Monday, November 29, 2010

Authority Governance: Who Can Say?

When discussing a 2007 "option agreement" between the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority and Penguins part-owner Mario Lemieux, the head of the city's Stadium and Exhibition Authority offered:

[State Sen. Wayne] Fontana, the SEA's chairman, said those trying to save the Hill District arena should have attempted to persuade the Penguins, not the authority's board.

"If the Penguins wanted it up, then we'd keep it up," Fontana said. "But we gave our word through the (option agreement) to give them the development rights, and part of that was to bring it down." (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

That stands out as a singularly discouraging notion. The Civic Arena is a publicly owned asset, and the land it sits on is (or has been?) publicly owned land -- however, we wind up being told that it is improper, or at least inherently futile, for citizens to appeal to their public officials on the matter. That is instead what the Penguins are for, even though there are obviously less lines of suasion and accountability by which one can appeal to a private entity.

Another interesting thing in light of other issues is that this authority's chairman is utterly waiving any pretext of the independence, or independent responsibilities, of his authority. In turn, when the URA signed the "option agreement" conferring development rights to the Penguins, that authority did so with reference to the need to honor an agreement between the Penguins and Governor Ed Rendell et al.

One conclusion is to say that the very idea of the cloistered independence of municipal authorities from their direct political commanders, is something which only seems to be forwarded when somebody disagrees with a decision made by an authority which corresponds to the wishes of those masters. Because of course municipal authorities are there to do what their municipal bosses want, just hopefully with a degree of specialized expertise and day-to-day autonomy.

If we feel like digressing, it's interesting to note that the main reason municipal authorities exist is to borrow money without having actual municipalities be directly impacted or on the hook. If Pennsylvania truly wanted to allow its cities, which are in so many ways regularly responsive to the whims of voters, to have that kind of enhanced ability to borrow money (which is frequently an attractive-sounding solution to both problems and desires) it would arrange for the governance of these authorities in such a way as to make that easy.

As it is, it's harder than some would prefer. As stated recently in its preamble, "the Council-Controller plan considers the board of the PPA to be an independent body and respects its decision making authority", and also, "we recognize that the Mayor is an independent decision maker within City government". Something easier to say than to remember or to stomach at times, but both true nonetheless.

To begin a segway back to the main subject: one member of City Council recently said that he can't recall a situation in which the President of the United States refused to do something which Congress directed. "No! Can't make me!" the councilor aped, in reference to our mayor exercising his own and a municipal Authority's own decision making power. I immediately tried to think of examples, without going to the obvious ones -- war and diplomacy -- because cities really don't engage in anything comparable.

I do think it'd be interesting if Congress ever attempted to raise or lower Federal interest rates, or forced the Justice Department to drop a criminal matter.

But then, having read Sen. Wayne Fontana's quote, it occurred to me: we do confer upon our local executives wartime powers! How else to describe giving away the most valuable development rights within a 300 mile radius -- rights which apparently include actual property rights over public and possibly historic assets -- without going through any meaningful procedural rigmarole, let alone competitive bidding? I remember when the deal to save the Penguins was originally reported, the emphasis was on all the millions of state dollars and casino dollars -- and then, occasionally, somebody would think to add, "plus 28 acres of 'potentially lucrative' development rights on the Melody Tent site." When a pro sports team stages a hostage crisis, apparently we confer upon our leaders dictatorial powers.

Which is how the great mass voters around here no doubt like it. It always gets back to the voters and what they are willing to tolerate or not tolerate.

And like any executives in chief, surely our Governors, County Executives and Mayors are protective of their perceived prerogative to render unto foreign powers that which they have determined through various wartime or warlike powers is necessary, for reasons of national security or whatever the applicable civic counterpart.


  1. Good work, Bram..I was amazed at first that Fontana said he deferred to the Pens, but then when you realize the Pen's lawyers were whispering in his ears, it came as no surprise. He also said to me that he wished we brought this to his attention EARLIER! I practically jumped thru the phone! We have bringing this up since 2002 officially nominating it and 1998 informally.

    Now for the smoking gun between "Intent to demolish" and federal funding requests. We are fast approaching a major federal case. Let the FOIA and RTK's fly!

    The truth is we could avoid all of this if we had a way to bring our (or other) developers to the table.

    There is no way to bring him to Pittsburgh without the Pens threatening violation of their MOU like Godard does on the ice.

  2. Now for the smoking gun between "Intent to demolish" and federal funding requests.

    It seems plain as day. The only question is whether or not the federalis actually take that rule seriously. I can pretty easily imagine they might NOT ... but that last letter from the state History Commission seemed to warn of it rather overtly.

    I should add that the go-to clinching argument of editorial boards and city planning commissioners alike: "But if re-use was a practical possibility, we would have received interest from developers by now," can be countered with the simple question, "Did the city ever release an RFP or otherwise express any interest?" Developers would not invest time and money in planning practical things out if it looks like a fools' errand to try. And if any developer did ring the city with a proposal, who would pick up the phone and what would have been that person's likely response?

  3. Exactly. We met with such a developer last month and we have no one to go visit. He is ready to visit Pittsburgh, but we probably will need to do this quietly and then look for an opening in the new year.