Friday, December 3, 2010

CHS Holiday Gift Drive

Pittsburgh blogs such as I Heart PGH, Ms. Mon's Salon, Secret Agent L, That's Church and Two Political Junkies have been writing up a storm about this year's Community Human Services Corp. (CHS) holiday gift drive; this trend might have something to do with its point-person, Sue Kerr.

Even still, due to great local demand for these kinds of services, its goals are to sponsor over 500 pre-identified families and to raise upwards of $10,000 for supportive holiday gifts on top of that. There is much unmet need remaining to be filled over the coming weeks.

CHS is a private non-profit that has been based out of Oakland for over 40 years. It was originally founded to service the working-class community in Oakland, and did so through operating a community center and holding Bingo fundraisers. Since then, CHS has expanded and shifted its emphasis to providing mental health services and mental health residential programs.

The organization serves over 1,500 clients per year. It receives many of its referrals from Allegheny County, and many more through contacts established during "street-based" work.

This is the fourth year of the CHS gift drive; there are many subprograms by which one can get involved. Kerr is primarily responsible for the "Adopt a Family" program, through which qualified recipients "usually get three wishes". The gift items wished for tend towards the extremely useful and practical, such as gloves, blankets and everyday household needs. In addition the program recommends practical, family-friendly gift cards in $25 denominations. Gift cards have the added benefit of allowing recipients a shopping trip, chaperoned or otherwise, with which they are afforded the dignity of satisfying their own needs.

Kerr emphasizes that the gift card program is a particularly good plug-in for corporate donors. Although it is known as "Adopt a Family", do not expect a meet and greet with the end-users of your gifts or pictures suitable for framing; confidentially for health services recipients rules all. However you might expect a thank-you note and will certainly receive thank-yous and stories from staff.

Cash remains king, so various fund drives are also taking place, and 100% of the proceeds of these go to recipients. "Every penny that goes in, goes out." Contact CHS directly or read some of the blogs linked to above to learn of these events. Some of these funds will likely be directed toward the street-based aspect of the gift drive; gifts as socks, gloves or deodorant for the homeless. Santa Claus has been known to quietly take part in this aspect of the project.

Consumers of CHS services suffer through a broad variety of conditions and situations, some of which are frequently overlooked by society or make people uncomfortable. Kerr states that the simple awareness that others care enough to provide these folks with a holiday present is helpful in itself, and the practical nature of the gifts CHS gathers provides support. "If you want people to make good choices," she says, "you need to provide good supports."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On the Local Praetorian Guard

Photoshop: 2PJ's, Maria Luppinacci

*-UPDATE II, NEXT DAY: Police Chief Nate Harper informs us all at a news conference that Ravenstahl's security detail is now being reduced to just one full-time officer, "modeled after the detail used with Mayor Murphy." (Won't this suck now if the Mayor gets gacked at like 6:45 PM on the way into a Weed and Seed meeting.) OR: To hear it from other sources, it was a message with more push-back.

Original post follows:

KDKA-TV has been chewing over the cost of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's bodyguard detail like a juicy turkey leg: first an initial investigative report not online, again when Controller Michael Lamb called for "scrutiny", and again when Councilman Bill Peduto was inveighed thereon at a taping of Sunday Business Page.

*-UPDATE: And again, chatting with Dan Onorato about his two guards which don't leave the county and mostly work only official events.

If you're the Mayor, there's no right answer to these questions, but there are several ways to say "no comment":

  • A comment that's not a comment: "As Chief of Police / Director of Public Safety, it's my responsibility to provide for the security of this city's mayor in our modern environment, and will continue to do so."
  • A no comment: "We don't discuss issues relating to the Mayor's personal security."
  • A no comment with a catnip chaser: "No comment, and screw you for asking."

In the labeling of this line of reporting as "not a story" and "political", the administration remains consistent in its adherence to option 3. In adding, “I in no way use my security detail for my personal gain,” we have been put on notice that ... personal gain is on the table? I had not seen mention of nor thought about "personal gain" until this point, but now that you mention it -- yeah, I suppose I can see a personal gain angle. (Of course Griffin and Delano might have been raising personal gain allegations in their questioning, but it didn't make it into their reports.)

What to say about this. First of all, what with all the talk about massive public safety cuts and austerity measures and the saturation patrols on Carson Street being withdrawn, this is plainly a story. It's actually a good story, in terms of "provides for a variety of uses."

Secondly, the suddenly oft-compared Tom Murphy (much less Sophie Masloff) was not Luke Ravenstahl, the 80's and the 90's weren't the 00's, and the Police Chief can't and shouldn't forbid the Mayor from going anywhere but can and should provide for his safety when he does.

Thirdly -- three full time bodyguards, a part-timer, and then $200,000 worth of overtime, huh? One can only speculate as to what that means. It's difficult to imagine any 30 year-old individual being a real alert, responsible go-getter at work every day and then indulging more or less every night, except for the people I can imagine doing so and you sure wouldn't want to be imagined as one those either.

Fourthly, I wouldn't be at all surprised if we see a significant curtailment in the quantity and the cost of mayoral protection next year. I'd be shocked stupid if we saw press release heralding it (*-UPD II: Well, let's just call me shocked), but a hatchet is being taken to the budget and the police will continue to be spread thinner and thinner. Extremely attentive reporters might discover some shifting sooner rather than later.

Fifth -- well there are other considerations but let's skip to the end. This isn't the first time that the mayor's security detail popped up as an issue, and the voters have shrugged resoundingly every time so far and will have another opportunity to shrug in 2068*. Yet it bears noting that this is the kind of thing -- tiny, petty and niggling in the scheme of Pittsburgh's challenges -- that will cause watchers and potential partners to think, "That guy's a schnook, right? He wants us to do what, now? That seems like a schnook idea." That train of thought makes me uncomfortable because a dignified leader embiggens us all, so there are really no such things as small issues.

*-UPDATE: I assume this changes if he's running for county executive -- and rumors abound.

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.