Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Band: Alien Ant Farm

The Year: 2001

So You Know...

As I commented over at the H Spot, I don't believe this means he still doesn't have five votes to do things The Bill Peduto Way forever and ever amen ... it means they (the Council) still don't have five votes to pass a Recovery plan on Tuesday, period. Tuesday is the last day to get a plan done the "normal", unadventurous way.

By my math Having a Plan On Tuesday is losing as of last reportage by a 1-3 margin. That leaves five votes which are hypothetically amenable to vote for a Plan regardless of the several outstanding hangups about it, and one of those is the Finance Chair.

However the Finance Chair is the one most likely to be swayed by the three differing and unique arguments (Payne, Dowd, Shields) arising from the three known no votes. And the Finance Chair is also the one most likely to have a shot at persuading several out of the final four to go along with him. ^

CONCLUSION: I think a whole lot depends on the Coordinators' actions on Tuesday, if there are any. Pittsburgh could get served a real wake-up call.

^-RECONSIDERATION: That is, unless Bruce Kraus was serious and has already made up his mind about voting for something without all contained in the Council's originally introduced packet of amendments. Then it's more like 1-4 already.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Friday Surprise: ARNET RESIGNS *

My first thought upon learning this news was, "HOLY CROMULAN CHEESE!"

Pittsburgh school board member Heather Arnet is resigning Tuesday. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Arnet had served a bit less than half of one term. She cited a need to tend more closely to the Women and Girls Foundation, which she had just recently represented before City Council regarding the Pay Equity Study. One has to wonder whether having become a lightening-rod for criticism from others on the School Board to the point of what she had characterized as "slander" had anything to do with it as well.


Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will appoint Ms. Arnet's replacement, and that person will serve until December 2011, Ms. Colaizzi said. (ibid)

Hmm. Who lives in that district of the East End who might be suitable?

*-UPDATE: Colaizzi and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, through his spokeswoman, pledged to work together to pick a replacement. Ravenstahl does not have any particular candidates or qualities in mind, and wants an open application process, spokeswoman Joanna Doven said. (Trib, Tim Puko)

Friday: αυτοκράτωρ ***

Here we go again:

Amid a reshuffling of city boards and commissions this week, the Ravenstahl administration dismissed the author of a Zoning Board opinion that blocked a controversial electronic billboard proposed for the city's Grant Street Transportation Center with the support of the administration.

Alice Mitinger, a lawyer with expertise in zoning issues who had been appointed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment by the late Mayor Bob O'Connor...
(P-G, James O'Toole)

David Toal, the ZBA member who had removed himself from the Lamar proceedings in order to avoid a conflict of interest, has also been replaced.

In light of the fact that the zoning board's decision against Lamar was upheld in the Court of Common Pleas this week, this may be a good time to ask Mayor Ravenstahl himself whether it is now appropriate for the half-constructed digital billboard on the public building to begin coming down -- and if not, at what point would that become appropriate.

No, I do not know whether Lamar Advertising simply may reapply for the same zoning variances and special exceptions it sought previously through this newly constituted panel.

In terms of precedent, I know UPMC initially had its application for beautiful signage atop the USX Tower formally rejected by the Planning Commission -- yet successfully reapplied for it the following week, after He Who Must Not Be Named delivered a strident presentation in its favor. However, that instance of reapplication for an identical project may in fact have been less-than-perfectly permissible.

I can practically see the attorneys warming up in the bullpen.

Here is Judge James' minimalist 5-page opinion. Click to enlarge:

Below is the Zoning Board decision now affirmed by the ruling above. It is comprised of Alice Mitinger's decisive 17-page rejection preceded by Wrenna Watson's 2-page dissent in favor of an approval.

Contrast Watson's two references to "the totality of the circumstances" on document pages 1 and 2 with Mitinger's item #10 under Conclusions of Law and Decision on page 14. (Item #9 on the same page is also worth a gander.)

APROPOS: "Autocracy Accusations", KDKA; "Boogeyman Politics", WPXI

*-CHIMING IN: Madison knows Mitinger and is still ticked; Infinonymous analyzes some of the replacements.

**-UPDATE: Lamar is weighing its options. Isn't everybody? (P-G, James O'Toole)

***-ADDITIONALLY: Dok Harris gets his statement on. (P-G Early Returns)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

R.I.P. M.J.J. P.S.A.

That was the beginner course. This one is a little more advanced. Good luck!

Quick Hits Breaking-Like

Whether "by intent or by sloth", Pittsburgh city government is "designed to discriminate" against women and minorities, says Council President Doug Shields. (P-G, Karamagi Rujumba)

Judge Joseph M. James puts yet another nail in the coffin of the Lamar Advertising digital board, which last year ripped through city government like a killer asteroid made out of rusty sheet metal. (P-G, Ed Blazina)

Given what we see above, I would suggest to Rich Lord that this is no time for him to be vacationing on some beach somewhere!!!

Kevin Acklin proposes among other safeguards the creation of "clear guidelines" including a "minimum level of just cause" for sacking a board or commission member. (Andy Gastmeyer Strategic Communications)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Council Passes Amendments: Political Fantasy or Political Likelihood?

Okay, here is what has happened today Act 47-wise, with the barest minimum of side drama:

Most of an e-mail exchange between Councilman Patrick Dowd and Dean Kaplan of the Act 47 oversight board was read aloud. You know the type by now -- our councillor was requesting some "clarity" on "process".

The response from Kaplan indicated on one hand that "the 2004 Recovery Plan will remain in effect if the Amended Plan is not approved", which would seem to ameliorate our June 30th problem in regards to labor negotiations and arbitration. Good news.

However, it also indicated / reiterated that only the Act 47 Coordinators can amend the proposed Plan, NOT the City of Pittsburgh or City Council, and that they will "strongly consider" petitioning the state Secretary of Community and Economic Development to impose sanctions that would include the withholding of certain funds. Bad news.

Doug Shields was particularly vehement that Kaplan was mistaken about who gets to amend the plan. Write that on a Post-It and stick it somewhere out-of-the-way for now.


On the agenda was a decision whether or not to preliminarily approve the new Act 47 Plan. Remember Council has to lock-in its final answer during Final Action, which for this would be scheduled on Tuesday: the last possible day to get this done under the wire.

Council's Budget Director read into the record a packet comprising 11 pages worth of "amendments" to the Recovery Plan -- amendments which Council is not literally empowered to enact, but which represent requests of our Act 47 overseers to amend their plan in such a way.

Finance Chair Bill Peduto asserted that during a telephone conversation of yesterday evening, the overseers informally agreed to the unobjectionability of roughly 80 to 85% of these sought-after amendments.

These included things such as a facilities management plan, the institution of best practices in budget presentation, regulation of the city vehicle fleet, the inclusion of a professional risk manager, changes in how Animal Control stores its data as well as training for humane officers, and functional consolidations. All this and regular status reports to City Council on implementation of the Plan's recommendations. To this blogger, it all sounded like enforcing aspects of executive purview of the type that executives tend to guard jealously.

Also there were amendments to petition the State Legislature to levy certain taxes and several other matters. Presumably these would result in joint petitions on behalf of the City and the actual Act 47 coordinators themselves, theoretically providing more oomph to the requests.

Finally, there were loosenings of restrictions on "incentivizing" city employees.

Thereafter occured much discussion about what might occur dependent on how the overseers respond:

PEDUTO: Said he will NOT vote for a Recovery Plan that fails to include a hefty portion of these items (that wasn't his verbiage, but he kept it pretty vague).

MOTZNIK: Supported the amendments -- and seemed actively involved with Finance Chair Peduto -- and took Peduto at his word that most amendments would be adopted by overseers. He did not state a clear position on what he'd do otherwise.

KRAUS: Said he will NOT vote for a Recovery Plan without "these amendments", period, full-stop.

SMITH: "Definitely" can't vote for a plan without "a majority" of the amendments.

HARRIS: Via teleconference, supported amendments, especially those on workforce incentives. I did not catch a clear position on what would happen should they not go through.

SHIELDS: Abstained from taking a firm stance of the what-ifs. Of the opinion that this raft of amendments is too weak any darn way -- and recall our Post-It note. He seemed resolved to bring that, as well as the issue of whether or not Pittsburgh is already constitutionally empowered to levy a commuter tax, into another arena.

BURGESS: Supported proposed amendments, but declared his intention to vote IN FAVOR of Act 47 REGARDLESS of whether or not the overseers incorporate a single one of them. This was justified on multiple occasions with reference to the "unimaginable" "catastrophe" that would befall Pittsburgh without state oversight, which enables the city to "survive".

DOWD: Supported proposed amendments, but declared his intention to vote AGAINST Act 47 REGARDLESS of whether or not Act 47 incorporates every one of them. This was justified with assertions that Act 47 is onerous, has been un- or counter-productive, and most of all prohibits us from levying a commuter tax, and thereby addressing our fundamental issues.

PAYNE: Nothing she said indicated any intention to vote for Act 47 under any circumstance, but she "predicted" for all assembled that the Coordinators would take our 11 pages of amendments, pare it down to "just one" page, and still the rest of Council will end up giving it 8 votes next week.

So if Bill Peduto is correct and a sizable majority of the amendments are accepted, things look really simple and peaceful. If too many of the amendments get rejected (which we should know hopefully by Friday), the calculus gets daunting.


And after all of that ... individual Council members started proposing their own additional amendments to this list of proposed amendments, on the principle that since we're only asking, it would only be polite to allow every Councillor to attempt to adorn the thing with whatever they desire. One of these for example was the wholesale elimination of restrictions on new employee contract enhancements -- something that would be popular among unions but would certainly be very unpopular with state overseers charged with reigning in our expenses.

As the amendments packet was adorned like a Christmas tree, some skeptical members started referring to the packet as "fantasy amendments" and "fantasy legislating".

But in the end, the Act 47 Recovery Plan, now accompanied with a host of "recommendations", was granted preliminary approval mostly for procedure's sake, along with multiple qualifications that implied strongly this approval may be revoked.

Also Notable:

Dowd noted that of the sanctions that could potentially befall Pittsburgh should it not timely adopt a Recovery Plan, the vast majority would affect funds slated for the Urban Redevelopment Authority rather than the City's general fund. The implication I guess was who cares about those crumbums anyway. This I found to be a pleasing attitude.

The G-20 Summit: What Are We Going To Wear?!?

In other major cities, all across the North America and around the globe, nobody else has to deal with occasional delays in construction or the odd vacant storefront. Certainly not in this roaring economy.

What are we going to do? What will they think of us, and what will they write? Maybe we should encase everything that is not gleaming and perfect about Pittsburgh in tin foil, and simply tell everybody Christo was here. Failing that, is there time for us to get a boob job?

See P-G: Mark Belko, Reily & Roddy, Nate Guirdy; and Trib: Bonnie Pfister.

Okay no. Serious suggestion: how about we juice up! the City's public WiFi signal?

I love that we have one period, but it is somewhat on the slow, weak and patchy side. I actually usually have to duck into a Brueggers or a Subway when I want to connect wirelessly Downtown -- and we don't want to make Prince Abdullah resort to that, after wandering the streets waving his laptop around in search of that second or even first bar of service. Let alone those all-important reporters who will be getting into misadventures and will be wanting to write about it and transmit it to their editors (if they have any) instantaneously.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Acklin Denounces Dirtywork

Mitt Romney-worshiping mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin (I-Manchuria) released a statement in regards to the removal of Debbie Lestitian as Stadium Authority chair:

“It’s unfortunate that there seems to be a pattern by this Mayor to remove public servants who attempt to serve the public good over doing his dirty work.”

Read the full statement HERE.

RELATED: Madison is similarly ticked.

Tuesday: PERESTROIKA!!! (Hold The Glasnost...)

This is revolutionary news:

The changes to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Act 47 recovery plan -- which include putting some of the mayor's own proposals in writing -- focus on merging services such as payroll preparation, tax collection, computer services, personnel, parks administration, legal services and some police work.

"We're basically looking at changing the function of city government to concentrate on public safety and public works. Administrative functions would then become part of a countywide system," Peduto said. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

A productive Monday on the 5th floor, though that is not so unusual as has been rumored.

Peduto, council's Finance & Law Committee chairman, said he formed a coalition that includes members Darlene Harris, Theresa Smith, Doug Shields, Bruce Kraus and Motznik. (ibid)

Tonya Payne would not be available for this business because she seems irreconcilably bearish on the need for Act 47's existence. Ricky Burgess would not be available because he is acting as ballast for the Mayor's original position. That leaves Patrick Dowd as the mystery insurance vote for now -- a mite odd since these technocratic reforms seem right up his ally. His would make for powerful objections if they were to materialize.

According to information in this article, a very rough $10 million in annual savings could materialize from this transformation, which would be just enough to plug the budget hole. It would not be anything near enough to solve our swiftly approaching legacy costs crisis, but it should be enough to obviate the need to raise city taxes for the extent of this 5-Year Plan.

Among the proposals under discussion is the possibility of extending the city's 0.55 percent tax on payrolls to nonprofit organizations. That would require the approval of the Legislature. Anticipating the significant odds against the Legislature agreeing to that change, Mr. Ravenstahl and council members have also discussed alternatives including the imposition of fees of $25 for each hospital admissions and new levies of $50 to be paid by colleges for each undergraduate. (P-G, James O'Toole)

It's unclear whether the proposed consolidations would eliminate the thirst for some of those revenue-generating tactics.

It needs to be recognized at this point that Mayor Ravenstahl's longstanding appearance of fealty towards UPMC looks greatly diminished now by his insistence on inventing ways to tax them. This blogger hopes that even if the consolidations go through and are fruitful, the payroll prep tax continues to be vigorously pursued as a matter of justice.

While the outcome remained in question, the atmospherics of the new talks represented a distinct change in tone from the acrimony that has divided council and the administration in recent budget deliberations. (ibid)

SAKES ALIVE, I hope above all else that O'Toole is correct in that assessment. The most striking (to me) exchange during last week's budget showdown went largely unreported and spoke to its importance:

Mayor Ravenstahl frequently argued the point that without a little unity up in this City already, it would be frightfully difficult to lobby the State Legislature for any kind of relief.

Councilman Shields then brought up a couple of urgent letters he had written to Ravenstahl in the past -- one on stimulus funding, the other on the financial "meltdown" -- that he said went unanswered. Yarone Zober could be heard to sigh to his neighbor at the table, "This is what we're here to talk about?"

But Shields pressed his case in terms of Ravenstahl's unity -- and finally asked in a voice that quavered with understandable embarrassment:

"How do you have, how do you build 'unity' when you never have a standing meeting with the Council president?"

Ravenstahl -- who had not until that point been stumped or even slowed by anything the Councillors flung at him -- thereupon was at a looong loss for words. Finally he grumbled, "I'm here today."

That's when it fully dawned on me what had instantaneously dawned on Comet Senior Political Analyst Morton Reichbaum a week prior, while watching Councilman Peduto rail upon the Mayor's absence. He asked me, "Do these guys talk to each other at all?"

The answer, obviously, was no.

I hope I don't need to describe what happens when adversarial colleagues don't keep at least cordial lines of direct communication open. Frustrations fester and breed suspicion. Dark fantasies and conspiracy theories erupt. Sinister caricatures of The Other take the place of reality. And in regards to executives more especially, information about the world becomes ever more carefully and artfully filtered through only chosen subordinates. Historians never stop writing about the dangers of that.

In this instance, Shields pointed out to Ravenstahl that if he had been consulted about the proposal to triple the commuter tax before it was released to the media, agreement would have been ruled out; Shields takes the position that that seizing a big chunk from a minimum wage-earner's paycheck is cruel and unjust. And it sounded as though he'd already staked out that position politically and publicly, so he had no alternative but to oppose it moving forward. A progressively scaled tax might have went down easier.

Somewhere in the middle of the long oration which continued, Ravenstahl interjected, "I think this is part of our problem..." I wish we'd have gotten to hear the end of that thought, because it seemed like we were making progress at long last on the underlying dynamics. But Our Council President would not be stopped, so we'll have to wait for another occasion.

Now here's the beauty part: after that exchange, Peduto and Ravenstahl started going back and forth, not so much at each other's throats but rather in a kind of swift cha-cha. Bill pitched an idea, and Luke made a concession but offered a warning. Bill offered another suggestion, Luke counter-offered. It all very quickly went over my head but for a dream-like moment I thought to myself, "There's my city government! Look at them go!"

Yet all too soon arrived Councilman Kraus's fateful turn, wherein he attempted to contextualize and clarify the "beach vacation" accusations of the previous week. This led to Ravenstahl's "[Something] is a joke" moment, and right away we knew we had arrived at a deeper, tougher layer of the onion.

All of which is to say -- I hope last Wednesday's Council session really did let loose enough pressure to make genuine breakthroughs possible yesterday. I hope James O'Toole really is correct about this "distinct change in tone from the acrimony". I hope this avenue is pursued much further by all involved. If it takes more and perhaps routine rounds of quote-unquote "compelling" to achieve these dynamic results, that will be just as enjoyable to cover.


Of course, in a City as complex as ours, it will also be necessary for everyone to carefully and maturely compartmentalize their specific gripes, so as not to pollute the fragile understandings which are flowering in other arenas. I'm confident we can handle that.

Today for example, I am off to witness the Planning Commission's deliberations on the North Shore Uglitheater. With fairly widespread public opposition to the terms of the development deal in general, and near-unanimous antipathy for the facility itself, I haven't felt this kind of suspense surrounding a decision since election night in Iran.

It seems rather academic, but there is a disagreement over whether former Stadium Authority chair Debbie Lestitian was in the midst of a term on its board or whether she was acting on borrowed time. This report suggests that she was recently renominated to a new years-long term, but it also suggests a lot of things that did not in fact go down as planned.

Monday, June 22, 2009


I was wondering how this could not have happened already:

A city Stadium Authority board member who criticized two North Shore land deals and an entertainment complex proposed by the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Columbus developer has been removed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Remember that last year, Ravenstahl also removed Council member Bill Peduto from that 5-member Authority board after Peduto attempted organize stakeholders for a community benefits agreement regarding the same development.

"I serve at the pleasure of the mayor and he has the right to replace me," she said. (P-G, ibid)

True that. Which made this August 2007 quote from the Mayor during an Ethics Board meeting / dialogue stand out as odd even at the time:

"Under no circumstances have I, or will I, influence planning commissions or other board and commissions that make city decisions." (Comet)

Although the developer's North Shore Master Plan has been duly approved by the Planning Commission over what were largely public objections, the design for the allegedly "ugly" amphitheater still has a ways to go for approval.

Monday: The Final 6th

The attention-grabber today is a long and complex article in the Post-Gazette about parts of the North Side trending toward greater criminal violence.

"We understand these most recent shootings are part of a kind of turf battle that pits law-abiding citizens of all colors, ages, social classes and family types against criminals who seek to push us out and regain turf lost from improving conditions in the neighborhood," Greg Spicer, president of the board of the directors of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council, wrote in a letter to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl last week.

"Their efforts must be met with all the means at the disposal of city government ... or all of the gains made here on the Northside in recent years will be lost." (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)


This week, Act 47 is high on everybody's to-do list. Necessarily so. The City's financial blueprint for the next five years, due to be completed a week from Tuesday, will have a multitude of direct impacts on the City's public safety capacities, long- and short-term.

I would expect however that by early July, the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime (PIRC) would be almost ready to take out of the oven. With headlines like these, it would at least time to start opening that oven and poking its contents with a toothpick.


Easy to label former Allegheny County chief executive Jim Roddey a nay-sayer with headlines that sound like the one in this article, but read within:

For example, he said, the city of Pittsburgh spends some $4.5 million a year to maintain its 2,000 acres of park land. Allegheny County, which has 12,000 acres of park land, could take on the city's 2,000 acres and still operate the joint park system for about $3 million.

The consolidation of parks and public works departments, he said, would be the first step in the merging of other government operations like records storage, telecommunications, vehicle fleet and information technology, among others. (P-G, Karamagi Rujumba)

Equal time:

"[Mr. Onorato's] record speaks for itself," Mr. Evanto said.

Functional consolidation of services is already under way, he said, citing the county's merger of five 911 centers; joint purchasing of commodities, electricity, and the county's takeover of fingerprinting services for the city. (P-G, ibid)

Extremely minor note: enthusiasts of Comet eschatology might be amused to learn that we almost identified the Mortal Kombat fighter Liu Kang as representing Jim Roddey in the video we embedded in our last Act 47 post.


This column keeps growing on me every time I read it. If there's a category out there called "Best G-20 column", this one just barely qualifies as an entrant and then I think goes on to win it.

Lawrence took on the unions, patronage and his own party's leadership.

Mellon handled the Pennsylvania Railroad, other recalcitrant industrial giants and Republican state leaders.

Mellon found the cash and Lawrence gambled his political career. Because of this powerful duo, Pittsburgh was transformed by smoke control, flood control, the Golden Triangle, new zoning laws, the redevelopment authority and the parking authority, new parks, new housing, new highways, new public facilities and a regional planning strategy. (Trib, Joseph Sabino Mistick)

Quite aside from Mistick's larger point -- which is so good it's more than a little painful -- the above reads to me like a shout-out in favor of the Parking Authority.

Pittsburgh's strategy for dealing with its looming pensions crisis -- given what seem to be reliable reports of Harrisburg's utter disinterest and even disdain for our plight -- is shaping up to be "lease the parking garages or bust!!!"

If there is a stand to be made in favor of maintaining public control over our parking facilities (and perhaps jacking the rates like good little environmentalist progressives who are destitute) then it better be made soon, and it better come with a workable alternative.