking out in the street...

There is such a thing as the "conciliatory" approach to negotiations, and there is such a thing as forgetting to accomplish anything at all. Mayor Steelershizzle is letting UPMC and Highmark muddle through one desperate public relations gaffe after another, and doing the City no favors in terms of securing financial security while he's at it.

Now. This one is a bomb waiting to go off:

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority yesterday invited consultants to send in their suggestions for leasing out garages, surface lots and street meters. The winning firm wouldn't take control of the garages but might help set up a process toward that end. (P-G, 2/21/09)

WE DON'T HAVE A MEMBER OF COUNCIL ON THIS AUTHORITY BOARD! WE HAVEN'T HAD ONE FOR OVER A YEAR! WHY NOT? WHY? WHY? Patrick Dowd already warned you. Why not just clean up the Parking Authority already and get some oversight in there? It has been nothing but trouble. Why lean into that which is illegal, improper, unethical and unwise?

Well. That's this week's news regarding Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, aside from messing around with Bill Peduto's ideas suddenly during an election season on general principle. Tell me if I've missed anything.

I am going to write a long-winded history of the Ravenstahl administration and its epic misadventures to the tune of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. You think I am kidding, but I am not. This kid is a bad-government machine.