Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Race for Pittsburgh Mayor's parameters sharpen as 8-Week sprint begins

P-G, Grace Patuwo

In March of 2007, a rather young mayor of only several months' experience was thrust into high-stakes negotiations on behalf of the City with Rendell, Onorato, Lemieux and the Penguins, and the NHL. A deal emerged, a hockey team was saved, and Mayor Ravenstahl earned 'attaboys in the afterglow of the exhilarating first sensation of getting "it" done.

Yet even now, central business district development is going like gangbusters: chic wellness villages, a dining and entertainment complex, something distantly involving both Toby Keith and the Steelers, and a proliferation of Point Park University theater options. The Skinny Building will provide the fruit, flowers and seasonal favorites in a fit of dering-do. The National Institutes of Health can't get enough UPMC.

The Police Bureau situation continues to be what it is. There is strong evidence of at least one as-yet unknown co-conspirator in the theft conspiracy. Within and around a determined department, a decisive shift towards openness and transparency is sought desperately and with conviction.

The Fugitive
Controller Michael Lamb's candidacy is in serious danger of getting strangled by the fraud revelations, despite the fact that the Police Bureau and credit union wrongdoers, the Public Safety director, the Finance director and his Treasurer in charge of receipts all got access through this data beforehand, and despite the fact that questions about and auditing of those accounts neatly preceded the federal activity. Nobody wants to hear that in-depth audits are not a routine Controller's office function for the entirety of government, that in-depth audits including several within public safety have been numerous and bold, and that the Controller's office budget for staff is what it is since Act 47.

Lamb fights for fairness in tax exemptions now towards the head of a large crowd. He once fought for honesty in investment accounting with less visible support, against pension spiking with none to speak of, and for comprehensive sex education and youth reproductive health services without uncouth sensationalism. Arrogance, elitism, intemperance and shadowy political patrons are all relative strangers to him, yet his profile and record both seem hostage to the criminals that eluded him.

Willy Wonka
Bill Peduto was the chair of City Council's Finance Committee for two two-year terms, from 2008 through 2011. Previous to that he was among the Council that overlooked certain police fee formalities, but somehow he has not been driven against the wall by general skepticism. His formal campaign marches confidently with bands of placard-waving supporters.

Peduto's last few daily rations of wonk-bait have included collaboratively leveraging innovative tools to fix blight, centralizing and streamlining new business development with collaboration, and curtailing some job development incentives to preserve natural areas and limit sprawl, but not without regional tax sharing. With ever more traditional support accruing behind the early front runner, his detractors are left grumbling darkly about political deal making and another machine.

Gene Hackman
Jack Wagner alone among top-tier contenders needs plea to no conceivable culpability in the Police Bureau scandal -- but apparently had only a small-time and negligible effect on the breadth of the Pa Turnpike Commission scandal: a lavish, longtime, notorious pay-to-play pipeline. Although Wagner has for some time been addressing ruinous bond swaps deals by boosting transparency and more recently recommended terminating Turnpike bond swaps, we await eagerly any similar advice on our ongoing Water authority swaptions.

Though his campaign has operated a bit under my own personal radar thus far, some of his supporters are enthused to highlight Wagner's 1993 advocacy for an assault weapons ban as a member of Pittsburgh City Council, and his expansion of hate crimes law as State Senator to include sexual orientation. Having been dogged a bit in the past by segments of the Democratic constituency on "social issues," Jack Wagner volunteered to the Comet by telephone that "I didn't do everything correctly, we all learn a lot in our lifetimes." While he is fiercely proud to support and advocate for "gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender adoption" privileges, his opposition to gay marriage hinges on a concern for churches, and his position if any on civil unions is undefined. Efforts by the Comet to pin Wagner down neatly on questions of abortion rights were met with similar disinterested parrying; he preferred to redirect the conversation toward equality in promotions and quality public education.

Jake Wheatley seems to be overcoming launch difficulties, Darlene Harris seems not quite fully collected and A.J. Richardson is what a far-out candidate is like in Pittsburgh, which is pretty cool.

Although we all knew Joe Brimmieir was neck-deep in the Pa Turnpike noise, John L. Tague Jr. seems to be a breath of fresh air from the policy and advocacy community; whereas the visibly shaken, whole-town indicting Jack Brooks is a retired Carpenter's Union official appointed by Dan Onorato around the same time the North Shore Connector morphed from a bridge into a tunnel.

While the Post-Gazette is tracking down the details of a nearby fracking settlement, Pat Ford is bringing millions in international investment to Cleveburgh to manufacture natural gas extraction and storage valves and fixtures.

If the Race for Pittsburgh is like every other big political race, expect some nasty twists and surprises very soon. These candidates are all burdened with informing us specifically why they are better than each of the other alternatives -- and without mincing words, sparing feelings, or sweating details. Before long some of them will actually wind up believing their own stories! Just keep your laughter, kindness and honesty dialed up. This has been Your Guide to 'Burgh Drama, Episode 3: The Hon. Mayor Waters.

MORE:  Pittsburgh City Paper.


  1. I think you are being too easy on Lamb. There is evidence that this practice was fairly common knowledge on Grant St. My own councilman made public mention of the mayor's office 'burying' money in the police department in early 2011 and the timing of the scandal strongly suggests someone was using it to political advantage. Further still council and Lamb seemed aware that the withholding was being done without legal authorization and chose to ignore this despite the obvious temptation toward skimming this presented. I would suggest there was plenty to question in the lead up to this mess and that tough questions being ignored is par for the course on Grant St. If in this case Lamb is the one forced to hoist the petard it is only because he is rightly perceived to be the one whose job it was to ask these tough questions.

  2. Thank you for not including Josh Wander in your round-up. Finally, someone in the media with some sense and perspective.

  3. I was impressed with what seems to be the sole admission of mutual responsibility by Theresa Kail-Smith during a post agenda hearing on police staffing I sat in on.I would be very glad to hear of other such acknowledgments. This level of mercenary systemic corruption is indeed always a group effort, whether by active collusion or willful blindness, or misdirected attention, even if to wonky, innovative urban planning and creative problem solving.

  4. Kail-Smith is quick to both congratulate and blame herself, but it sure doesn't look like this has much effect on the way she conducts herself. As soon as the hard questions start she raises her hackles, gets defensive and stops playing the game. She seems like a most incurious person and I suspect this is why the apologies may abound but they don't do the work of altering her conduct.

  5. The more I talk with folks about the candidates' debate a couple weeks ago at Pittsburgh Obama, the more I seem to have distilled the candidates to their essence on that day.

    Bill Peduto, a brilliant and conversant individual, has developed a fulsome vision for the City, is open to new ideas, and has been talking city-wide with constituents for at least a decade to develop his direction. Thus he easily expresses his plans, even when given questions he may not have previously considered.

    Michael Lamb is already known city wide. He wants to place a firm hand on the tiller to steer the city. (I think we already like him as Controller.) He stumbled a bit when asked questions outside his usual talking points.

    Jack Wagner spoke about state-wide issues at the debate. He also put a lot of emphasis on the Mayor's influence on the schools - something that has not often borne out in reality in Pittsburgh.

    Jake Wheatley also seemed (still) focused more state-wide; he seems not yet to have a vision developed nor any plan made for the city.

    Darlene Harris spoke a lot about her own history, and neighborhoods. Most of her answers contained some bit of her own personal history. (Note that she generally does not travel outside her North Side area, thus her vague reference in the debate harkening back to the Council Road Show which was Council's display to each other in 2008 of their districts.)

    A. J. Richardson, as you say, is a refreshing alternative candidate. He should become a more active participant in community affairs.

    Josh Wander is an interesting person, a bit too much into guns and offensive defense for my tastes. He did not participate in that debate, although he was there.

    Yes, I had already chosen my candidate prior to the debate. But this is what I saw, and I've repeated it when asked.

  6. Each of the candidates should publicly state whom they would consider for Chief of Police.

    With everything that just happened, the citizens deserve a voice in that regard --- and their voices are the loudest through the ballot box.

    Never again should we be stuck with a chief chosen because of political favoritism or political correctness.

    We should not be stuck with a chief who has any hint of scandal in their past.

    Additionally, the new mayor needs to meet with the his/her chief weekly as Murphy used to do and O'Connor did away with. There should be no filters between the chief and the mayor when it comes to public safety.

  7. The voter rich East End will split: 7 & north of Forbes in 14 for Peduto, south of Forbes and 15 for Lamb. Wagner will be a blip. So what does that mean? Wagner is a spoiler . . . Wagner in this race can lead to a victory for Peduto. Ironic isn't it? The Wagner machine actually helping arch enemy Fitz get what he wants . . . the sidekick in the mayor's office. Time to STAND BACK JACK! Please get out of this race and hold for next year's statewide race.

  8. Anon 8:46 - "Burying" money in a department can mean a lot of things, not half of them criminal.

    Anon 2:44 - I certainly agree there should in the future be weekly-ish regular meetings betwixt the Mayor and Bureau Chief. If there are not already.

    Anon 2:49 - Wagner a "blip" in the East End? His advantages of both maturity and name-recognition are City-wide in nature. But if the blip becomes a puff, can it puff enough to tip the scales? These are questions for small men with skinny arms.

  9. @Anon 2:49 pm

    Peduto has developed an independent agenda, policy vision, and clear record of legislative accomplishments for Pittsburgh over time. It's really tiresome to have an endorsement or even a strong alliance equated with sidekickdom. If you had some sort of evidence of undue Fitzian influence based on Peduto's actual actions, I'd find your comment a lot more persuasive.

  10. It doesn't really matter if most forms of 'burying' are not illegal. To bury implies at least questionable accounting practices and Lamb failed to ask the questions. In this case that turned out to be a major oversight and that it was makes it so much the worse.

  11. Anon 10:44 - All I can do is repeat myself once, having polished it up: "The Police Bureau and credit union wrongdoers, the Dept. of Public Safety, and the Finance Dept. including the Treasurer all had first crack at certifying data presented to Lamb / burying money. It seems Lamb's questions about and auditing of those accounts neatly preceded the federal activity." If you're unmoved by that information and still maintain this is a disqualifier, what can I say, go ahead and hang him out to dry.

  12. The issue is not how many people signed off before he had a chance to look at the data though. The issue is when he became aware of the suspicious activity what action did he take.

    As I read the time-line Lamb is told in November or December that something strange is going on with these accounts. He delays his audit because of manpower issues and then on Feb 9th announces the audit will take place. By Feb 12th the FBI is carrying boxes out of police headquarters and the PG already knows that this is related to off-duty details. You don't have to be overly suspicious to think that Lamb had been tipped on the previous Friday that the FBI was coming and that is why he is giving a Saturday press release (that isn't even covered by a real reporter!?) that his office is conducting the audit. You might call that 'neatly preceding the federal activity'. I call it reacting to imminent federal activity.

  13. I guess it's a matter of interpretation / extrapolation. I put it in the context of Michael Lamb long having been part of solutions around here. Nobody else is so above reproach he has to take a backseat on reform. Lamb's move after today's charade could be to begin out-Elliot Nessing Peduto while continuing outreach to the wider business community.

  14. Yes, I wonder if Harpergate might be considered a mixed blessing for many who have invested many hundreds of thousands of campaign contributions in the Mayor's office, investors who now have the chance to redirect their generosity toward a representative that will be far more sage in his application of "soft power" behind the scenes, perhaps especially in light of negotiations with various Charities over the next few years.

  15. Typo in my last comment - meant to write "would be" far more sage, not "will be" - no predictions of victory for anyone that may end up on the ballot, no way, no how...

  16. This campaign will be a good test for you as to being fair since you have already chosen a candidate who you adore. No problem with you taking a side. Just saying that I am glad you point it out.

  17. Yet even then the word choice "adore" belittles me.

    Why did the police, firefighters and Ferlo really defiantly endorse Jack yesterday? I'm not talking about his being elected to office 6 times and the purple heart, I mean in the real world, why'd they do it?

  18. Lamb's detractors (Ravenstahl and Peduto) have really tried to paint Lamb with blame here. But I just don't see it.

  19. Anon 12:59 - The blame is that of the "general" blame of so many role players and so many eyes and ears. The bad stuff took place for 5, 6 years. On Lamb the blame is only slightly heightened blame because as Controller it falls into his specific "duty" to go out of his way to count money and kill waste where it is likely occurring. But the blame gets much more heightened probably (probably!) in certain places like Public Safety and Finance and where they meet politically, and where some things did seem to happen to elude the Controller's course of business. And then the blame goes even higher of course in certain segments within the Bureau and the as-yet unnamed conspirators.

    Zoom back out, and Council takes a share. And so do ordinary people who interact with the police professionally or personally. I think that's what's so pernicious about "corruption" -- it's the general preconceived notion in the culture that "Shut up, keep your head down, it's the way it always was and always will be, nobody's hands are clean." I don't think we'll ever be able to put a finger on that waste, though hopefully the USA's office is intent to give us a thorough scrubbing. Core of the region and all.