Friday, April 24, 2009

Thursday's Mayoral Debate Online!

Uploaded without comment or analysis.

Unfortunately I don't have the Life Skills to provide notes at this point.

I don't mean to Hide the Ball.

YouTube Part 1 -- YouTube Part 2
YouTube Part 3 -- YouTube Part 4
YouTube Part 5 -- YouTube Part 6

Apologies to Carmen Robinson for poor camera work during her opening statement. I accidentally kicked my Jagerbomb over onto the carpet and was tending to the spill -- score one point for the Pittsburgh City Paper and its tripod technology (which also edited together a great short exchange). Thanks to the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western PA for organizing the program.

City Accused of Dragging Feet on Hill Planning

As today's Post-Gazette article suggests, this was an extremely entertaining press conference in the Hill District yesterday:

The "political divide" betwixt Payne and Wheatley and others was touched upon in this otherwise unexemplary P-G article on the Council races.

Payne indicated that she would not "jump out in front of the community" by supporting anything the community does not support -- thereby giving Wheatley an opportunity to bring up the Penguins / Isle of Capri casino proposal.

Carl Redwood seems to be growing into leadership, and is becoming a very practical voice for community organizing. Here he provides some intriguing details on the planning process and the steering committee:

Since Danny LaVelle is a candidate for the City Council seat currently occupied by Payne, we invited him to share some thoughts:

I'll give Ms. Payne the opportunity to make a few minutes' rebuttal the next time I see her and I have my camera on me.

In regards to city government "dragging its feet" for six months or more and other problems that have been associated with this particular development process, I think it is all a great example of what Carmen Robinson on several occasions last night described as "hiding the ball".

More on last night's mayoral debate eventually.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Happy Hour's Over. Or: The Mayor's "Committment to Green"

It has been almost five months since the Mayor's stated intention to green up and make more energy-efficient the City-County Building.

He held a press conference inside it at the time to highlight what an energy hog it is -- furnaces and air conditioners sometimes active at the same time, for example, necessitating open windows. He seemed to suggested that a thorough energy audit was "being conducted."

Yes, he may have gotten a little over-enthused about the reach-goal of energy-generating wind turbines, but the major impression left was that a specific problem, both practical and symbolic, had been marked for solving: our waste on 414 Grant Street. So we were told Pittsburgh would submit bids to private firms to conduct an energy audit.

Almost five months later, and there are no plans to seek proposals for the audit -- nominally because of the wait on federal stimulus dollars. This I don't understand.

Stimulus money we are told is going toward "shovel-ready projects"; and yes, the actual physical overhaul of the building will be expensive and an excellent candidate for stimulus money. But we know we have to examine the building first -- one way or the other we need the information to figure out what to ask for and thereby become shovel-ready. The lengthy delay to simply release an RFP and begin compiling proposals in a file cabinet is not understandable yet.

(Speaking of delaying RFPs -- I sit here in the Hill District branch of Carnegie Library, waiting for a political party to occur outside in celebration of an intent to shortly release a planning RFP, though that RFP might just as easily have gone out many, many months ago as well. But that's another story.)


Meanwhile, we are actively awarding grants to help build buildings that are not LEED-certified Gold, Silver, Bronze, or Aluminum -- nothing at all.

LEED-certified failures.

But state Sen. Jim Ferlo, a URA board member, objected to the change.

"I'm worried that if this is approved without the LEED certification it is going to set a bad example [for other developers in the city]," he said. "I'm not willing to do that."

Nonetheless, board Chairman Yarone Zober, chief of staff to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, urged his colleagues to approve the grant. He warned that forcing the developer to spend more money in such a tough economic environment could jeopardize the entire project.

"I don't want to end up with a LEED-certified nothing," he said. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Not what one might call "progressivism".

Building "nothing" has one advantage; it provides the space and the opportunity for building something even better. You never know if a developer will go back to the drawing board and come back with something better after all. Or the setback could be a needed indication that market conditions still need to improve a little.

Maybe it's not fair to pin this one on Mayor Ravenstahl. It is true that during the daytime, Zober is Ravenstahl's chief of staff, and then at night he is also chairman of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority. So he might have been going off on his own there.

In that case, we have to ask -- where was Lindsay Baxter, the city's Sustainability Coordinator? She should have muscled her way into that URA meeting and made certain the board understood just exactly how seriously Luke Ravenstahl takes this sustainability business.


Finally, there was the solar panel. One has to wonder how long Pittsburgh's one solar panel is going to get carted around the city like the Arc of the Covenant.

One can't be too hard on Mayor Ravenstahl for getting into the weeds a little bit when discussing the impact of the solar panel on the day's rally. Obviously it was not actively "providing" energy to the speakers. Obviously it did not on that rainy day accumulate and process energy for the Earth Day event, although he did say "even on a day like today, we have enough energy".

One does have visions of the Mayor's staff frantically purchasing sun lamps the day before to shine on the solar panel overnight, but that's all besides the point. It was good symbolism.

The point is, he seems to have more specific excitement about solar energy than any other environmentalist avenue. I think that's because solar energy is the Mayor's kind of green: big, shiny and expensive. Just like a sports arena. It even kind of looks like an LED screen.

(Which also reminds me; we know the dreaded Lamar LED on the GSTC was to be furnished at Lamar's expense. Where did all those other neon bells and whistles come from, and the flashing checkerboard background? At whose expense did the rest of the electronic Christmas tree come, and who got paid for it? But that's another story.)

I want to applaud Mayor Ravenstahl's evident interest in environmentalism, I really do. I just think he really needs to keep at it, learning more about it from a diversity of sources. Earthy, crunchy, granola-y sources. And I'd like him to move forward with the City-County Building, or explain better why that very practical, money-saving, and quietly historic project has been abandoned.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Solar-powered Mayor!

Don't forget our rivers on June 20th, or our trees ever:

Hey, Cronies! Turn down your hot water heaters, why don't you:

I caught up with Mayor Ravenstahl and city Sustainability Coordinator Lindsay Baxtor for a moment prior to the program to talk about the 'greening up' of the City-County Building.

Ravenstahl's administration says it has not yet solicited bids from private firms to perform an "energy audit" which will be necessary to guide the complex improvements. Baxtor indicates that the city is waiting for the general federal stimulus picture as it relates to Pittsburgh to clear up. I tried to pin them down on a "summer or fall" release of an RFP, but that aspect seems to be in a holding pattern until further notice.

Wednesday the 22nd: The Calm of Lake Superior*

Let's turn you right round baby right round like a record baby right round round round.

*-UPDATE, 1:17 PM:
Please notice the Hill District Development update below, or just read this City Paper article.

Mountain Girl was liveblogging:

7:48PM; Dowd: “This administration has undermined the department of city planning.” Mayor: “Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods.” Talks about the rehabbing of Market Square and smirks and says “oh yeah, by the way one of the persons that’s going to be living there is now in Boston and moving back to Pgh.” (

So was Anthony:

Balancing a budget means NOTHING. You can balance a budget by over-estimating revenues, people!!!!!!!!! So shut up, Luke, with the budget balancing [redacted]. (T&A)

Mark Rauterkus provides an analysis of the debate that introduces the term "subjugation". Here is the link to his post, but here is the definition:

Etymology: Middle English, from Latin subjugatus, past participle of subjugare, from sub- + jugum yoke — more at yoke
Date: 15th century
1 : to bring under control and governance as a subject : conquer
2 : to make submissive : subdue

PGH Is A City is still blogging up a storm despite climbing the ziggurats of Peru. She offers four reasons to vote for Luke Ravenstahl and one reason (she won't) vote for him. Which one of those do you think we're going to show you?

Why I won't vote for Luke (again)

1.) Superficiality. Luke favors the superficial rather than the down-and-dirty. He'd rather pay millions for security cameras or buy $250,000 of trashcans to install on streets littered with relics of old trashcans than deal with major issues the city faces like PWSA bonds, the pension crisis and crime. Instead, we get witty press releases and manicured joint statements with Dan-the-tax-man. Voting for Luke is like voting for the football captain as the home-coming king back in high school.

Carmen Robinson, one of his adversaries, skewers the mayor on his stance on crime. A former police officer and current lawyer, she's someone who knows a thing or two about crime. She thinks security cameras are a waste of money and wants more better-armed beat cops walking our streets. Sounds good to me. Thanks to the Comet for his solid interview of Carmen.

Aw, shucks.

Councilor Patrick Dowd, the mayor's other adversary in the up-coming election, wants to deal with the pension crisis and the PWSA. I could go on about him and why I like ideas, but I've already done that.

Councilor Bill Peduto has grand ideas that are well-researched like commuter rails and energy efficient street lights, but he's decided to stay out of the ring this time around. (PGHiSaCity)

And now. Councilman Dowd fired off a letter to several of the Act 47 coordinators -- the state oversight board which sometimes seems to have less power and perhaps consequentially falls under less criticism than the other state overisght board, the ICA.

Mr. Dowd requested that the next Act 47 "recovery plan" be guided by some principles.

At least one of them was a breadcrumb. It was #4 out of the 5.

As you well know, in 2009 "Non-Departmental Operating Expenditures" constituted 34% of the budget and offered no specificity relative to the costs for employee benefits by department. The single largest line item in the budget provides managers with no tools for understanding much less containing costs. The revised plan must contain an immediate resolution to this problem or we must all acknowledge that any other oversight efforts will fail. (Dowd office via PDF)

That will teach them.


In an effort to find a consultant who can provide a comprehensive plan identifying community needs -- affordable housing, economic development, educational facilities -- the city's planning department issued on April 6 a "Request for Proposal" (RFP) to more than 300 firms. And the city is expecting lots of submissions.

(Editor's note: After this story was published, a spokesperson for the Urban Redevelopment Authority informed City Paper that the Hill District RFP was not released as scheduled on April 6. The city has delayed the release date until April 23.) (City Paper, Chris Young)

I wonder, in all honesty, at the need for consultants. Whats wrong with our residents, their leaders, and the good old fashioned expertise and public processes of the Department of City Planning? Someone remind me why the URA is involved?

Although the planning process is just beginning, the community is working against the clock: If advocates can't settle on their own development proposal, the Penguins can submit their own plans for the 28-acre site immediately surrounding the new arena after Feb. 19, 2010 -- without community approval. But Redwood says he's confident that the neighborhood will meet the 2010 deadline.

"We'll be able to do it," he says. (CP, ibid)

I sure hope so. Once the election is out of the way, we may need another scandal or something to put the final pieces into place.


P2PAC announced its endorsements last night. Drumroll, please.


That's an encouraging lineup of Pittsburghers if I ever did see one.

The lack of an official endorsement in contests not addressed in these endorsements we are all told is not a reflection on yada yada yada, but rather has been guided by such practical and normal considerations as yada and yada. It's a good little lineup of four for a fledgling organization. Let's try to get at least 3 out of 4 of those in there and at least one out of another two, and we'll call it a good spring.


The Busman's Holiday: Ravenstahl: "I did a pretty good job of not answering it, didn't I?" (AUDIO)

The Radical Middle: Unpacks what had transpired to elicit that comment.

In desiring access to records of the Mayor's public schedule, I don't think we're talking about "campaign strategy", and we're definitely not talking about press conferences; we're talking about a record of 1) his public schedule of events as a candidate and 2) the meetings he takes as an officeholder and an employee.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tuesday, 4:21: The Big Takeaway

When it comes to political showmanship, nobody does it quite like Stewie and Brian Griffin:

NOTES: The Pittsburgh Comet acknowledges that there are such things as real addictions, and further does not advocate running over prohibitionists with trucks. Please don't come after me, Ms. Buchanan.

City Finances ($$$!): A Pernicious Question

Alright. Clear the room.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl again leaned heavily on his "three straight balanced budgets" to show he has put us in a "strong financial situation" -- and the truthfulness and accuracy of his budget was again called in to question.

Complex stuff, right?

But 2009 is not proceeding as smoothly as did 2007.

This year, Ravenstahl sort cast his gaze downward and to the side in response to pointed criticism, readjusted his feet, and only tentatively got around to referencing that the state's Act 47 overseers and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority not only approved but "lauded" budgets passed under him.

"So there you go," he offered. "Third party verification".



These are folks who were appointed by and serve at the pleasure of whom? Bill DeWeese? Mike Veon? John Perzell? Folks who owe Vince Fumo favors? Ed Rendell and associates? Do proper records even exist?

Take this clown, for example. Please. He was found already to have privately stolen the city's business, yet he's still at the helm.

The ICA under its lifetime Executive Director Henry Sciortino looks to be one of the least transparent organizations ever legislated into being, if this report from the Busman's Holiday is any indication. It makes the URA look like the Knights of the Round Table.

I hate to offer something that sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it ain't no conspiracy. It's expediency. It's apathy. It's business as usual. So long as the right people continue to receive a cut of Pittsburgh's considerable action, the state of Pennsylvania isn't likely to lift a finger to destabilize our politics.

Their philosophy: "Whatever the goose that laid the golden egg needs to say -- within reason, let him have!"


During the debate, Ravenstahl said proudly that the so-called "no bid contract" for $1,020 garbage cans went through "a competitive process" after all.

Through the state's purchasing pool. Its vendors.

Gotta wonder why the state is splurging on the Cadillac of garbage cans. And customized, no less.

Ca-ching, ca-ching. These are the same folks that robbed us of our asphalt plant the minute they took charge, and directed us to begin purchasing from the state's pool. We even get to send our own drivers and trucks to fetch it from halfway across the state for the privilege.

Now think on who gets to invest our savings in the stock market, in the bond market, and everywhere else: the same selfless geniuses, these opaque political appointees. And the same private-sector megalobbyists that put them there.

Another Example:

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority board yesterday got a first look at a plan to have professional contracts of more than $25,000 awarded only after multiple firms are invited to submit proposals, graded according to pre-set criteria and reviewed by a committee. (Post-Gazette)

It's that much of a strain to do things right around here? We need to appoint a brand new committee? For what was our existent Authority board outfitted? Politics? Business?

Who's been looking out for us?


Patrick Dowd knows all about this. In detail. He has explained pieces of it in snippets during unguarded moments, and through allusions and suggestions. His legislative agenda and his famous "open letters" provide hints if you connect all the dots, but you've got to wonder why he doesn't just spell it out plain as day, for all to see, with specifics.

No, seriously. You've got to wonder.

Patrick Dowd must cease being circumspect and abstract, and must stop waiting for his own third parties to verify for him -- or we'll all have to wonder if he's worried more about his political future than Pittsburgh's future.

The city requires courage, and Dowd was dumb enough to volunteer to lead it. It's Elliot Ness or go-home time.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Open Thread: 'TAE Debate*

I have it waiting for me on VHS. How'd it go?

I caught only the closing statements, during which Dowd assailed Ravenstahl for exhibiting "cronyistic behaviors".

Please tell me that somebody actually named a crony or defined a behavior. My confidence in John Q. Public apprehending what that means is somewhat on the low side.

*-UPDATE: My own breakdown resides in Comment #15. Suitable for The Cutting Edge or similar.

Ravenstahl Briefly Submits to Real Questions

You'd think that'd be good enough, right? Especially since the forum was sponsored by the NAACP, B-PEP, and the WPBPA?

Dowd criticized Ravenstahl for showing up one hour and 45 minutes late for the forum. Ravenstahl addressed the forum separately without appearing on stage with his rivals. (Trib, Bill Zlatos)

That awful Patrick Dowd. How dare he criticize the mayor for something that he did? Dowd should immediately apologize to the families of Luke Ravenstahl for suggesting that our mayor is fundamentally uninterested in confronting real questions in an uncontrolled atmosphere.

Our Mayor, who at length did prove himself gracious enough to speak at a roomful of minorities in his trademark bored, surly and borderline hostile manner, offered a preview of his debate talking points (KDKA, Bob Allen):

You all know in 2004 this was a city on the brink of bankruptcy. This was a city that was laying off employees, closing facilities, et cetera. You fast forward to today, this is a city with $100 million in our savings account, we've balanced our budget three years in a row.

Yes, by all means let's fast-forward to today.

Let's fast-forward past the fact that those layoffs and closures resulted in the very seeming-financial recovery for which today he seems to be taking credit.

Let's fast-forward past the O'Connor administration and its plan for ceasing new borrowing and its financial strategy for the future in which we currently live.

Let's triple-time fast-forward past the fact that the City Code requires balanced budgets, that state oversight gives that requirement real legal teeth, and that no mayor could possibly submit an unbalanced budget if he or she set out to do so.

And let's totally fast-forward past the fact that the budget of which he speaks is a nonsense goofball document.

To wit: Here, give me a minute. [Takes a minute]. There. I just wrote up a budget showing that I will have $10,000 in my "savings account" at the end of the year.

It is true that several expenditures which we know I will be making (rent, utilities, food) do not appear anywhere on my budget document. And it's true that my budget relies upon revenue I expect to collect from my dad, who feels sorry for me and knows I can't survive without it. And it may be true that I've included some revenue I hope to generate in future years into this year's document without being clear on what that is, because hey, why not. And it's technically true that I'm $150,000 in debt, which even makes an imaginary $10,000 pale in comparison.

But hey! I'm showing $10,000 in my "savings account"! Do you think if I take this document to a bank, they'll be impressed? No? Then why should voters be impressed with yours?

Past two years, we've seen record amounts of investment in the City of Pittsburgh when it comes to economic development, record amounts of building permits issued, there are people working.

Just about all of the development of which he speaks is enormously subsidized by taxpayers. It cannot be held as evidence of anything regarding the investment climate, save for the willingness of persons to accept money when it is offered to them by the government.

And as to the success and viability of those enterprises: it is all prospective, potential, projection, wishful thinking.

That is, except for the casino: a privately funded enterprise being constructed because Pennsylvania only recently legalized gambling and reserved one of its few licenses for the City of Pittsburgh. Unless he'd like to take credit for legalizing gambling.

What else you got?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Interview: Carmen Robinson

"It's a fear tactic used to campaign," is how attorney and retired police sergeant Carmen Robinson describes her rival's demand for an audit of a past Water Authority bond deal.

"It's just what Obama accused George Bush of."

"Obviously, it was a sweetheart deal", Robinson readily agrees. She just thinks Mayor Ravenstahl is hardly the only person to blame for it. "[Councilman Dowd] should have been a little more responsible."

"I just would think myself and Dowd would be a little different; we're both very progressive-minded, and out to fight for the City of Pittsburgh."

I warned her: that sounded dangerously close to an endorsement.

"Looking at his views, coming into the race," she Robinson reflected, "I thought he would have been more people-oriented. And maybe he is -- but fear tactics isn't the way to do it."

Yet at the same time, instead of focusing narrowly on one transaction, Robinson would address the larger concern in a different manner.

"Let's have an investigation into whether the City really is for sale."


Robinson says she decided to run for mayor way back in April of 2008, prompted by what she calls Luke Ravenstahl's "lack of vision".

She was troubled specifically at that time by what she was hearing about negotiations with Hill District and Uptown residents regarding the new Penguins arena.

"I was really extremely angry -- I should say, passionate," she clarified quickly and a little coyly, "about the amount of assistance the Penguins were getting from the city."

"Mayor Ravenstahl was rejecting every attempt to respond" to entreaties from the surrounding neighborhood, is how she remembers it. "He didn't seem to really care."

"He wasn't taking them seriously. He so quickly and easily rejected their gripes and concerns. So I started following him."

"I wasn't stalking him," she added with a smile -- but she did begin attending more and more community gatherings featuring our mayor. That's when "the light came on", as she describes it: Luke Ravenstahl, she asserted plainly, didn't seem to care about poor people.

"Especially when you can tell they're really poor," she adds. "He just sort of nonchalantly dismissed their concerns. It was odd."

We asked then what is her own vision for restoring prosperity and a measure of justice to the Hill District.

"I have to tell you," she answered frankly. "Looking at it as an officer, the most important neighborhood to me is the one most in need. To me, running neck and neck, it's Homewood and Lincoln-Larimer."


"I think it's ridiculous when pundits say, 'Pittsburgh fared well during the recession'," Robinson said, in a haughty imitation of a television academic.

She describes a town that is "bipolar" -- relative affluence and safety in some areas, desperate poverty and high crime in others, and a shrinking middle class throughout. She is not impressed by Ravenstahl's boasting of crime at "40-year historic lows".

"He's right, but it's absurd to capitalize on," says Robinson. "If you have a low crime rate and a high homicide rate -- which one are you concerned about?"

Robinson is anxious to treat crime as "a public-health issue" and get to "root causes".

"Invest in our middle class. Give a little help to our neighborhoods that need it," she outlines. "Are we going to have a variation of rent control, for neighborhoods that are being improved? Are we going to have commercial tax abatement" for smaller business districts in struggling communities, she asks.

The "core cause" of despair in these neighborhoods, she argues, is a "lack of hope".

"Gun control is just a distraction. Of course we'd like to get guns out of the hands of criminals, but guess what -- they're criminals".

As for drug decriminalization, "I've heard that from as early as I've been in the academy. You can legalize everything, it won't do any good. It's about hopelessness."

And don't even get her started on security cameras.

"$4.3 million on surveillance equipment -- which is supposed to deter crime. As a police officer, I'm scratching my head." The technology may help prosecute some crime, she says, but it's not going to deter anything.

Robinson half-seriously suggests it would have be better to spend far less money on huge, antiquated cameras that are clearly visible to all around -- at least that will be noticed by criminals.

"And what's with this out-of-state company getting the money?" she asks. "And who's going to man these cameras?"

Robinson would rather the resources remain in Pittsburgh. "You want to talk about a deterrent. Beat cops are a great deterrent", she says.

And it doesn't help that our officers are both outnumbered and outgunned. "Right now we have M-16s versus AK-47s."


Yet Robinson is just as passionate about her "public health" approach to both crime and poverty, pledging to dedicate further resources to re-open shuttered community centers and improve our "failing" schools. Since tending to these root causes is expensive -- even more expensive than security cameras -- I had to ask where else the money is going to come from.

She had two suggestions close at hand.

One lies in redirecting state and federal grant money, which flows through the Urban Redevelopment Authority and other agencies, to make sure it benefits needy communities and smaller developers. She calls for "dramatic" changes in how the URA apportions resources.

"The problem is not, 'The U.R.A'," she says using scare-quotes, "It's their vision. It should be on the middle class. Right now the URA is focused on things like Bakery Square -- gentrification."

"We're knocking down housing 'projects' and putting up single-family homes," she complains, and in turn those people flee to areas like Braddock and Duquesne. "Do we really have low-income housing in Pittsburgh?"

Another source of untapped revenue for Robinson's economic program would be the quote-unquote "non-profit" sector.

"We have more universities and more hospitals that are so-called 'nonprofits' -- it's absolutely ridiculous. Let's take one building -- let's make it the Cathedral of Learning."

Hypothetically, she says, by taxing the value of that one property, we would generate ten or twenty times as much as we currently garner via the entirely voluntary Pittsburgh Public Service Fund.

"When someone brings me a deal like that," she says of the most recent proposal for payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, "I'm like 'Hmm, what are you trying to sell me?'"

"Did the Mayor try to negotiate back?" she asked, incredulously. "My initial reaction is to say, 'They low balled me.' I'd ask for triple."


"Then I see some absurd amount of money spent on something ridiculous", like video cameras or worse, she sighs. It all comes down to realigning the city's priorities with its needs.

"Listen, we don't need money for this, we need money for that."

And that is usually defined as encouraging the growth of a middle class where she sees one shrinking and suffering.

"If I lose, I'd like the person who does win to have vision," she explains. "And if I'm running against two guys with no vision -- that's a problem for the City of Pittsburgh."

The Song: Gear Jammer

The band: George Thorogood and the Destroyers

"City government is not a game!!" ... Anonymous