Friday, October 30, 2009

Mary Beth Buchanan Gives Two Weeks Notice

In the end, it must have been this. But it looks for all the world like they'll throw her an office party with cake and everything.

"It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to serve the people of Western Pennsylvania and this great nation," she said. "After more than eight years in the best job anyone could ever have, I am looking forward to the next chapter of my professional career."

It had been rumored that Ms. Buchanan is pondering a run for Congress against Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire of McCandless next fall, but she has never confirmed that. (P-G, Paula Reed Ward; see also Trib, Tony LaRussa)

What do we think: is Altmire even vaguely vulnerable to a challenge to begin with? And if so, is Buchanan a plausible fit for that district?

Sidebar: what do know about the presumptive successor, David Hickton? Seems he's a qualified attorney, but he's usually first described as a "Democratic fundraiser". That makes me ... nervous.

That's Right I Am SO Going There... **

Not even a question at this point.

From the time he was little, Luke has known the value of money. When I would give him a dollar to go to the candy store, he didn't waste all of it getting candy for one day, he would stretch that dollar so that he could have candy for a week. I've watched proudly as my son carries those same principles into running the city. (P-G, Cindy Ravenstahl)

Luke Ravenstahl is 29 years old.

Let's assume Luke could not have been permitted to travel the outdoors himself to transact business until he was eight years old -- which is still on the young side but we're in a generous mood. 21 years ago it was 1988.

There were no "candy stores" in 1988. There might have been that one high-end Monroeville Mall candy boutique next to the food court, but that's about it.

But let's put even that aside and say America's last "candy store" was in Summer Hill, and the rest of us simply didn't know about it.

The price of a standard Hersheys chocolate bar in 1988 was 40 cents; competition would have demanded (and memory confirms) that all similar candy bars -- Milky Way, Almond Joy, Kit Kat -- and prepackaged, boxed candies such as M & M's would have been about the same price. Figuring in sales tax, $1 would have garnered just two candy items in 1988; hardly "a week's worth" by any credible standard. If Luke wanted to spread out this meager dollar's worth of candy over seven days, he would be have had to break off individual squares of Hersheys bars or sticks of Kit Kat, and painstakingly re-wrap the remainder. Even if he really was that anal-retentive about his candy, that method in the end would have made far more sense than pocketing the spare change from a dollar bill towards additional trips to the store. But that's not what Luke's mom is claiming in her very specific attempt to illustrate being "smart with a dollar".

Besides which, by 1988 no parents could get away with giving their kids $1 per week in allowance. I was getting $5 per week by the time I was old enough to earn allowance, and my dad wasn't a district magistrate.

In short, Luke's mom's story doesn't add up -- but the image of our future mayor, no doubt in short pants and a wool ivy flat cap, scampering down to the candy store on Main Street for handfuls of Beeman's Gum and Chuckles Licorice must surely be familiar and heartwarming to Pittsburgh's sizable elderly population.

If the local media had any self-respect at all, they would be calling Mrs. Ravenstahl right now and asking: was that anecdote scripted by Yarone Zober, or John Verbanac?

*-UPDATE: Reg Henry is also outraged (Post-Gazette)
*-UPDATE, THE DEUX: Mike Madison, unamused (Pittsblog 2.0)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thursday: All Good News, Really, in Retrospect!

Now our leaders are outright competing to save the libraries:

Next week, [Doug Shields] will introduce legislation to shift $600,000 from the city's fuel account, which is flush because of lower-than-expected fuel prices. The second payment would be part of the 2010 budget, which council can amend after it gets it from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl early next month. (P-G, Rich Lord)

It is only a two-year stopgap, but thus far it doesn't sound very much like the Library trustees are enthused about having received the breathing room. Because now there are costly repairs and upgrades that need to take place at those particular branches. You know, the ones that had been slated for shuttering due solely to low rates of use. It's weird.

Anyway, Shields' move comes on the heels of this:

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he is willing to increase the city's contribution to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to help keep branches open.

"I don't anticipate the city will be able to do the whole $1.2 million," he said, citing the Carnegie Library's one-year deficit. "But we'll be pushing to locate funding for the four facilities and the library as a whole." (Trib, Bill Zlatos)

That represented the completion of a 179° shift over the course of a two week period in the Mayor's position, but a very welcome one. I've said it before: if it weren't for elections, democracy totally wouldn't be worthwhile.


The Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime is back in the center ring for the moment.

David M. Kennedy, heralded 13 months ago as a solution to a surge in shootings across the city, was back in Pittsburgh yesterday preparing the way for an experienced team to "jump start" a long-awaited anti-violence plan here. (P-G, Rich Lord)


"It may have taken longer than what we anticipated, but we've got to get it right," said Mr. Huss. Implementation of the program was slowed by drawn-out contract talks with Pitt, and the need to shift funding after money initially slated for PIRC was spent on other public safety needs. (ibid)

Okay. One can only hope this initiative has consistently received as much of the administration's energies as, say, clearing the path for exciting development projects. It seems like that is what gets the administration up in the morning.

Mr. Kennedy said such a meeting could occur in Pittsburgh "within several months." (ibid)

What's a several? Is it fair to say five? Okay, let's say the beginning of April. We need to keep on keeping track if only for due diligence's sake. Sooner or later it's only natural to wonder whether either the priorities have changed somewhere along the narrative, or maybe we learned things we didn't anticipate about the Kennedy model, or else possibly we encountered resistance from one of the many centers of authority which have a role in this. All these things would be excellent to know.


Speaking of things returning to the forefront:

A new commuter train serving Lawrenceville, Oakland and Hazelwood could be built for $80.9 million and draw new development to those neighborhoods, according to a report presented Wednesday to the Pittsburgh City Council. (Trib, Matthew Santoni)

Newsflash: this thing might actually happen!!

I heard there was a URA pep rally in Lawrenceville yesterday evening, concerning plans being crafted by experts from on high for "Allegheny Riverfront" development -- and this little choo-choo actually was mentioned as a selling point. Despite the fact that it is Bill Peduto's baby. So the takeaway for the day might be to start buying up properties in Hazelwood, y'all.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I Have a Dream

I dream of a day we will have at least three 24-hour commercial news networks dedicated to delivering Pittsburgh regional news.

Enough so that at least one network can be blatantly biased, while the other two can remain only moderately or subtly biased in some way. You know, so we get all the relevant perspectives. Enough so that they're competing with each other like bull stags to beat each other to the punch, out-entertain the actual entertainment channels, and fill their infinite news holes.

Okay, that one might be unrealistic.

Let's say I dream of the day we will have at least one daily half-hour's worth of television programming dedicated to local news, somewhere on the dial.

Not what we have now -- not crime, weather, sports and pap. I dream of a program where unless there is a devastating tragedy on the order of Stanton Heights, an historic blizzard or an actual championship, then the first story by default will always concern City Hall. And the second story by default will always concern City Hall. And if there isn't enough breaking news from City Hall (or which will summon the attentions of City Hall) reporters will go out and manufacture pseudo-stories by pulling controversial quotes somewhat out of context, or pull key statistics that make something sound like an emergency.

And if there still isn't enough news to fill that measly one half-hour, I want news analysts and competing pundits brought in to talk about how we ought to be thinking about what was just discussed during the first 15 minutes.

I dream of news anchors that stare us down with troubled intensity and use their everything-is-dire television news voice all the time -- even when talking about a humdrum meeting of the Parking Authority, or a possible future run by a longshot candidate for County Council. I dream of digital graphics and sound effects for everything, and of most of all I dream of producers who daily threaten to fire their reporters if they don't hunt down and sensationalize the local news well enough -- or they will bring in somebody who can.*

Moreover, I want a half-hour news magazine hosted by somebody who's totally in-the-tank for Luke Ravenstahl. Somebody I can really enjoy hating, because that at least would be something. Then some of the other news outlets can criticize the overbearing influence of that person, and maybe he or she will say something over the line or embarrassing, or maybe even wind up in a scandal involving prescription pain medication or sexual harassment. Yeah.

Because I'm sick and tired of hearing that "Pittsburgh voters aren't engaged in this election", and that election and every other election. That this issue is too inside baseball and that issue is too inside baseball, and every issue is too inside baseball and nobody cares about anything.

If you desire people to pay attention, somebody has to grab them by the lapels and make them pay attention. Somebody has to work hard day in and day out to build an audience that does not exist yet but can so very easily exist because we see these audiences elsewhere, and inform them of important matters with all the bells and alarms and activity with which we are accustomed to receiving our important information.

You may not love everything about the national media, and you may not love everything about the tone of the national debate. But take a look around, and you'll notice that everybody is a heck of a lot better informed and more engaged with national issues than you'll find them with local issues. And it's no accident. We made them that way. We can do it with local news.

Nothing is wrong with people in Pittsburgh. The media is simply sound asleep to some huge opportunities -- and given the right patience, the right commitment, the right vision and the right moxie, there's a lot of money to be made.


*-The same mentality should already be operating for print media, obviously. It just might do the trick.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Building Inspection Leaderless ... Again

Richie Aprile's old crew from the Soprano's had more stability than this. Or the percussion section from Spinal Tap.

Chief [Sergei] Matveiev, 42, said he is leaving because he got "a terrific opportunity" to serve as a code official for Plans Examiners Inc., and later to become managing director of that company's emerging architectural subsidiary. He is a registered architect. (P-G, Rich Lord; see also Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Uh huh.

Kevin Acklin released a short statement:

The Mayor's inability to bring stability to the Bureau of Building Inspection is hurting our neighborhoods. When both the ICA and City Controller Michael Lamb have issued reports criticizing the performance of BBI, the City's response to neighborhood complaints and Sergei Matveiev's resignation are huge steps backward for revitalizing this bureau and our neighborhoods. Under an Acklin Administration, you will see real leadership for, and investment in, our neighborhoods.

I wonder if anyone will try to draw a connection between turnover at the helm of this department, and the sort of unprofessional political shenanigans for which it is popularly said to be utilized.

For that matter I wonder if any of that stuff came to a head during this election cycle.

Perfect 10's, and an Improper 3

I conducted a little experiment on the two Independent mayoral challengers: I asked them each, "Let's say you were not a candidate for mayor.

"On a scale of -10 to +10 ... -10 being Luke Ravenstahl, 0 being neutral and +10 being your other opponent ... whom would you support in this mayoral election and how strongly?"

Here are the results I was handed back:

Dok Harris voted: +10 (most definitely Kevin Acklin)
Kevin Acklin voted: +10 (most definitely Dok Harris)

I thought this was remarkable. I was expecting them each to support the other guy, yet leave a good bit of room for hesitation: scores of a lukewarm +4 to a fairly generous +8. I wouldn't have been very surprised if either of them responded with a negative integer either; perhaps Harris could have used the opportunity to dismiss Acklin as a turncoat; or Acklin, Harris as a lightweight. But no. Both of them registered the maximum possible support for the other.

I guess it speaks to how profoundly intolerable they both believe is the Ravenstahl administration. For whatever reason.


Which by the way dedicated three City employees to join the Mayor at the last televised debate.

Now, I know that's supposedly "inside baseball" or a "picky snot" issue, but I hadn't seen it written elsewhere so I thought it was worth mentioning. Zober, Doven and White. Those would be the three.

I'm happy to grant that no matter where the Mayor of Pittsburgh goes, at least one City employee should be around him at all times with a Bat Phone. You know, just in case somebody Downtown starts shooting pigeons with an air rifle, and it's not Ginny. But three? That's a lot of public manpower. One could make the argument that Doven most especially oughtn't have been there, because that's exactly what McKrell is for. I've recently received a letter stating that I underpaid my City income taxes and owe additional money ($9.87), so I'm presently more aware than usual of the fact that I'm actually paying for Doven's public relations expertise. I personally don't want my contribution to the City inuring to Luke Ravenstahl's electoral benefit in the context of debate prep or post-debate spin.

Or one could be upset that without both Zober and Ravenstahl at the same time, who's in charge of City Hall. Or one could be upset that with David White gone ... well, I'm sure there's an argument, we're paying him ninety grand.

Anyway like I said, it's not an issue likely to outrage the masses, but since some politicians at the State level have recently "gone to jail" for similar stuff, I thought it was worth pointing out.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monday: Finding the Old Romances Detestable

Setting aside how you personally feel about Dok's candidacy, does anyone else think this treatment was disgusting?

At the top of the story:

But Harris the younger got his [injury] in a medieval role-playing game, after catching his cleats on a rock while running with a padded sword made of plumbing products. (P-G, Timothy McNulty)

Okay, noting that the sword was made out of "plumbing products" was unfortunate, but you're illustrating a contrast with his father. Fine.

Mr. Harris suffered his knee injury during college, while running through the woods during a live-action battle sponsored by NERO, the New England Roleplaying Organization. He had been into the medieval fantasy games since he was 16 and read about them in a magazine for Dungeons & Dragons fans.

Mr. Harris -- who is single -- ... (ibid)

Alright ah, yes, you've already covered this material. If you think it's that important to emphasize which recreational magazines he read in college, knock yourself out, but I hope the biographies of the other candidates will spend just as much time on embarrassing college shenanigans.

Franco Harris said he thought Dok would enter politics one day, but the answer back then was different. "I'm going to be a scientist secret agent," he would say. (ibid)

And those are the last words of the article. I'm going to be a scientist secret agent.

That's what we're left with. That's the take-away. That's the jewel of wisdom they wished to impart.

Once again: if eight-year old Luke Ravenstahl ever expressed an interest in being a rock star astronaut, I expect that the Post-Gazette will spend about six paragraphs exploring that, and also maybe run a photo of him in his Robin underooos. Otherwise this was clearly an assassination.

After the world's strangest endorsement, it also makes you wonder.


Because we know the Post-Gazette knocks it out of the park every now and again.

Zappalas hold posts at casino association, reads the headline. No differentiation. No need to explain the import.

It's sort of like reading, Swine Flu cases rise in Allegheny County.

We have the requisite obsessive covering of tracks:

Those names aren't mentioned on incorporation papers or tax filings, which require a listing of officers and key employees. Neither do they appear in a slew of press releases or advertisements issued this month to influence legislation that would legalize table games and set taxes and fees for casinos that choose to offer them. (P-G, Tracie Mauriello)

Which involves lots of playing dumb:

[Board member Chuck] Hardy said he didn't know the extent of Mr. Zappala's or Mrs. Zappala Peck's involvement except that they had been with the association from the beginning. (ibid)

I mean lots of dumb:

Ken Smukler, who was hired three weeks ago, said the association pays Mrs. Zappala Peck and her father, but he did not know their salaries. (ibid)

Plenty of misdirection:

Mr. Smukler said that, until now, the association's focus had been on litigation rather than legislation.

"There was a lot of litigation that was going on," Mr. Smukler said.

Mr. Hardy contradicted him, saying the association's first two years were spent organizing and securing office space in Downtown Pittsburgh on the 30th floor of One Oxford Centre. (ibid)

(Yeah, that sound like two years worth of work.)

We have some extremely familiar hair-splitting on the definition of lobbying, and hence the necessity of filing reports:

"The association sends e-mails to legislators and we did pay for a radio spot, but that's the extent of what the association has done," Mr. Smukler said.

That sounds like lobbying to Mr. Kauffman of Common Cause.

"By every conceivable definition of lobby law, they're lobbying. They're supporting a specific bill and asking for lawmakers to vote for it," he said. "They're lobbying."

Association officials disagree. The letters to lawmakers represented views of individual casinos, not the association, they said. (ibid)

Conspicuous confusion:

At times it is unclear, even to the association itself, which casinos it speaks for.

The association recently issued a press release "on behalf of" The Rivers, SugarHouse, Foxwoods and Mount Airy, saying those casinos would sue if smaller casinos were allowed to expand.

Five hours later, it issued a correction saying the association does not speak for Foxwoods. And a week later, Mount Airy's CEO George Toth wrote a letter to lawmakers saying he had no intention of joining legal actions proposed by the casino association. (ibid)

And finally, smug contempt for the press:

Mr. Zappala declined to comment and Mrs. Zappala Peck did not respond to telephone messages left last week. (ibid)

Something new to add to the file.

The Pittsburgh Comet is going to retire very early in the new year for the purposes of putting energy into something more lucrative and far, far less discouraging. The problems of our little civilization are above my pay grade and seemingly above anyone's pay grade or apparent interest. Target date for closure is roughly Friday, January 22nd.

We will spend the intervening time and considerable time thereafter praying for rain -- a good long, hard rain in Pittsburgh, in Allegheny County and across wide swaths of Pennsylvania -- and we recommend you all do the same.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Verbanac E-mails Addendum: High Level Issues!

Just a little extra from the original "sheaf" of e-mails that did not make it into my last post. Maybe somebody will find it interesting, or can tell us "What they're really thinking".

This is all part of the exchange falling under the subject header, High Level Issues!, of which the Comet already reproduced Issue 3: Strategic Planning and its proposed day-off retreat by the Mayor, Zober, Ford, Grattan and Verbanac to Nemacolin.

Remember that the characterizations of these situations are either Verbanac's, or how Verbanac would have liked the Mayor to conceive of them -- not necessarily gospel.


From John Verbanac, 4/17/07, Subject: High Level Issues!
To: Luke Ravenstahl, possibly Yarone Zober (unclear)

Issue One: Jake Wheately and the Hill District/Development Issue

Jake summoned me to a meeting on Friday to throw a bunch of threats and eptitats my way concerning you and Dan. I actually believe that he believes their position. It's scary. He has started with the threats of hurting the City/County in Harrisburg. Obviously he reached out to me because he wants me to pass this venom along to you and Dan. I'm not mentioning anything to Dan unless you and I agree. I pushed back pretty strongly to Jake that I felt their actions are not negotiating in good faith or asking for something that can be granted. It's extreme and they are treating anyone that doesn't just say yes as an enemy. I further told him that I felt their politics where forcing people into the arms of their enemies (Payne, Robinson, 3rd and 5th ward democratic committee.) This backed Jake up.

I see a potential play here. Something to consider. If they can back off all the specifics on their CBA, they might be able to make some headway. If they don't expect government money, that means that their "bank" is the Penguins. Thus, the real issue would be whether or not you and Dan agree to work with them to squeeze the Pens for whatever you can get for the community (they do have a good deal). If the discussion was dialed back to that specific issue, you may have common ground and avoid a war? I think you can get there for a discussion if you desire to.

Jake wants a meet with you and Dan before, "the bullets start to fly."

Reply from Luke Ravenstahl, 4/19/07
To John Verbanac, Yarone Zober


Thanks for your insights here. Getting caught up in what we do here daily I always find these very helpful. I am on top of all these with the exception of the Wheatley/Hill District issue. From what I understand a meeting was held in the community last night and Wheatley & Co. had their heads handed to them (granted my source is Tonya). I didn't get the whole story but I will get it later. Food for thought... either way the Hill District issue is going to be a tough one.


Issue Two: Steelers and the North Shore

I'm picking up that the Steelers think you are forcing the Barden Master Plan through and that Sidney Kidai is under Barden's spell. I know that you and Yarone have tried to calm their concerns, particularly via Sacco last week. Nevertheless, this is what they are feeling.

Truth is, the North Shore transportation issues are abundant. I do believe Barden will be economically challenged to do much infrastructure improvement.

A couple timeline issues to keep in mind are that a Supreme Court decision is expected late summer early fall. That's a critical point. The second issue is the likelihood that the City will be sued on and around planning issues. If they (Barden) don't have every "I" dotted and "T" crossed, and if City Planning is duplicitous or wanting in any regard, the chances are it will be in the papers.

It seems to me that the local property owners are giving the City a great deal of "cover" to consider all the issues and to take its time in doing so? They should have something to say. In the end, they should be forced to offer their solutions -- in the form of the conditions to be applied to the permit. If that scenario plays out, then all parties can be made happy.

Reply from Luke Ravenstahl:

As for the Barden issue -- Yarone I think we need to send him a pretty clear message (and I'm not sure the best way to do this) that we're not going to cut any corners...

Replay from John Verbanac:

A few suggestions for getting the point to Barden. Jeff Letwin can do it. Schnader harris is Jeff's firm and they represent Barden. His office -- a woman that works for Jeff -- is handling the zoning. It's either that or directly to Barden.

I was informed today taht Sidney Kaikai informed the steelers that it is his intention to approve the master plan so they may begin demolition ansd site prep. Expect a call from Art Rooney if you haven't got it already.


Issue Four: Staffing

It's normal to confront legal issues and resistance when moving people around. I'm not surprised you guys have faced some of those issues. I have mentioned to both Yarone and Pat that I believe it's critically important to secure outside labor law expertise for the use of the Mayor's office only. Care has to be taken to ensure this counsel is not biased or compromised by relationships/history. That precludes most all local folks. I have passed on a few names to Pat over the weekend as I understand he is facing a few of those issues. A good counsel will ensure you are not being bureaucratically bullshitted by anyone. All in all, it's probably a silver lining that you are finding out where everyone stands. Will only make your solution and execution better. After all, this is your time friend, not theirs.

Reply from Luke Ravenstahl:

As for staffing we're going to make sure we have all moves clearly lined up before we pull any trigger. We're getting much closer though... update you later. Take care.