Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the Crucial Public Necessity of Taking Free Stuff

Today we examine the custom of our civic leaders habitually arranging for themselves free event tickets from the developers they are responsible for regulating and to whom they frequently find themselves giving public money. Are there any reasons for concern, do you think?

For the record, I don't understand how a surround-sound system can shake a City to its foundations, yet revelations of tens of thousands of dollars worth of commercial event admissions are met only with smirks and soft pats on the head -- but there are so many things I don't understand.

"If it sounds like an appropriate request, I don't think we stand on ceremony," said Mary Conturo, the authority's executive director. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Ah! Very good. It has to be an appropriate request. Now we're just down to how we distinguish appropriate economic development uses from personal and political uses. Any outing during which food and beverages are paid for out of a campaign fund, for example, would by definition be an outing in the nature of a political use. Or are we going too fast?

Mr. Fontana said he doesn't use the tickets himself but gives them to neighborhood groups and officials visiting from other parts of the state. (ibid)

"Other parts of the state" -- that's good! Pittsburghers, we can assume, are already passingly well aware of the awesome PNC Park experience, but visiting out-of-towners truly ought to be awed by our fairytale skyline. "Community groups," however -- do we mean "constituents"? "Voters"? How are we supposed to run against somebody who can hand Steelers tickets out to community group leaders? May as well just give them parking spaces, or have PennDOT mow their lawn.

Former Mayor Sophie Masloff received about 60 tickets to 30 events, records showed. She said she has given tickets to family members but never requested what she considered an excessive amount. (ibid)


"Sometimes, they go to neighborhood organizations," city council President Darlene Harris, a Sports and Exhibition Authority board member, said. (ibid)

Hey! Wait a minute. I'm actually in Darlene's neighborhood -- and I've been here as long as she's been in office. Should I feel slighted? Sending me to a game would pay off in terms of "economic development" every bit as much as sending somebody from the community Conference, Alliance, Council, Federation or Jamboree. Is this an indication that I should have supported Vincent Pallus instead? We probably would have wound up with the same Finance Chair, and I could be getting my fair share of swag.

To improve accountability and transparency, city Controller Michael Lamb and county Controller Chelsa Wagner said, the authority should document the names of those receiving tickets and the reasons tickets are provided. (ibid)

That would be a good start. However sometimes these things get tripped up during the follow-through phase. Witness the Ethics Hearing Board, which meets each and every month during which WTAE reporter Bob Mayo throws cinder blocks at the City-County Building; and its mandated Gift Disclosure page, from which we learn that only one (1) city official has accepted one (1) gift once since 2009.

Personal use of tickets, Ms. Nadler added, is flat-out wrong. "You are never to use your position for personal benefit." (ibid)

Clearly she's not from around here, so moving right along...

"The bottom line is the SEA gives the tickets to the mayor because they want him at events," Ms. Doven said in an email, referring to the Sports and Exhibition Authority. "His appearance shows city support for what is going on in the city. That is part of his job as mayor. If the mayor has additional tickets, then his priority is to use them to promote the city." (ibid)

Technically, his purchasing a ticket would be more supportive of the city. In this instance the city is much closer to supporting him, right? Although I suppose there is room for discussion about the extent to which U2 and Bon Jovi benefited from the mayor's support. A long, gratuitously repetitive discussion over the next ten months, until it's impossible to think of the name "Ravenstahl" without thinking about U2 and Bon Jovi.

On Mr. Fitzgerald's watch, she said, tickets will be used only for business purposes and all requests for tickets will come from the executive's office. (ibid)

Excellent that he's gone on record -- but it begs the question, how is the city and region going to get along without his support? Sounds dangerous.

It also provided tickets to several legislators who were identified, including the Winter Classic and McCartney concert tickets to state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who could not be reached for comment. (ibid)

Some people are plainly too important to respond to such nattering. Yet somehow in this case the "no comment" is almost more open and honest. I work hard, I deserve tickets, nobody can stop me. That's the sort of bold leadership we've come to expect from state leaders.

Records showed that city Councilman Bill Peduto received tickets to two events, but he said he actually received tickets to three. Twice, he said, he took international visitors to baseball games. Once, he said, he took family members. (ibid)

See? What a wuss.

Clearly, the rules are too loose and must be tightened. In the age of transparency, the agency's records are a muddy stream that don't even reveal why officials are receiving tickets. This is nonsense and part of the petty, grasping behavior that this region should have outgrown years ago.

Stop it. (P-G, Edit Board)

Plus one.

Directly underneath our public officials' hilarious rationalizations for such graft is the idea that, "Everyone else is just jealous. You wish you were running this town, so you could do it too." That's the precise mentality that needs overthrowing forever. We're not going to get the leadership we deserve until we change the culture of entitlement, this sense of royal privilege.

This SEA business is a great place to start, and the media would do well to force the issue relentlessly.


  1. Face it Bram its just not that big of a deal!

  2. That's just, like, your opinion man.

    If you have low standards and don't mind running the kind of jerkwater burg where people feel free helping themselves to chainsaws, driveways, prostitution rings and river front land, then that's your prerogative for the time being.

  3. In a sports-crazy city, I'm okay with certain people getting tickets to show off for potential investors. This just gets added to the (probably)long list of things that need to be tracked better.

    On a completely unrelated topic, does anyone apologize to Luke for his dismissal Franco over JoPa support now that it's a fact that Franco was backing... well, evil.

  4. Hmm... I don't know if attempting to kick him off the Promise board was the move to make, but somebody should probably circle back around to Franco for a comment.

    "Potential investors", shyeah.

  5. Kick-ass gadfly polemic - THANK YOU, Bram, for refusing to accept that "culture of entitlement" as "just not that big of a deal"!

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. "This SEA business is a great place to start, and the media would do well to force the issue relentlessly. "

    >>> Yeah, well. We did a piece raising similar questions back in November. And we weren't the first ones to do it either, as a couple of the politicians we spoke to were careful to point out.

    Media coverage is only going to carry the ball so far, I'm afraid.

  8. Potter - Perhaps you thought I was implicitly upbraiding other media for having ignored these issues, or all media in general for too frequently ignoring them. Not the case, nothing implied except "hooray!" and "more please".

    However, since you bring it up, media has to *follow* stories. Dare I say it even has to creatively *manufacture* opportunities to continue shining light from new angles on unrepentant self-dealing. If politicians can be assured that the instance in which they are being asked about something is the last time they will ever hear about it, they will continue to offer responses such as, "Shut up, wretch." It only stands to reason. Plus, I was sort of thinking the impact might heighten during the election.

    Don't think of it as carrying a ball so much as routine blocking and tackling. We all know who's responsible for actually carrying the ball -- that platoon of idiots in the wishbone I-formation.

  9. Actually, isn't there a penalty for "Too many men in the backfield"?

  10. "Perhaps you thought I was implicitly upbraiding other media for having ignored these issues, or all media in general for too frequently ignoring them."

    >>> No, I didn't feel like my ox was being gored. And sure, reporters should follow up on things. But with this story, politicians HAVE been asked these questions more than once. And I'm not sure how much would be gained by doing it again. Without meaning any offense to Joe Smydo, much of what was in the P-G story was in our piece last year. Many of the names are the same -- Fontana is apparently still the top recipient of tix, for example. And there's been no change in the justification for getting tickets (economic development! community appreciation!) or for the SEA's less-than-candid reporting.

    The more conspicuous lack of follow-up on THIS story, I'd argue, lies elsewhere. What's to stop a reform-minded city councilor, for example, from pushing legislation that requires city officials to fully account for any tickets they use? Such a councilor would, I think we agree, have a built-in incentive for a "gratuitously repetitive discussion" about the mayor's concert-going habits.

    And hey, even if that legislation were defeated -- or simply unworkable -- it would give reporters something to follow up ON. Point being: Reformers can wait for another headline, or try to make their own.

  11. I was thinking, does City Council even have jurisdiction over what the SEA does? Possibly so when it comes to city officials, but we're talking about a lot of state and county characters too. Real reform ought properly to come from the SEA board, i.e., the chief executives who control them.

    And as to "asking the same questions" again and again ... find new angles. When playoff season comes along, find out who *has asked* for tickets. *Then* ask them which economic developmeisters they're planning on taking. Or just stake out the luxury boxes.

    Or best yet -- seriously -- every time the Hill groups agitate for benefits tied to development subsidies, tack on a factual, salient paragraph about how often the SEA or URA board members who ignore them get to go to free hockey games. THAT'S what I'm really talking about.

  12. "Local architect Rob Pfaffman said the Penguins should work the old arena into their new development plans. However Ravenstahl, --> who has accepted $12,457 worth of free Penguins tickets during his tenure as mayor <--, said it's more important to reconnect the street grid from the Hill to Downtown as the Penguins are proposing.

    "Yet a 5 minute stroll Downtown revealed a host of enormous problems in ever restoring any semblance of a grid..."

  13. ask Dansy Dan G how
    many events he's been to....
    as many as he can

  14. I couldn't scare up an answer from the Mayor's office when I called to ask why their website showed the next Ethics Hearing Board schedule to be coming up way back in December of 2010.

    "What board do you mean? 'Ethics Hearing' Board?" said the politely disbelieving voice on the other line - What web page? I can't find it." Since she would have needed a time machine to see the next publicly posted meeting, I gave her this web address:

    She promised to send me an answer by email or call me back ASAP. I'll be waiting by the phone, way back in the future, right here in July, 2012.

  15. Yes, I have begun to read the Orwellian chronicle of the Busman's trip to the Alice in Wonderland reverse-universe of the Oh-so-Sunshiney Ethical Review Board.

    Also found a PPG quote of the Mayor from way back in October of 2007 directly addressing the ticket issue:

    "Rather than an absolute prohibition on accepting tickets from any source other than the charity, I propose there be transparency in the acceptance of such tickets," Mr. Ravenstahl wrote. "[I]f a third party provides a ticket to a charitable event to an elected official or a municipal employee and the ticket or event cost exceeds $500, the public officials [sic] should be required to report this on his or her annual ethics form."

    Read more:

    Next step - trying to gain access to those ethics forms. I'll be downtown today taking notes for the Jordan Miles civil trial and will try to stop in to the Mayor's office afterwards to follow up on that matter, as well as my need for time machine to attend the last publicly posted Ethics Review Board meeting.

  16. the mayor is a goof

  17. "[I]f a third party provides a ticket to a charitable event to an elected official or a municipal employee and the ticket or event cost exceeds $500, the public officials [sic] should be required to report this on his or her annual ethics form."

    LMAO. It should read..
    "[I]f a third party provides a ticket to a charitable event to an elected official or a municipal employee, the public officials [sic] should be required to report this on his or her annual ethics form."

    No limits. Since when did a ticket 'cost' more than $500?

  18. $500 is way too high of a limit and whatever the limit is should be cumulative per giver.

  19. ^ Yes.

    City Council during the Harris+Peduto term unanimously passed some updates and revisions to the ethics code, but such passages as that remained conspicuous.