Friday, January 29, 2010

End Credits


Coordinator: PIRC to Hit Streets in 1st Half of Year

Jay Gilmer, the coordinator for the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime (PIRC) who operates out of the mayor's office, assured the Comet reading audience this week that the long-awaited anti-violence strategy would be ready to roll out in the first half of 2010.

Prof. David M. Kennedy of John Jay College in New York had returned to Pittsburgh this last October to "jump start" the program, 13 months after its initial announcement in 2008.

"He was there to make sure we were proceeding properly," Gilmer testified. "You have to cook this cake properly -- not add anything that doesn't belong, not subtracting anything that needs to be there."

Gilmer described that the City had gone "a little on a slight tangent with social service delivery, so we adjusted that." He said the problem at the time had less to do with incorrect ingredients but more to do with "making sure the right agencies were at the right spots."

The extended wait for the PIRC to unfold "has more to do with the general slowness of local government," than any particular resistance to it. "It has to do with understanding, this is a different way of thinking about the homicide issue."

Gilmer referred us to a recent, long New York Times Magazine article on related programs in the PIRC family, staring with one in Hawaii:

Brandishing a laminated “Wanted” poster, he told them: “I can guarantee that everyone in this courtroom wants you to succeed on probation, but you have not been cutting it. From now on, you’re going to follow all the rules of probation, and if you don’t, you’re going to be arrested on the spot and spend some time in jail right away.” He called the program HOPE, for Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation With Enforcement, and prepared himself for a flood of violation hearings.

But they never materialized. There were only three hearings in the first week, two in the second week and none in the third. The HOPE program was so successful that it inspired scholars to evaluate its methods. Within a six-month period, the rate of positive drug tests fell by 93 percent for HOPE probationers, compared with a fall of 14 percent for probationers in a comparison group. (NYT Mag, Jeffrey Rosen)

More information on the burgeoning new crime strategy is available at the website for the National Network of Safe Communities.

"I've been instructed that we should get it right the first time," Gilmer said of Pittsburgh's attempt to implement the strategy. "There are a lot of moving parts in this."

Gilmer says that the municipal courts, the parole boards, the District Attorney and US Attorney's offices, and the county Sheriffs are now all very much on board with the program. In addition, all Pittsburgh city politicians are "actively supportive", and Pittsburgh's Chief of Police Nate Harper is also said to be a supporter.

"Our law enforcement has come a long way in their understanding of the model," he said.

The City plans to be working very closely with One Vision One Life, an initiative of the Allegheny County office of Human Services. Mr. Gilmer himself, as well having a background as a corporate attorney, has worked extensively with Homewood-Brushton ministries and MAD DADS in Wilkinsburg, as well as "lots of churches big and small".

"I'm not dealing with the policing side," Gilmer clarified. "My role is to coordinate all the resources."

Gilmer made note that the PIRC would not have any direct affect on homicides related to things like domestic violence or mental illness, but focus in tightly on "group-affiliated homicides".

In Pittsburgh he said, "we get jaded by our relative tranquility" -- much of the city being "relatively tame" -- but we do have pockets of group-affiliated violence that are "as bad as any in the country." Northview was one neighborhood that immediately sprung into his mind.

Gilmer stressed once again that the PIRC strategy is one that emphasizes that "homicides are wrong," and so long as those are avoided, "we will not go after your group." If an individual commits a group-affiliated homicide, he or she and everyone they affiliate with is going down.

The other side of that message is, "we need the good guys back on the street."

Government by Press Release Does Pittsburgh a Substantive Disservice

This sounds like a wise move:

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration does not intend to create a Stimulus Oversight Committee called for in City Council legislation, a spokeswoman said Thursday. (P-G, Team Effort)

Oh, sure! Why do that which is called for in legislation which you signed. Especially considering you have been doing such a good job collecting stimulus funds without any input from the rest of the government, or the public at large, or grown-ups of any kind.

[Doven] added that the mayor's Move PGH panel, announced this week, would help put the city in position to win more transportation funding. (ibid)

I have nothing but confidence in this brand new Move PGH panel, which just happened to be announced the day we were all surprised by bad news from the federal government. And Move PGH sounds nothing like Propel Pittsburgh, which as we know was another extremely productive endeavor that did not exist only on paper.

In fact, let me make a suggestion. If we combined the efforts of Move PGH with those of the New Pittsburgh Coalition, we might really unleash enough kinetic energy to toast a marshmallow. And then, if we combined both of those with the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime? We might well launch a paper airplane halfway across the room.

The stimulus oversight panel signed into law last year required each member of Council to submit some names to the Mayor, who would then select from among those, along with several names he himself chooses, to form a public committee to examine stimulus needs and opportunities. It wasn't even set up to be terribly powerful.

Why is this concept so odious to our Mayor? What is he keeping secret? Is it possible that -- more than inattention, more than incompetence -- maybe he just doesn't want to receive any federal stimulus money, because that comes with strings attached and strenuous federal oversight? Remember the threat which President Obama made that anyone caught misusing it would be made "famous"? Maybe spending money in a way that would withstand scrutiny is just too much work.

And don't tell me in this context that stimulus is a waste and we should save our money (ahem -- Marty Griffin). If we don't get our share of the money, it all just goes straight to Philadelphia or Cleveland. It's not like anyone would be getting a tax refund.

Yesterday's letter from Peduto to Ravenstahl reminding him of the existence of the stimulus oversight panel is here. It's not even remotely smart-ass this time. A similar attempt made in October to nudge the Mayor into activity is here. Not clear that there was ever any response.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thursday: Limping Towards the Finish Line

This is a shame.

Pennsylvania's $26.4 million share of high-speed rail money from the federal stimulus bill will be mostly focused on improving service that already exists between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, where electrified trains already reach 110 mph and connect passengers to the high-speed Acela service along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, said PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters. (Trib, Matthew Santoni)

No wonder Mayor Nutter is able to get whatever he wants out of the State Legislature, whilst we have to organize irate donkey caravans across the mountains to react to news.

It comes on the heels of this:

Pittsburgh officials are reeling from the blow of being turned down for a second round of stimulus money for neighborhood stabilization. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

Everyone seemed pretty shocked. How did that happen? My first thought:

While nearly 400 cities have gone public with ambitious wish lists they'll submit in hopes of getting some of the hundreds of billions of dollars in anticipated federal aid, Pittsburgh is playing catch-up, keeping what officials say is a $500 million list and another $1 billion in follow-up projects under wraps. (P-G, 12/18/2008)

Maybe. It is possible there has been a continuing lack of clerical rigor. But then I read:

The applications were scored using six factors, the weightiest being need and demonstration of capacity to use the money effectively, she said. (DNJibid)

This money, if it came to Pittsburgh, would have gotten funneled directly through both HACP and the URA. Is it possible that all of the stories that have come out over the past 18 months about HACP and the URA -- separately and together -- played a role in the federal government's hesitancy about its "capacity to use the money effectively"? Just a thought.


Council preliminarily passed something called "prevailing wage" legislation yesterday.

The changes were designed to better define what projects would be subject to the prevailing wage or to limit its impact. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Article reads like it was a Rudiak arrangement.

Council bucked a city Law Department opinion, issued Tuesday, finding that it could not put conditions on actions by city-related authorities. (ibid)

That could be a real problem. If a Mayor is in possession of a Law Dept. opinion that says an aspect of legislation is thought to be illegal, he or she can refuse to enforce that legislation without suffering any legal indemnity. See lost & stolen handguns.

"The authority can't even breathe a breath without the consent and the authorization of this body," said Mr. Shields, later saying he'd do "unimaginable" things to the URA if it did not comply. (ibid)

Oh, I can imagine plenty.


Speaking of the FBI, it is looking in to the Miles Jordan incident.

Mr. Killeen stressed that the FBI uses a "tiered approach" in its inquiries, that begins with "an assessment phase," then proceeds to a preliminary inquiry and finally a full investigation. Agents are in the assessment phase on this case, he said. (P-G, Gurman & Lord)

No doubt, a rigorous and professional investigatory process is both necessary and the only fair thing to do. No one should jump to any snap conclusions based upon preconceptions.

"Their actions were correct and law-abiding by everything they received in their training," FOP Vice President Charles Hanlon said. "The demand by special interest groups that they be removed from the streets is an insult to their hard work." (ibid)

Why do reporters even go to the FOP for quotes in regards to stories like these? Really? When is the last time they said, "You know what? That guy really screwed the pooch in instance, there's no question there needs to be some discipline?" Claiming that nothing went wrong here -- or in Oakland during the G20, or with the promotions of 3 officers with spotty records -- is laughable.

This kind of thing isn't just a Pittsburgh problem, or I would think even particularly a Pittsburgh problem, but we deserve some Pittsburgh solutions. Our Mayor seems to be moving tentatively in the direction of gaining some common-sense and meaningful civilian control over police department discipline, and he should be applauded for that if it continues.


As you know already, 2PJ's Dayvoe DeAngelo took some umbrage at Dr. Cyril Wecht's comments on the radio in relation to a larger discussion about Italian-American stereotypes -- and that umbrage was returned.

I have made a serious effort to speak to many Italian-Americans over the past three weeks regarding the meaning of the word "goombah," which I recently used in a radio interview. In fact, a few friends asked their grandmothers, who were born in Italy, what their definition and societal understanding of this word is. Every one of these people -- professional, business, labor, academic -- responded the same way. They all utilize and accept goombah as an expression of close friendship, a warm greeting and sometimes even use it to greet a relative like a cousin. (P-G, Cyril Wecht)

It was Dr. Wecht who used the word goombah -- twice -- and he obviously does not bear particularly warm, filial feelings towards Zappala or Orsini, whom he (now, again) alleges were at fault for the whole criminal investigation into his activities. One could question why in this context Wecht would make even a passing reference to the two individuals' heritage at all. If they were both Mexican, would he have described Mr. Orsini as Mr. Zappala's "hombre attorney"? Were they Russian, his "comrade attorney"?

All of which is to say that many of us are once again taking Wecht entirely too seriously. Which Chad Hermann this week reminds us, is not necessarily the best idea:

But the good doctor is surely correct on one count: he is neither hesitant, nor ashamed, to say what he thinks about individuals who have attacked, or attempted to destroy, or criticized, or said an occasional harsh word about, or wrote a simple letter to the editor in opposition to, him or his family. Even when he should be. (Radical Middle)

That's only Part II -- there's also a Part I, which in addition to being highly entertaining, especially for you literary junkies, is very useful now that the warm, affectionate, generally goombah-like glow surrounding America's greatest civil rights martyr is beginning to fade in advance of what could be an actual real-life campaign for governor.


Speaking of Mr. Hermann, I'm due to be a guest of his on his webcast, The Chad Hermann Show Radical Pittsburgh on the Pay Side, or PGCross, tomorrow. Not sure when it'll go online, but I consider it a very fitting cap to my blogging run.

Which brings us to the third and final Comet Apology. It's not very classy at all to explain why you were angry at someone in the midst of apologizing, but since it's a public apology I've got to set the stage:

The first thing to understand is that we were having a disagreement about what to make of Barack Obama's then-famous speech on race relations. I considered it a sporting disagreement, but at the same time I can't deny that something about it was getting under my skin -- and related to that, I think my inability to comment along in his space made me inclined to be a bit more extravagant and cavalier in how I approached him in my space. He became a favorite, or even preferred target of mine on occasion, and for his part he had critics which were drawing far meaner and less legitimate conclusions about him than I. This prickly atmosphere is only to explain how I came to be prepped to act ungenerously.

So that's background. More background is that I found out only at Mark DeSantis's election results-watching party that Chad had been consulting for the DeSantis campaign. Of course that was mostly okay. Then later, when I found out casually through an acquaintance that Chad had begun working at least in some capacity for congressman Tim Murphy, suddenly I made the determination this was not okay. Instead I decided to get all offended, professionally of course -- he's blogging, and once again he's working for people, and I'm Mr. Standards and Practices in Blogging, I am the authenticity police, I am the Decider.

So instead of telephoning or e-mailing the person about whom I was about to write a story -- and probably, in the process, write a much more interesting one that would have moved the entire subject matter forward -- I decided to rip the cover off him, suggest strongly that he's a hack, and see in which direction my little cockroach would run. As it turned out, he didn't do anything outwardly entertaining in reaction to this abrupt and spiteful gesture, but I can only imagine the trauma this might have caused him professionally, or personally, or what have you. I didn't find out until much later that he didn't appreciate it very much.

Even then it took a long time for me to realize where and how I was in the wrong -- and in the process, started to further understand that I couldn't consider myself just a jester anymore, that people read me and, lord help them, took me seriously, and that I'd have to think seriously about what I published and how what I was writing affected people. For teaching me that and for handling my classless error with as much class as he actually did, I thank him.


So yeah, I'll be going on Chad's P-G program tomorrow, look for it next week. I'm sure he'll ask me what I'm up to next. Since I'll be in the Post-Gazette building Downtown, I guess I'll bring some updated resumes with me. After the interview, I think maybe I'll call a limousine, have it deliver me to a County office building, and have them fax my resume to any and all potential employers. Then I'll hand them the bill for the limo (a full day's service), take home a County laptop for further job-hunting, and maybe drop off a load of laundry for them to do for me.

If they give me any trouble, I'll accuse them of "nickel and diming" me while calling them all "goombahs" and "loyal bushies".

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What the Nets Should Know About Danny O

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel accepted some endorsements across the state today, including one from Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto:

"[I] Want the people of western Pennsylvania to know it’s not about where you live in the state, it’s about what you stand for,” said Peduto. “Hoeffel will help make Pennsylvania a 21st century state.” (WPXI)

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato is also earning his share:

Mr. Onorato was campaigning in the Lehigh Valley, where he was to be endorsed by officials including the mayor of Allentown, Ed Pawlowksi, and Easton Mayor Sal Panto in separate news conferences in the two cities. In Allentown, he also planned to appear with several southeastern Pennsylvania Latino leaders to announce the formation of Latinos for Onorato. (Early Returns)

Early in 2009, Onorato launched and promoted a series of "Cyber Town Hall Meetings". There were only two. Now comes Comet End-of-the-Road Apology Number Two: I feel guilty that I never got around to writing them up. Maybe if the blergosphoid had paid greater attention to them, we would still be getting treated. Irrespective of the politics or policy therein, I was extremely impressed at how Dan put himself in the hot seat like that, almost in witness-interrogation mode. If those questions were screened, they were not unduly scrubbed, sanitized or scripted over. His ability to parry and thrust with such energy over a long program frankly speaks well for his ability to campaign.

So without further ado, let's see what we can glean.


Cara from Pittsburgh (?) asked the very first question, the $64,000 question about base-year property assessments: how does that scheme not force residents of some communities to pay more than their fair share, and others less. Dan called that "a great question" but also one based on "misinformation" and a "big myth". He said that in the last round of reassessments nearly a decade ago, 85% of the property values went up -- there was no even distribution of values going up, down, and remaining the same. Thus, reassessing drove people into outlying counties. (I'm not sure this is logically sound in that perhaps reassessments make some properties go up a lot and others go up relatively little, or legally sound in that if nearly everyone is experiences increases, there ought to be corresponding millage rate decreases.) Yet his argument was that switching to a base-year put us on even footing with Washington, Butler, Beaver and Westmoreland counties, and kept his promise to voters not to raise taxes.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, as we know, would later side with Cara.

On public transportation, Onorato said we needed a "direct, dedicated funding source" like other transit agencies nationwide in order to provide competitive service. The best he could get from Harrisburg is the Drink Tax and Car Rental Tax -- and it took a year out of his life defending those, but at least that took the pressure off the Property Tax. On service efficiencies, after "25 years of mismanagement" at the Port Authority he at least got $95 million in concessions out of a new contract and is about to reorganize the routes. (That is still a work in progress.) Furthermore, Downtown-Oakland, Downtown-Airport and Allegheny Valley were priority items for federal stimulus funds. (Don't think those panned out.)

On a question bemoaning regional government fragmentation, he said "In my five years as County Executive, there's been major consolidation across the board." By this he meant row office reform, consolidation of 911 centers, and municipal court and bulk purchasing consolidation with the City of Pittsburgh. But on consolidating municipalities, "We need help from Harrisburg" to put it to referendums. "There's no reason 138 municipalities can't become 43 overnight" if we demarcate by school districts. He also explained about some efforts to consolidate police and fire departments regionally by "incentivizing".

The "Regional Joint Readiness Center" is not dead -- it's just still in the planning stages, and the federal funding is not guaranteed. It's moving along.

The non-profits' Parks Foundation is also holding hearings and moving along, with the intention of investing in county parks projects.


During Round Two, Onorato was asked how to make sure infrastructure and economic development is environmentally sustainable. Onorato said all county development projects have "a sustainability component". Over his tenure he's "cleared about 1,500 acres of brownfields" and saved "1,500 acres of greenfields", turning the brownfields into productive developments. Also he touted transit-oriented development including park n' rides. It's mostly about providing incentives for "green growth".

He had to address the drink tax and transit funding all over again.

Tim asked an aggressive question about why no tax decreases and why run a subway under the river. Onorato again termed it "a great question" but said told Tim that he's "politically naive and got your facts wrong". Whereas his Republic predecessor raised property taxes, Onorato said he cut them. (That is, property taxes.) He also reduced the payroll by 600 people. "Don't let that drink tax fool you" -- every single transit agency in the U.S. has a "local dedicated funding source". Meanwhile, hit again with a question about the North Shore Connector, Onorato described it as "something we've got to deal with" that goes back three administrations. If we'd have stopped it, we'd have had to give "all that money back" to the federal government.

If the City and County do merge, there are a lot of labor and other issues that will need to be spelled out in the plan. But he supports a merger. He's not in favor of 130 municipalities, but not of just 1 either. Merging school districts is a political non-starter. Competition among school districts is actually healthy and gives people a choice.

In response to a question from Celeste Taylor of B-PEP asking for "concrete numbers and facts" on efforts to improve minority labor participation and inclusion in county government, Onorato gestured toward a document, but said "I'm not going to get into all of them because it's kind of boring." He did say he "diversified all the boards and commission" to include "several" African-American and women, and said he's gotten "very aggressive" on the employment side through incentivizing. There was an apprenticeship program he was looking at adopting, and he said he'd stop funding programs that simply weren't working in that regard.

In terms of stimulus, he hoped to get money in particular for highways and bridges, and also brownfield cleanups, green buildings and parks, and water and sewer lines.

If the state significantly cuts the county's Human Services budget, "we're gonna have problems". However in terms of layoffs they're being pro-active in terms of providing re-training.

Asked about how Allegheny County can best attract an internationally diverse population and workforce, the key is really jobs. "Government should try to create the environment so that the private sector can really thrive." Keeping taxes low, working with the state to keep the corporate tax structure low.

Onorato does not believe in term limits for state legislators because he believes "it's the voters' choice." In order to get costs under control, a smaller legislature may not be as effective as cutting their budget or staff for example.

In terms of making cuts to cope with a worsening economy, Onorato said that Allegheny County has already done that, and is in a good position relative to the rest of the country.

I personally got in a two-part question about why the County can not accept absentee ballots right up until Election Day, and will campaign finance disclosures go up on the web any time soon as required by law. Onorato said the absentee ballot deadline "is purely a function of maintaining the credibility of an election -- you don't want chaos on election day" by people voting in person and trying to slip in an absentee ballot. However technology may one day provide a solution. Meanwhile, the campaign finance disclosures would "absolutely" be online "in '09". (I was interested in whether they would be up by his own May primary, but whatever. It looks like this is now online.)

Nobody asked any questions about abortion, gay marriage, gay civil unions or groundwater seepage.

Alright, that's about it. Later I hope to add a some archival video of Mr. Onorato in advance of the G20 that's been taking up space on my computer (if my WiFi signal stays healthy tonight), but I hope you've gotten a good look at our county executive through these Cyber Town Hall Meetings.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Monday: Prevailing.

The debate over a prevailing wage ordinance was retread by the public in City Council today -- but the specific cons popular with the Trib and with some anonymous commenters here seemed conspicuously absent.

Dewitt Peart, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, told council he was "not stating an opposition to what you want to do, it's just how you went about it.

"We feel that the private sector was really not engaged to the extent that it should have to make sure that this legislation is the best that it could be," he said, asking for time to "review the legislation, so we don't have negative impact." (P-G, Rich Lord)

This bill was formally introduced two months ago, and had been in public circulation for far longer than that. You haven't reviewed it yet? Don't have anything concrete yet to offer? Just say you don't want folks in Pittsburgh who receive taxpayer subsidies to be made to pay their service workers at least the industry standard. That's an honest argument.

Mr. Burgess's living wage bill has a tentative vote set for Feb. 17 with a hearing to be scheduled before then. (ibid)

That strikes me as a positive development.

One councilor pointed out during last week's fracas that activating Living Wage, as it is now written, will require even small non-profits who do business with the city such as Just Harvest -- not to mention the city's seasonal youth life guards -- to greatly increase everybody's compensation to $24,000 per anum. It sounds like the old bill needs some deeper, concentrated work. Other members hold the view that scheduling a tentative vote not until Feb. 17 is a crime on par with the Holocaust.