Saturday, November 7, 2009


The one which was just passed by County Council by a 14-0 margin.

"While the bill ostensibly imposes a 'fee' for general county services, it appears to be an attempt to circumvent commonwealth law and impose real estate taxes on otherwise exempt real property in a non-uniform matter," Onorato wrote in a letter to council. (Trib, Bill Zlatos)

Mr. Onorato is, first and foremost, a legal scholar.

New and necessary city legislation which Mayor Ravenstahl will submit on Monday will almost certainly perform an identical function. That makes this especially interesting.

The County Executive is kowtowing to some significant presumed gubernatorial campaign supporters by offering this legalish rational as a political fig leaf. It is time for the Council to carve out a bit of its own unique space. County Council can allow Mr. Onorato to act out his display while still politely overriding his veto, staying the course with respect to this long overdue legislation. The powerhouse of our region's economy must be allowed to become a part of our economy, or we will forever be foundering like this.

Friday, November 6, 2009

McCullough, Councillors Provide Easy Fodder *

It was time to make the sale of a building official, and Allegheny County Councilman Charles McCullough (R-Hilarity) proposed an amendment to the bill:

Council members, who later admitted that they had not read the two-page amendment, approved the "rainy day fund" in a 13-1 vote, with only Joan Cleary, D-Brentwood, opposed.

Upon examination of the amendment, however, members learned that it provided restrictions on how the fund could be appropriated and raised the number of votes such expenditures would require. (P-G, Dan Majors)

Yeah, those 2-page documents can be a real bear.

Some council members said they had been lied to and that Mr. McCullough had "pulled a fast one." During the course of the discussion, there was shouting, interruptions, profanity, insults and, at one point, the throwing of a copy of the amendment to the floor. (ibid)


Congratulations Pittsburgh City Council, looks like you won yesterday's daily Dignity Prize in a squeaker!

*-Er, UPDATE: Obviously we are just kidding our good friends at County Council over such minor, endearing foibles! In actuality they are all more than alright, and today would be a good day to let them know you feel that way regarding the passage of the service equity bill -- personally via telephone or e-mail or even through a letter to the editor. We wouldn't want them to get them "incensed" all over again!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Dan Onorato comes through for Giant Eagle

Time to explore this "Settlers Ridge" zone in Robinson Township:

A pyramid of pomegranates. Revolving doors wide enough to drive a forklift through, let alone push a grocery cart. And a hydroponic garden where lettuce and herbs are grown on the sales floor.

Not to mention 250 brands of beer sold by the six pack. (PBT, Tim Schooley)

Kind of makes the Shadyside location sound like a Get-Go.

“It makes it a regional location rather than one that just serves its own locality,” he said, praising Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato for helping to make the exit ramp possible. (ibid)

Dag, I assume that was grant money!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Remember the Contextual Design Advisory Panel?

Those guys were alright. Now gone the way of Isaly's and Heads Together, from what I'm gathering this evening...

...appears like it's not exactly going away, but it's being overhauled. The old members have been thanked for their service and invited to submit letters of interest for a new panel.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


For Mayor: The Choice Should Be Obvious.

F. Dok Harris's proposal to encourage urban farming has real merit -- and is just the kind of idea candidates should be congratulated for advancing in an election like this.

Aside from the very real community-building and hunger-alleviating benefits which the Harris campaign highlights, there would also arrive a small public relations bonanza from staking out a leadership position on this: a funky, healthful and productive trend unlikely to diminish. It actually is the kind of thing that can attract new people to the city from all over the country, even the world. People appreciate amenities besides sports stadiums and shopping plazas.

Similarly, Kevin Acklin's plan to add 200 city police officers is a laudable goal. It places the city's focus right where we need it -- on neglected neighborhoods which still suffer from awful reputations and disproportionately discouraging crime rates. We can not hope to achieve real growth as a city if we remain a patchwork of vast and not infrequent "no go" areas. If we are aiming to involve more city police directly with churches and other community organizations, we will need still others to pick up the slack and hit the streets the old-fashioned way.

Do we need an urban farm in every one of our 88 neighborhoods? Can we afford 200 new police officers? Probably not, but these are reach goals. These will focus the mind and our energies on the right kinds of things: changing the tempo and dynamic of our neighborhoods. Perhaps only our more blighted and vacant neighborhoods will be amenable to farms, and perhaps we might only be able to scrounge together 30 or 40 new officers in the first year. So much the better. These candidates are pushing the envelope.

Both challengers would also radically alter the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority in the mode of what has been attempted in the U.S. Army: lighter, more agile, more precise forces that do not dominate our communities so much as assist them; that do not funnel huge resources into out-of-town coffers but rather invests these directly in our own people and initiatives. It is fitting that both Acklin and Harris seek to adjust in this direction, because it is an idea whose time has come.

Luke Ravenstahl, meanwhile, has made it abundantly clear how he intends to continue "moving forward" with his URA: that is to pursue activity that pits communities against developers, the board room against the grassroots, arbitrary corporate hegemony against professional city planning, management against labor, present residents against gentrification, honest entrepreneurs against political game players, and economic growth against every other necessary civic priority. It is an early 20th century model which boasted a mixed record even in its heyday. It does little more than shuffle the deck chairs on a ship which may not sink but certainly drifts aimlessly -- from the empty husk of one development that once typified "progress" and "salvation" to the next.

That is the alpha and the omega of our incumbent's vision; it consumes vast resources while enriching very few besides the brokers behind these deals. It is why Mr. Acklin displayed admirable gumption in exposing the influence of one of these professional hijackers of government, and why he felt comfortable naming it what it is.


Carmen Robinson opined during the Democratic primary that Mr. Ravenstahl doesn't seem to care about poor people. There is indeed much Our Mayor has never quite been seen to care about, relate to, understand or even have patience for.

His reaction to community benefits movements has been brusque and offensive -- acting supremely annoyed at the suggestion of any form of engagement whatsoever. His attitude towards public safety in Oakland during the G20 has been one-sided in favor of police authority and the safety of businesses, while remaining utterly deaf and dumb to concerns about civil liberties and the safety of demonstrators and students. His response to every one of his ethics scandals -- once they have sufficiently festered and demanded a posture of contrition -- has been to regard them as public relations mistakes -- things he should have known would attract unwanted attention. He has never expressed remorse or granted the reality of any impropriety in his actions. He is the mayor who doesn't "get it".

This governance-by-machismo would perhaps be more tolerable if he could walk the walk; if other aspects of his vision made sense. But these are all chimerical.

Witness his position on consolidation: a mere stated desire that Pittsburgh city government should eventually fold into Allegheny County, heedless of all the other municipalities, heedless of the many practical political complications, heedless of the many small steps in terms of collaboration we could be taking in the present. It is a plan no citizen will ever support except those who cannot see past their abstract frustration, and who feel vaguely comfortable with leaders that express abstract agreement.

Witness his plan to solve our pensions crisis. Some it seems are overly impressed with his successful effort to avert what was called a state takeover of our pensions systems, yet in the absence of a workable plan that state takeover may have been our best hope. The parking garages will not generate $200 million in revenue -- and the truth is we will require far, far more than $200 million in revenue, and even then it will always remain a sinking fund. Yet it is internally elegant in its simplicity and will provide at least a couple years' comfort as a few prime garages are leased for a few encouraging-sounding figures.

Witness the Pittsburgh Promise: an initiative whose conception predated Ravenstahl yet which he embraced very early on to generate confidence and momentum. While scholarships are never entirely a waste, most of the resources and energy being poured into this program would truly have been better directed improving the actual education of our children. Few suburban families are going to uproot and relocate to the City to send their children to what are seen as inferior schools, in order to take advantage of a complex and partial scholarship at the end of a rainbow. There will be no stampede to repopulate the City from this. There will however be a steady outpouring of goodwill for UPMC and for the public officials who get to stand behind an adorable song and dance.

Witness even the G20. While doing little harm, and while perhaps generating a bit of enhanced interest in future conventions, residents cannot eat, cash in or spend "the equivalent of $20 million in advertising." Although it dominated our consciousness, our landscape and our airwaves, the Pittsburgh G20 actually comprised the barest blip on the national and international radar; it was over before anyone knew it was occurring. The G20 was novel and a bit gratifying, but it was no meaningful civic achievement that did anything for anybody, unless you need a trump card during a debate.

To borrow what has become a well-worn cliché, ask folks in Sheraden or Beechview what they think of these oversold talking points. Better yet, ask an economist where we stand in real terms, and what any of these have done or are likely to do to assist things. Or ask any of the professional public servants who have been jettisoned from or scapegoated by this administration, in favor of political, malleable, and often enough under-qualified yes persons. This is not an administration that holds up well to scrutiny.


In the wake of pretending to change his name for the Superbowl, Mr. Ravenstahl in some quarters acquired the nickname Steelersteel. It is an apt moniker, for he is in many ways a Man of Steel: hard, polished, unyielding, unsurprising.

He is like unto a ball bearing, the dual purposes for which are to smoothly facilitate a machine's movement and to completely resist pressures from all sides. For him, the course and purpose of that machine is for others to determine: perhaps some small-minded conception of Providence, or a corrupted interpretation of Adam Smith's invisible hand. Yet he knows cunningly well how to resist, defray, divert and divide those pressures all around him: these being awake and troubled Pittsburghers.

A vote for Ravenstahl is a vote for fantasies and myopia -- in conjunction with a grotesque and ruthless political efficiency. I will have precisely none of it.

Meanwhile, neither challenger has revealed himself liable to drool all over the controls and thereby drive the City straight up onto the rocks, despite the suggestions of a few who gloss over central tenets of their argument. These political appeasers suggest that we already fashioned a minimally competent administration basically from scratch -- so if we grant that point for the sake of argument alone, there is every reason to believe we can improve on that product given another chance with more trustworthy, empathetic material.

For mayor, we confidently endorse both Kevin Acklin and Franco Dok Harris, in light of their evident intelligence, impressive educational attainment, promising achievements and very well-founded civic intentions. Both have accurately diagnosed critical deficiencies in the status quo, and both have built upon these to articulate constructive visions for Pittsburgh's future. My own personal inclinations toward demonstrated constancy and seeming guilelessness will compel me to touch the screen upon Mr. Acklin's bubble, but either one would be deserving.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Interview: Tom Michalow

"So," I begin. "Do you love raising taxes?"

District 1 Republican incumbent county councilman Matt Drozd has placed campaign signs from Moon to Ross reading, "CUT TAXES!!". I assumed this must mean that the challenger, Democrat Tom Michalow, is against lower taxes.

"That's everybody's dream," he acknowledged, to cut tax rates. "But I'm fiscally responsible. There's a difference between fiscal conservatism and fiscal responsibility."

"Reagan and the first George Bush were great on foreign policy," he asserted, and not for the only time during the interview. "But their domestic policies wrecked the country. Small towns have been left holding the bag."

Michalow is being attacked by Drozd for having supported a tax increase in Avalon, where he has been a councilman for 4 years and a planning commissioner for 10. Michalow counters that not only had Avalon not repaved its roads in a decade, and its top floor of its City Hall condemned, but as finance chair he discovered that the municipality had been missing a $70,000 annual payment in the budget amidst two departments. Due in large part to that unnoticed drain, the sewer budget was being tapped to prop up the general fund.

So he supported a tax increase in that instance -- but asserts that will be offset by enabling Avalon to get rid of its sewage surcharge. And have navigable roads, and a municipal building that won't collapse during a public hearing.

Michalow also points to having spearheaded the writing of a joint comprehensive plan for Avalon, Ben Avon and Bellevue -- along with a joint zoning code. He instituted a purchase order system for the first time to track purchasing. And together with other Avalon officials, he successfully lobbied Washington to fund what had been an unfunded federal sewers mandate with a grant - although he describes that success as a fortunate "fluke".

"My opponent says grants are wasteful; you shouldn't take grants."

He points to all this as evidence of financial responsibility, in lieu of dogmatic financial conservatism. He drew a quick Laffer Curve in my notebook to illustrate how it is widely misconstrued by a few to argue for lower taxes in every circumstance. Pointing to the crest of the curve, Michalow says that it actually shows "there is a right place for taxes to be."

"To say I'm a tax-and-spend Democrat when I've busted my butt ... I've checked gas card usage on employees. Just gone ahead and pulled the file." That didn't make him popular, he recalls, but it cut down on waste.


When did he figure out that he was a Democrat?

"At VMI," he answered. "I entered as a 'union Republican', and I came out as a 'pro-gun Democrat'. I say pro-gun, I'm not gonna say NRA Democrat, they're too extreme."

Michalow is for closing the gun-show loophole, and imposing a ban on imported, foreign-made assault rifles. He suggested the possibility of regulating all assault rifles as we do machine guns, since they're essentially the same thing.

Asked about his stance on civil rights, he describes the recently passed Allegheny County anti-discrimination ordinance as "a good compromise that excludes the Boy Scouts" and other religious organizations. "In terms of housing and employment, it's a no-brainer." He doesn't grant any credence to Drozd's argument that actual corporations will eschew Allegheny County because of a mere anti-discrimination ordinance.

Michalow teaches high school history and German -- that latter includes German culture and history. He screens Schindler's List for his German III students every year.

"Whatever Hitler did, my feeling is you can do the opposite and feel pretty safe about it."

Mr. Michalow is also an environmentalist, and it is on this one score where he will take some exception with the County Executive.

"I disagree with Mr. Onorato on the air quality guidelines; there's no reason we can't have industrial development that's clean and green." He hopes the Air Quality Control Commission takes a second look at its new standards.

Asked about drilling in the Marcellus Shale and whether there can be such a thing as "clean coal", he answered, "There'd better be. That's our energy solution for the next hundred years." Yet he wants to actively encourage those solutions by developing responsible air and water quality controls.

On property taxes, he said, "Here's what Dan Onorato has done right -- he has held the line on property taxes. I'd rather tax somebody's expendable income," meaning the drink tax. "The key issue I think is, senior citizens are being forced out of their homes."

Although he granted my point that frozen property tax rates result in stagnant or declining areas paying an unfair share of that burden, he points out that school districts in outlying areas have been increasing millage rates out of necessity.

He calls property taxes "archaic", but concedes that they're here to stay. "Property taxes date back to when you could judge a man's wealth by how big his farm was." He would prefer to eliminate them in favor of "progressive income taxes" -- but in the meanwhile he believes Onorato is correct in holding the line while lobbying for a statewide solution.

I pressed him a bit on if there are other areas in which he takes exception with the County Executive, and he only returned to environmentalism in general.

"To say Pittsburgh is green, and to make Pittsburgh greener are two different things. It takes more than graphs. It'd be nice to connect the bike trail that ends at Clement Park," for example, and again enforce more rigorous air quality standards.

Michalow declined to declare support for any particular gubernatorial candidate, but opined that it's important for a local Democrat win and acknowledged that Onorato is the favorite. "At least based on applause at the Kennedy Lawrence Dinner."


Since there is already a solid Democratic majority on County Council, and since Dan Onorato is firmly in charge, I asked whether it doesn't make more sense in the abstract to keep those few feisty Republicans like Matt Drozd on Council where we can.

"Here is the Machiavellian response on that," answered Michalow. "Drozd has isolated himself on County Council -- even if he had a good idea, they're gonna ignore it."

"I was inspired to run because I don't think my opponent's doing his job." He describes the GOP as persistently being the "Party of No" all the way down to the county council level.

In light of this lack of a positive, coherent vision, Michalow couldn't avoid taking offense at Drozd's personal attacks concerning his military record. Although Michalow was the captain of the rowing team and "could run like Forest Gump", he had a congenital heart murmur that disqualified him from active military service.

"The day the Sergeant-Major told me that, I cried" Michalow now recalls, branding it one of the very worst days of his life. "That had been my dream. I was very hurt to have to revisit that."

His dream derailed, Michalow utilized his education at VMI to study International Affairs -- later to teach history, go on frequent trips to Germany with his students, and apply the lessons of international politics to Avalon borough governance.

"When I think about how different my life would have been if I had gotten in..." wonders this 38 year-old today. Instead, he finds himself running against an incumbent Councilman he calls "uninformed an ineffective."

"And that's when I'm being a nice guy", he clarifies.