Friday, June 11, 2010

The Pittsburgh Promise: Working Fabulously?

Looks what's buried in news of $100,000 donated by American Eagle:

Before the program began, approximately 30 percent of city school students pursued and completed some form of secondary education, Mr. Ghubril said. That number has increased to 76 percent, which is superior to any urban district anywhere in the U.S., he said. (P-G, Team Effort)

What? Really? That sounds incredible. Has there even been time to pursue and complete some form of secondary education since the program began what, not quite two years ago?, and necessarily affected only a percentage of students. Then there's this over here:

At the time, Jamiah was what Ghubril recalls as a "classic high-risk, dead-end kid." Beginning his senior year with low grades, and less hope, Jamiah was one of eight children living with a single mother in the Northview Heights public housing complex. Staring down the gun barrel of a 1.7 GPA, he needed a 2.25 to cop the cash. Meekly, he asked Ghubril if he had a chance.

Whipping out his trusty calculator, Ghubril did some quick math. Well, he demurred, "it's still mathematically possible for you to get your GPA up." What that meant was that Guillory had to ace everything for the rest of the year. Which the young man did, just clearing the bar with a 2.28. So emboldened, and armed with his scholarship money, Guillory went to Penn State, there to major in petroleum and natural gas engineering. At last report, his grades were a 3.5. (Pop City, Mendelson)

Your results may vary, but still -- this is said to dovetail with a slight but unprecedented increase in new kindergartners, or an "an uptick in enrollment for the first time in decades."

Thursday, June 10, 2010

State Rep. Ravenstahl's Resume *

Click to enlarge; covering document care of the City Clerk on the left, actual resume submitted by the nominee on the right.

I suppose we could start by inquiring as to what dates was he employed by UPMC and what was his job title, duties etc...

MORE: Maria declares "fail" (2PJ's). Chad, among other things, "unprofessional" (RadMid). Virginia is assuming it's a "bio" and that there will be more to come (That's Church).


City Ethics board sidesteps the issue of Ravenstahl's appointment to ALCOSAN.

POST-GAZETTE: The issue seems to be that none of the complainers are filing complaints. Also, Katie Falloon is apparently Teela. Good to know.

The Artist: Madonna

The Reason: Because I don't get Lady Gaga, but figure this must be what she's driving at.

Go Check Out Sen. Leach's Blog

In somewhat typical Comet fashion the other day, I took a swipe at state Sen. Daylin Leach, (D) King of Prussia, in rapid response to an op-ed essay of his in our fair Post-Gazette. Now I see he deserves better than that.

He has a blog -- and not your typically awful, awful politician's abortion of a "blog", but a very credible one -- and he's an avid tweeter, and he's heavy into gay civil rights and he jumped into the fray on immigration right away and he introduced the medical marijuana bill, etc, etc -- so he's obviously a productive human being with real value. He just has chosen for some reason to defend the indefensible.

It's possible that since he's so cool, they (the Legislature) were like, "You go out and tell them all to shut up!"

However, he himself is betraying some genuine anger:

I would like to suggest an experiment. Walk up to a longshoreman. A big one. Not one of the tiny, shy, retiring longshoremen, but a huge, burly one with a tattoo of Margaret Thatcher on his arm. Then, tell him that he is lazy, stupid, corrupt and is ripping off his boss by taking a paycheck. You are likely to receive a very comprehensive lesson in what the ancient Greeks used to call "Longshoreman Justice" ... The only exception to the general rule about attacking what people do for a living is Pennsylvania State legislators. (

And I'll warrant it's because he's offended:

The overwhelming majority of Pennsylvania's legislators, on both sides of the aisle, are extremely smart, hard-working, completely honest people who are doing their level best to make Pennsylvania a better place.

The notion that legislators are, (except for rare exceptions) corrupt in any way is plain false. (Post-Gazette)

Ah! Then this is all such a simple misunderstanding!

We're not saying anybody personally is corrupt -- hand in the cookie jar, twirling mustaches and what have you.

We're saying the system is structurally corrupt: bloated, wasteful, opaque and user-unfriendly. The "caucus system" especially, with its redundancies of effort and the ease by which it allows members to find jobs for useful campaign staff on the fly is a culprit. The overbearing size of the body only serves to hide these routine parasitic abuses -- which probably do not seem like such a problem for somebody who has spent enough time on the inside to become accustomed. On a related note, as to the tax-free daily per diems which are higher than most people's salaries and the lifetime health benefits which kick in after only a few years, I can see how these might play a role in antipathy towards reform conversations structurally.

I share Leach's lack of enthusiasm for several of the Bonusgate grand jury's particular proposals. Where we diverge is upon his seeming total lack of regard for the diagnosis -- that the degree of inefficiency throughout the Legislature is intolerable, and the need for structural and (incidentally) fiscal reform is critical.


Structural reform would obviate the need for prosecutorial reform -- which, given the state of the Capitol, must necessarily be somewhat arbitrary, and hence, very likely political. Though there are definite problems with that kind of reform, it's better than no reform at all and more business as usual, which is what incumbent legislators seem intent on offering. This is what Signor Ferrari and presently many Democrats in particular are refusing to acknowledge -- that it's actually time to tone down and better regulate the political casino. So much so that we're authentically refreshed and gratified by the notion of a hypocritical, ham-handed sheriff run amok. At least it's something, and it's overdue!

Of course all that we've been referring to as "waste" and "inefficiency", Leach defends as the only thing keeping darkness at bay:

We have a responsibility to protect the legislature as a co-equal branch of government, as a check against the power of the Governor or lobbyists. Anything that weakens the legislature's mission, such as term limits, making us part-time, leaving us unable to attract and retain talented, educated and experienced people or paying us only if we vote the way the powers that be want us to, hurts our entire state. (

Now that he mentions it, it would be nice if a duly elected Governor had a yeoman's chance of pursuing a coherent agenda. Who better? Even at the grassroots level, it's getting a little tiresome to hear that every little thing is "impossible" and precluded. The Legislature is constitutionally empowered to act as a check and a balance; must it also, in its four partisan cohorts, be armed to the teeth and fortified like the Pentagon?

(For example, what's with these "legislative liaisons" at PennDOT? I know that politicians like to personally assist constituents with problems, and return troubled phone calls with "I made some calls and really let them have it, and fixed it for you!", thereby earning perhaps generations of undying gratitude. Yet we should acknowledge it's called the executive branch for a reason; it's tasked and outfitted to execute things. If there is a customer service problem at PennDot itself then that should be dealt with, but when PennDOT does fix something PennDOT should get the credit, together with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania -- not that legislative incumbent with the massive clout and the big heart. I wonder how badly these legislative liaisons wind up mucking up PennDOT's wide-angle plans for infrastructure maintenance across the state.)

SUMMARILY, it seems like Sen. Daylin Leach is a genuine progressive in several ways, that not simply being the "The Power of Progressive Thinking" slogan atop his blog. I hope over the coming weeks and months that he focuses that very progressive brain upon the concoction of structural reforms which will save taxpayers money and that will depoliticize the process of government at least somewhat. That is something for which progressives, liberals, blue dogs, conservatives, Tea Party patriots, Independents and undecideds all starve.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

P-G: Expediency Trumps Oppportunity [UPDATES]

The hoary editorial board attempts to use its logic:

The fact that no developer has stepped forward to embrace the idea with financing and risk-taking is the idea's chief obstacle. (P-G)

Did the city advertise or even allude to interest in developers doing so? Did we ever send out an RFP? Businesspeople don't go out of their way to plan and draft things which rely on partners, when those key partners evince a strong, negative interest in doing so.

INTERESTING: Reuters, Wired, Envirement. Just play along here for a minute: about how many jobs and how much tax revenue would this bring? Can you say, "First-Source hiring"?

*-UPDATE: Back to square two (comments).

**-UPDATE II: The clock is ticking. Adaptationists cry shenanigans pretty loudly (Trib, Brandolph).

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Arena Demolition: The Fix is In.

This sounded like an encouraging lead sentence for those who favor creative commercial re-use:

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation won't rush to judgment on the future of Mellon Arena. (P-G, Belko)

But it's belied by just about everything else in the article:

"We recognize the uniqueness of the building, but we also recognize that it was inflicted upon the Hill District; and the residents have made it a principle of their new plan that it not be there," Mr. Ziegler said. (ibid)

Not correct. We know the Community Benefits Agreement governing the process is neutral as to the Arena's final disposition. We know it states a directive to reconnect the street grid to Downtown, but we also know that no development blueprint as of yet does anything whatsoever to reconnect the street grid to Downtown, no matter how many times that phrase is repeated. It really is getting quite frustrating.

We know that State Rep. Jake Wheatley, for one, who represents the Hill District, has written during this conversation that looking at that arena is like seeing a Confederate flag flying over his neighborhood. We also know that development money is ready to be directed towards development projects scattered across the larger Hill District, the recipients of which will be chosen and influenced largely by the Mayor -- who openly favors demolition.

Mr. Ziegler said he could not address the group's plea for more time. "We'd like to see the process keep moving, but I don't know enough about it to comment," he said. (ibid)

It is ordinarily unlike the President of a historic preservation non-profit to be concerned about keeping a development project moving when dealing in matters of months. Elsewhere in the article we find "wait and see" may only mean this week or next.

While PHLF is taking a wait-and-see approach, Mr. Ziegler said it would not favor "saving a couple of roof leaves and putting a one-sided hotel underneath them," an apparent reference to Mr. Pfaffmann's proposal. "We don't support that. We just don't know how it would function economically," he said. (ibid)

Criticism of Pfaffmann and his notions always tend to include withering scorn and animosity. Wonder why that is?

ANALYSIS: Some folks desire to cash in on the actual process of demolishing the arena. Some folks desire to cash in on extending the cookie-cutter development underway that will take its place. Some folks desire to cash in on worthy projects elsewhere, and are happy to support the previously mentioned casher-inners in exchange if that will help.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm all about cashing in! But oughtn't we seriously consider cashing in on a unique and valuable amenity that already exists? What ever happened to waste not, want not? Pittsburgh deserves better than short-term thinking -- than slavishness to the expediency of right-this-second -- tarted up as an "evaluation process" where none exists. The Hill District deserves better than to be used with crass and untrue slogans.

Treehouse Issue Draws Large, Mixed Response

The Regent Square Civic Association hosted a community meeting and a presentation by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy on the topic of building outdoor learning spaces in Frick Park, most notable of which being a proposed "treehouse" in a section called Turtle Park that would honor the memory of Kate and Peter Ambrusko, and be part of the new Environmental Charter School.

Over a hundred people attended. City Council member Doug Shields, arriving only about 5 minutes late, had to stand against the wall of the large high-ceilinged school basement along with many, many others. About half of the assembled audience was wearing green, to signal support of the project. Half were not.

Marijke Hecht from the Conservancy led with a slide-show presentation (part 1, part 2) which emphasized several assertions in particular:

1) This is NOT GOING TO BE A PLAYGROUND -- feh, we have those! -- this is going to be a space which "creatively reimagines the concept of a tree house." Several widely divergent design concepts were shown.

2) It is VERY VERY EARLY in the process. There are about 12 steps in developing any such project, and we are still in steps one and two. This included issuing an RFP seeking out bottom-line costs.

3) It is going to be AWESOME, in that it will be an interactive learning place for small children, a "secret" space to poke around and be cozy; and sort of an inviting entryway for young ones from their dang video games to untrammeled nature.

It was also noted that the site at Turtle Park was one of several "dots" on a map which the Conservancy had long slated (since about 2004) for these outdoor learning space projects around Frick Park.


Next came the audience participation. Staff from the city's Planning Department were on hand to record all public comments. About 30 people chose to speak, and these speakers were also very evenly divided between Pro-Treehouse and Pro-Serenity advocates. Speakers were passionate but courteous to a fault -- and when they did reproach the opposition, they all did so in the circumspect and subtle manner that is so appropriate to these meetings.

Many Pro-Serenity advocates sought to clarify at the outset that nobody is against tree houses, and nobody is against memorials!! What concerned them for the most part was increased traffic through what they consider to be a tight little corner of Regent Square, up against Frick Park. They were also wary of increased pressure on parking in that area. One of them wondered how something like a school bus is even supposed to fit.

To a lesser extent, there were concerns about keeping Frick Park as filled with real nature as possible, rather than junking it up with little faux-nature developments. Some pointed out there is already a war memorial in that same clearing. One explicitly cited noise concerns, having purchased a home in that neighborhood because of its quiet. Only one warned ominously that "this park is going to be open 24/7" and "you know what that attracts".

I filmed the comments only of two friends of mine, one on either side of the question. Here is Matt Weiss:

And here is Madeline Hershey:

The event was like a very civil, methodical boxing match. Pro-Serenity advocates seemed to front-load their lineup with their most compelling speakers in front, while the Pro-Treehouse advocates led with youth and youthful idealism, then turned it on with debate-scoring points in the latter half.


Barbara Danko spoke to oppose the project on the grounds that it represents ever-more ravenous expansion of the Enviro-Charter School, and she further suggested that this one RFP went out for this one project in a curious fashion. This is noteworthy for two reasons.

Number one, the expansion of the school and its methods of facilitating that expansion is already a roiling sub-plot in that community. A different resident positively grilled the conservancy's Hecht about when exactly those dots on the map came to exist, the timeline concerning the issuance of the RFP, and conflicts-of-interest which had seemingly existed in the past among board members of both the Conservancy and the Charter School itself.

Number two, Danko is a Democratic party committee member, and its chairperson of the city's 14th Ward to boot. It is her role to advocate for the wishes of her community to local politicians, and to recommend politicians at election-time to her neighbors in return. Councilman Shields would not ordinarily be in the habit of doing anything which his ally Barbara Danko opposes -- and the City is not generally in the habit of pursuing projects which conflict with the wishes of the Council member in whose district a project would take place.


Along with the Charter-School expansion subplot, another subplot that came into focus was simply the unpleasant side of "change". Many residents bemoaned what has happened to Braddock Avenue since the parkway ramps and Edgewood Town Center came into being -- citing several recent pedestrian traffic deaths. Others looked ahead to the draw of major development activity planned in East Liberty with increasing apprehension.

Several of these residents, including the president of the neighborhood association, acknowledged that compared to these larger forces the tree house would be a drop in the bucket. (The president did mention that eliminating parking along Braddock Ave might help, although I can't imagine this would please the business district.) A picture began to emerge to me that this treehouse is one thing which the community can control and it's not going to pass on an opportunity to make a difference.


Many in the pro-treehouse crowd made compelling presentations as well. One young gentleman testified that his dad's (or was it grandad's) name is on the war memorial at Turtle Park, that he climbed on the Turtle at its old location at Forbes and Braddock whereas now his daughter climbs on it at its new location, and that he fully supports the project.

One speaker from the North Side -- a fan of That's Church -- said that he enjoys his Riverview Park, but also more recently has had to deal with PNC Park and so "doesn't want to hear it" in terms of this relatively teeny development project causing a bit of traffic and noise.

Most pro-treehouse speakers absolutely focused on the critical importance of environmental education, on the uniqueness and public benefit of the vision for this project -- and then on the notion that the generosity of the Ambrusko family in terms of fund-raising and visioning, followed by the Conservancy in terms of pursuing it, is a gift to Pittsburgh not to be looked horse in the mouth. No pro-serenity speakers held objections to any of that, but still were not enthused about it manifesting in their "back yard".

The Parks Conservancy maintains that this project is still in the very early stages -- so taken together with the controversy, my guess is the fate of this learning area will take at least 3-4 months to be revealed.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Accusations of Nepotism Ring Hollow in Themselves

Reform However is Always Welcome.

As you know, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl nominated State Rep. Adam Ravenstahl to the board of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN), a move which has raised hackles among good government watchdogs and the Mayor's political foes.

City Council will eventually vote on whether or not to confirm the nomination. It almost always confirm nominations. (Anyone remember them rejecting a nomination?)

Councilor Doug Shields asked for an advisory opinion from the State Ethics Commission (LMAO), which has already gotten back to him to indicate most likely that no, sorry, we don't issue ethics advisories on things which have already taken place, among the many other things we do not do. File a complaint instead, and we'll be sure to not act on that for a different reason.

Councilor Bill Peduto had better luck with the City Ethics Hearing Board, which will consider the matter on Friday 6/11 at 10:00 AM in City Council Chambers. It is not known yet whether any high-profile players will be in attendance.

Now, in addition to the vagaries of the City Code and how lawyers will sell interpretations to it, here is something else the watchdogs / foes would be well-advised to consider:

ALCOSAN - State Rep. Harry Readshaw
Equipment Leasing Authority - State Rep. Dan Deasy
Parking Authority - Dan Deasy
Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission - State Rep. Jake Wheatley
Sports & Exhibition Authority - State Sen. Sean Logan
SEA - State Sen. Wayne Fontana
Stadium Authority - Jake Wheatley
Urban Redevelopment Authority - State Sen. Jim Ferlo

Based on a quick review of the websites of our more important commissions and authorities, that is the list of politicians that have been appointed to boards that one could argue they have no particular business upon. The list is incomplete as I don't know the names of all the political chiefs of staff and others who answer directly to a political officeholder. I didn't include the Comprehensive Municipal Trust Fund because you don't even want to know.

So this kind of thing has been a trend. Why?

A seat on the Alcosan board is widely considered a political plum because members have contact with engineering and construction firms that tend to be campaign contributors. (P-G, Lord)

Politicians frequently desire to protect and strengthen other politicians -- sometimes because political deals have been made, sometimes to extend goodwill, sometimes to encourage political stability, and sometimes to help somebody to which they are particularly close.

Is there any harm done? That depends on what you think of the performance and decision-making of our boards and authorities. And on how seriously you take this:

A "mad as hell" grand jury that investigated the Bonusgate scandal issued a list of recommendations improving a state Legislature they condemned as "broken," but was skeptical that any of the proposals would ever occur in a system so rife with corruption.

"The current operational structure and ingrained procedures of the Pennsylvania House Democratic and Republican caucuses are irretrievably broken and in desperate need of systemic change," the grand jurors wrote.

The self-serving culture of the Legislature's caucus system and patronage is so entrenched, the grand jury wrote, that the only way any change might take place is through a constitutional convention. (P-G, Mauriello)

It could be argued that chipping away at the political privilege of state legislators on the local level is one way to begin having a direct effect on "entrenched" webs of incumbents, whom some consider far too important to Pennsylvania to risk facing the voters on a level playing field and to even consider replacing with nonpartisans.

Adam Ravenstahl campaigned more than anything else on a promise to "fix Harrisburg" -- the problem with which, he contended, is too many "self-interested politicians". Withdrawing his name from consideration for this board appointment and declining to take advantage of the big sewers cherry would be a meaningful first step.

In the event that does not occur, the Council could make reference to the many deep frustrations voters are nursing against the culture of Harrisburg and its imperious, out-of-touch incumbents -- not limited to "Bonusgate" matters -- and actually begin taking upon itself the task of cleansing rank and obvious political backscratching from Pittsburgh's own boards and commissions. This would be a long-term process that, if taken seriously, would make reform-minded Councilors appear less as though they themselves are reacting out of petty political jealousy.

Having made that policy decision, there will still be this:

"Rep. Ravenstahl represents the people who are affected by Alcosan's location the most," said mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven in an e-mail. "There has always been a meaningful effort to have representation from the North Side on Alcosan's board as quality-of-life issues such as odor and traffic affect residents near the operation." (ibid)

There are lots of community-minded North Siders who have no particular use for campaign contributions or political favors. Some of them probably even have useful experience or qualifications when it comes to managing sewer systems. Finding one shouldn't be a problem.