Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thursday: Anatomy of a Clusterfrack

Yesterday's Post-Gazette article did a pretty good job summing up the gist of Tuesday's marathon 7-hour City Council meeting, marking-up the city's 2011 annual budget.

But the one critically important feature left unwritten was:

Voting for the amendments were Mrs. Harris, Bruce Kraus, Bill Peduto, Ms. Rudiak and Mr. Shields. Voting against them were... (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Those five members were the five consistently least compromising in terms of entertaining any permutation of Mayor Ravenstahl's parking deal as a solution to the city's pension problem. They were also the same five who voted at the beginning of the year to elect Councilwoman Darlene Harris as the body's president over Councilwoman Theresa Smith. The no-votes were in the opposite camp on both scores.

So at least 2010 has a lovely matching pair of bookends.

What occurred in those several dozen budget amendments can be accurately described as providing neighborhood groups and initiatives (in those five members' districts) with the critical funding necessary to do important work that had been deferred for years and years, often despite repeated assurances: community and recreation centers, senior centers, youth programs, business district improvements, neighborhood master plans, and blight removal.

All of that can also be just as accurately described as pet projects comprising "reelection insurance" to those five Council members who are likely to be challenged by the assembled forces of mayoral allies, the city and county Democratic party, and any labor groups and other constituencies outraged over the city's failure to stave off a state takeover. Of course, along with reelection insurance comes the camaraderie of victors divvying up hard-earned spoils.

During deliberations, viewers literally heard "Won't somebody please think of the children?" tearfully employed on multiple occasions. And the story of each individual amendment, taken in isolation, was 100% legitimate on that very basis; in some cases these groups had been promised very humble forms of civic support since the Caliguiri administration, and had simply fallen on the wrong side of Act 47 cuts or mayoral political whims past and present. Yet taken together and in context, the many amendments were just as much a textbook example of pet projects being allocated in those districts whose political representatives are holding a slim but surprisingly firm majority on the Council opposing this mayor.

Flip sides of the same coin.


The next stage of this particular mini-drama involves the mayor's line-item veto -- one drawback of Council having passed all the mark-ups by only that 5-4 margin.

Now, budget hawks of Pittsburgh take heart: none of the items in those amendments would actually swell the size of the city's gross annual expenditures. It was all paid for with matching cuts elsewhere in the budget.

In several cases, the trade-offs made common sense -- the cost of a specific named demolition project was taken out of the city's yearly allocation for building demolitions, for example. But in what seemed like a whole lot of cases -- particularly the community development projects -- the allocation came out of one of several accounts in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Even "personnel" in at least one case.

This mayor, as all Pittsburgh mayors, is fond of his URA.

So Mayor Ravenstahl could veto all the amendments, which might bring with it the collateral PR advantage of being able to say he "acted on principle" -- but in addition to throwing gasoline on our present civic inferno, these vetoes would not necessarily restore funds to his own submitted line-items. It might just take the money out of the spending budget on both ends and in entirety, if Council doesn't eventually allocate it towards something -- and government oughtn't quite be allowed to grind to a standstill.

Or he could choose to not veto any of them -- perhaps cooling intergovernmental relations a titch -- and then he could hand over the keys to the mayor's office while he's at it. So we're pretty likely to see a Solomonic splitting of the vetoes somewhere around 50% of the group, although with only a modest reduction in outrage and further drama.


All of which is to put off discussion of the fact that we're 9 days from the state pensions takeover deadline and despite the furious work and alarmed advocacy of various civic parties, we don't seem to be any closer to a break.

Council's majority bloc has most recently demonstrated its solidarity against any form of business deal involving the LAZ and JPMorgan ownership group (which is the only one we can deal with if we're even going to pretend to honor the proper process for these things before the deadline). So in tennis terms you might say it's ad-Harris.

In any consideration of what the mayor's next move ought to be, one needs to keep a few facts in mind:

1) The "Council-Controller plan" was kept a state secret for the better part of a year, under a fairly flimsy pretense of its advocates being "cooperative", while the Mayor's plan marinated in in full public scrutiny as one plan that would definitely raise parking rates sky-high.

2) The very day the Council-Controller plan was unveiled to the public, six (6) members of Council unloaded fire on the mayor's parking plan and on Mayor Ravenstahl himself in the loudest, most alarming, most vicious, least walkable-back way possible, while the mayor was off the continent, and demanded his plan be erased from consideration prior to discussion of their own.

3) Upon returning to Pittsburgh, the mayor did what anyone in that situation would be expected to do, and vilified the stuffing out of the Council-Controller plan right back in return.

4) Other than the Council-Controller plan, all of the other ideas floated by the Council majority are pretty goofy. *-CLARIFICATION / UPDATE: Or sound pretty goofy. You know.

5) In the ensuing months, the mayor's plan was modified in several ways, bringing the rates way down to Earth (at the cost of reducing the payoff) and even, in one modification, actually taking many of the "public assets" off the table so Council could do its Council-Controller thing. So as I see it, although neither faction deserves to win the Nobel Prize in Compromise, the mayor's side at least merits a table at the reception ceremony more so than the Harris majority.

Now, what can I say. Very little.

In 20-20 hindsight, the smart play for the Mayor might have been to fight for the lease deal through Thanksgiving, and then find some pretense for giving in, gaining a say in Council's vision, and declaring a victory. I for one never anticipated that five Council members would actually, at the end of all things, prefer the state takeover to a less-preferable but cleanly viable solution.

In 40-40 hindsight, the optimal play for the Mayor might have been to even more assertively explain his case for his parking deal to the public over all those long and dreary summer months, to begin with an RFP prescribing lower rates at the outset instead of having to be bargained down later, and definitely to horse-trade some of those irritating Council members' votes with the very kinds of initiatives they are now demanding via budget amendments, not to mention for political support or at least non-interference.

What the best play is now, I don't know. I don't fracking know. I just hope people are bargaining constructively and creatively is all.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday: Bring It On

First Night is going to be safe: LINK.

Also, the city is ready for winter storms: LINK.

Live your lives! Go on vacation. Buy that new car.

Also, at this time, City Council is in its 6th hour of a meeting in advance of a preliminary vote on the 2011 budget. It seems a few dozen budget amendments came in at the last minute, but in this instance it was less unfair to the groups in anybody's districts than it was last time. Apparently there are accusations flying around as to whether CDBG funding is being transferred improperly to areas and for projects for which they do not / should not qualify, but I'm not even going to pretend to understand the validity of the specific claims yet. Apparently some if it is being tabled for legal review, though its hard to imagine the progenitors of the amendments could have drawn quite that far outside the lines.


Celeste Taylor and the whole Regional Equity Monitoring Project (REMP) eat CDBG issues for breakfast.

Amendments just passed 5-4 along strict party lines.

Wow, and now it's on to the hunger groups and Meals on Wheels again and where that money is to come from. I've got to say, I don't envy these folks their jobs sometimes.

Monday, December 20, 2010



Council today formally rejected the latest framework for doing business with LAZ Parking, with no discussion except for one speech by Councilman Ricky Burgess. Selections...

Today, right here, right now, in Pittsburgh, we have Democrats who refuse to fix the City's pension problems because they can't be Mayor and because they envy the man who is Mayor. Democrats who refuse to fix the City pensions problems even though they ALL know that their actions will inflict needless pain and suffering on the City's residents... (ibid)


But today the majority of Pittsburgh’s Democratic City Council will vote for the interest of wealthy business owners and suburban commuters in rejecting the revenue sharing plan rather than supporting the interests of our City’s workforce and our City’s homeowners. What kind of Democrats are we? (ibid)

I agree it's hard to argue that releasing and partially opening to the market our government-run and government-subsidized car parking system -- the brunt of which lies Downtown, in Oakland, and in Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Eastside -- does not relatively advantage suburban commuters and our more affluent business owners and customers, while relatively disadvantaging less-than-affluent city residents upon whom a larger funding burden and / or austerity measures would more likely fall. Not without making reference to a trickle-down theory of economics.

It wasn't framed in the most constructive or collegial manner, but I guess oh well. Maybe "long-term" constructive was the idea.

Clutch Moment for Darlene Harris?

Picture it: City Hall, January 4th, 2010.

Robert Daniel Lavelle and Natalia Rudiak have been sworn in as freshmen members of the Council, and then Darlene Harris elected its Council President. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl sits in the background, with something of the look of a UFC fan during the 3rd act of a ballet recital. Council President Harris mounts the dais to deliver her speech.

"I look forward to working with this mayor," she says at one point, turning to look him in the eye. And, given the fact that she won her presidency in a surprise bid on the strength of four votes that had until moments ago been futilely pledged to Councilman Bill Peduto (Ravenstahl's sharpest critic on the Council) she repeats it, switching up the emphasis. "I will work with this mayor."

Notice she didn't say she'd enjoy it, or get very much thanks for it, or that it'd be easy or pleasurable. But she said she'd do it.

$60 million per year worth of public assets are on the chopping block during the next two weeks, and there seems to be only one practicable avenue remaining for keeping them public -- though several side streets along this avenue may still be open. I like to think she's a bit like me; we don't take sides, unless it's the North Side. We'll soon see if this compromise leader can deal, dance and bend effectively enough to engineer a minimally acceptable solution for all parties involved.