Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Wasted time, Missed opportunities, Failed strategies: the "Old Guard" needs a break.

Ken Wolfe

by Bram Reichbaum

Let's talk paving streets, for example.

Laying down asphalt is difficult enough to begin with, since the City has only been able to afford about a third as much capital resources as are necessary to keep up with pavement deterioration, until finally we caved in and borrowed money just to get one third closer. Choosing streets wisely is pretty important -- so thus, too, is keeping political pressure at bay. Some neighborhoods and some people speak louder than others. Politically.

Once upon a time, thanks in part to Councilman Bill Peduto's leadership, the City purchased a computerized pavement management system. The sort of thing to assess street conditions using transparent objective criteria, and point to reasonably optimal advice on paving schedules. Other cities use it. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl opted against using it, preferring instead the old, less traceable "eyeballing" method of evaluation combined with the gut instinct and experience of Public Works managers.

In the run up to the 2007 accountability moment, Peduto briefly shamed Ravenstahl into adopting the computerized system again. One might surmise it was popular.

But then the Mayor got rid of it again after the election. The reason the Administration gave was interesting: that we can afford pave so little, we can't keep up with the computer's demands.

[The Comet] never understood the argument that since we have less money for paving than we used to, we must scrap the computer system, or it will keep demanding that we repave too much. Can't we, uh, just punch in a new number?

"That is a false argument," [confirmed] Peduto. "The program is created to be recalibrated by budget. So if we only have $6 million to spend in any given year of the budget, the priority is given to the streets that need it the most." (Comet, May '07)

Denyse Loar
The Mayor was making a thin excuse. He just didn't want to use the computer.

(I know, I know... Guy Costa was Director of Public Works at that time. And today he is Peduto's campaign manager. But Luke inherited longtime DPW chief Costa and it sounds like they never got on swimmingly; he worked under Luke until Luke installed his own favorites. Guy is working for Peduto now, knowing full well Peduto has his hair on fire for digital revolutions.)

So Pitsburgh has not used a computerized system for six years, and your roads are about how you think they are.

And once again, from time to time, it seems as though street paving is being wielded politically, at minor provocation...

In the story, Gilman commended Kaczorowski “for taking quick action.” But, he said, there’s a problem if it takes a reporter or city council office to get the problem fixed.

“The bottom line is it’s dangerous to the public,” Gilman said.

At 7:13 a.m., 8:54 a.m. and 9:02 a.m. Tuesday, Gilman received emails from Kaczorowski.

In the first email, part of a string that had “paper street article” in the subject line, Kaczorowski said, without elaborating, “Another BS statement …” He then said, “On another front, sorry to inform you but after second thought Sellers may not be paved this year until the catch basin issue is resolved.”

In the second email, Kaczorowski ruled out the possibility of paving Kittanning this year. “Not able to add to this year’s list,” he said, referring to the citywide paving list.

In the third email, referencing traffic safety meetings for Central Catholic and Matthews Marking Products that had been scheduled for 2:15 p.m. and 3 p.m. next Tuesday, Kaczorowski said, “Unfortunately, we will need to officially cancel these meetings at this time.” (P-G / PublicSource, Joe Smydo)

And so, as usual, for daring to shine a light on City operations, whether it's for bearing in mind paper streets or leading the charge for technological advancement, Bill Peduto gets branded as a big meanie.

Now here is where it becomes an interesting issue:

April 11: West End leaders fall in.
Jack Wagner highlighted a group of West End supporters Thursday, including city Councilwoman Theresa Kail Smith, as the mayoral contenders continued their endorsement arms race. The day after his first television ads began airing, Mr. Wagner appeared with about 20 partisans, including state Reps. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, and Dan Deasy, D-Westwood, former Pittsburgh school board member Evelyn Neiser, and Rob Kaczorowski, the head of the city's Public Works department.  The morning event took place at the Banksville headquarters of the Boilermakers Union. (P-G ER, James O'Toole)

Notable that Ravenstahl's Director of Public Works (DPW) would feel comfortable endorsing a candidate at a major campaign event. It's his privilege, but in his important service position it strikes an odd chord.

Kaczorowski is objectively no stranger to politics, as the Chairman of the City's 28th Ward for the local Democratic Committee. Kevin Quigley also is a higher-up at DPW, and chairs the 27th Ward. In the old days, it would not have been unusual to link Ward Chairs as important intermediaries in the doling out of jobs and other favors for political support, and indeed echoes of that do arise.

But what we're talking about here isn't quid-pro-quo corruption. What we're talking about is a resistance to transparency that resists efforts at technological upgrades. Everything cries out for a Great Leap Forward.

Take one more example from Public Works:

Two city of Pittsburgh Public Works employees have been disciplined after several pictures recently surfaced of them sleeping while on the job. (Target 11, Rick Earle)

Not good, of course. It's a poorly kept secret, from time to time on occasion, this happens. The reporter probably knew right where to look.

It is unknown whether there are controls and strategies already in place within the Department to minimize knocking off on the job, even falsifying reports.

Former Harrisburg financial watchdog Jack Wagner and Director Rob Kaczorowki tripped over themselves to express outrage over the incident that was discovered by a reporter and demand discipline, but Peduto took a different approach...

Councilman Bill Peduto said that a possible solution to prevent this type of activity is to install GPS units in every city vehicle.

“We still have a city government that runs off of a 1980s system. What needs to happen, is we need to modernize it and it would stop things like that from happening,” Peduto said. (ibid)

Wagner has made a habit of swiftly echoing a lot of Bill Peduto's more popular policy positions, but has he signed on to GPS tracking on City vehicles to improve all manner of operations?

Not that I can recall yet. Insisting on making City operations that transparent, accessible and efficient might be regarded by Wagner as "divisive".

Now, we could stand pat at a very long Public Works post, but let's be fair. Since this is the Comet we'll take a cursory look at the entire Old Guard typified by that first example. After all, these are the people responsible for bringing you the government you're currently getting.

April 4: "Another huge boost"

The IBEW, the Carpenters, the Steamfitters. Hard workers all. Staunch supporters of Ravenstahl's leadership 'till the end, all.

Do we want them in charge of say, public transit? It took a lot more labor, public expense, and carpentry to build a tunnel under the Allegheny river than a bridge over it, and that's exactly what we got after Onorato appointed a Carpenters honcho to the Port Authority board.

Do we want the building trades in charge of our wet weather strategy, as it gets negotiated in painstaking phases over time? Remember, the plan designed under this regime, professional though it was from a gray perspective, somehow totally slept on source-control "green" infrastructure. Just totally disregarded it, even resisted it. You don't suppose that's partially because "green" jobs would cut in to the amount of work these "gray" industries get to do? Hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, here.

March 27: "A great day" for Jack Wagner's campaign

Now we're getting back to the big boys. When Wagner's candidacy suddenly became viable.

We'll take the influence of the Fraternal Order of Police as read.

How about the Firefighters? Never mind the hackneyed campaigning, due only to a culture insensate to privilege (but nothing Pittsburgh can't handle). How does the aggressive support of the Firefighters union bode for our chances of ending the practice of pension spiking? That raw deal is still rearing its ugly head. How about the chances of reforming our budget to take into account a "realistic" rate of pension returns? We're coming off of one good year, but professionalism clearly indicates cooling it down.  How about Wagner's chances at pursuing safe, cost-saving efficiencies in the Fire Bureau? If history is any indication, not very good.

And last but not least, we get to contemplate the roadblocks to rational, equitable progress suggested by the all-important presence of State Senator Jim Ferlo, D-URA.

Matt Robinson (thank you!)
Jack Wagner has long been an aggressive advocate on behalf of the Buncher Company's and the URA's plans in what we're now calling "Riverfront Landing," or what is really the Strip District -- and we're talking back in 1989. Concerns about preserving the Strip's character was "sabotaging" jobs, he said back then, causing a furor. He wanted to fast-track it, never mind the uncertainty. 24 years later, and the special changes the plan requires still have significant popularity problems, stemming from a lack of meaningful negotiation and participation.

And surely you remember Maglev. A terribly expensive, unnecessarily burdensome technology for public transportation that gobbled public money for decades to no effect. Ferlo and Wagner both were staunch supporters through the years. Wagner was particularly well-allied to one of that company's officials. Still is.

But is that the kind of impractical, unrealistic, easily-impressed thinking we want polluting our very largest investments and our most crucial decisions?

Taken as a whole, does the Wagner coalition, that is the Wagner and Ravenstahl coalition, seem likely to break character and deliver fundamental progress? Or does it seem likely to keep us running on the hamster wheel, debating whether to finally computerize the Department of Public Works every year?

The Comet understands that a newer, broader, more diverse coalition of people has finally risen as a necessary challenge to this ageless, exhausted status quo. It has bolder, more impertinent, more ambitious ideas, and fewer internal resistances to undertaking real upgrades and reforms.

It's time to restore balance.

It's time to make a change for the better.

It's time to see what it can do.

Led Zeppelin - Kashmir by LedZeppelin-Official


  1. I live in the East-end of Pgh and I don't understand why we are demonized on Grant St. This latest ad campaign by Wagner makes Peduto seem like a hack for wanting good things for his district and all districts. I see first hand the ramifications of punitive neglect from Lukey and Co.
    Rev Ricky told Peduto to stay in Shadyside when there was a discussion regarding money. We pay a lot of taxes too and have valid resident and visitor concerns. Rev. Ricky wants to frame this with Wagner and Lukey as being elitist and racist. I would like to hear Wagner disassociate himself from this divide and defame attack. Peduto has always been generous with other districts and has cared about the whole city. He has unique issues in his district that include the Ed's and Med's.
    To make this district less desirable is penny wise and pound foolish. The East-End is always portrayed as too rich, too elite and too greedy at the expense of the poor. I don't want to look at it like that. I want the best for every district, I travel them all. Can't we be a part of the discussion?
    Peduto is brave to suffer the slings and arrows from Harris, Burgess and Kail every time he states his position on an issue. He is a decent and good man and we are lucky to have him.

    1. Mysterious Greenfield GuyMay 7, 2013 at 2:41 PM

      I find it funny that a couple weeks back the PG's Wagner profile celebrated the fact that "his family roots still run deep in the neighborhood". Highlights included his home improvement journey in a house across the street from where he grew up, his family's long-standing ownership of a neighborhood dive, and his brother serving as 19th Ward chair since the 1980s. A real Beechview guy, tru' an' tru'. And yet, somehow, Peduto is the candidate that the PG believes will focus more on his home district than on the needs of other neighborhoods and the city proper. Black is white, up is down in PG land, and Wagner making such a claim is just outright shameless mendacity.

  2. A lot of this article was useful, but I think Bram should be more thoughtful about blaming people for the mere fact of supporting controversial ideas for possible transit projects that haven't gotten done, since Peduto is also living in that glass house:


    And is Bram really applauding the fact it is 24 years later, and we are still looking at mostly surface parking lots on Buncher's land in the Strip? Is that Bram's hope for the outcome this time?

    I get that Bram has appointed himself as a zealous advocate for Peduto and is willing to seize on anything that he thinks might stick, but I still think he needs to be a little careful about not getting so off message that he actually seems to be implicitly supporting criticisms of Peduto (e.g., that he has too many pie-in-the-sky ideas).

    1. I don't really blame people, I blame forces and institutions. And I think there's much more economical options in terms of light rail, existing rail. Why persist on space-age Lambourghini treatment for so long?

    2. Whether you see the candidates you are working for or against as "people" or instead as "forces and institutions" is immaterial to the point I was making.

      I don't want to relitigate Maglev as a technology--it has some good points and some bad points, both in general and as applied in Pittsburgh, and as a result both the cases for and against pursuing a demonstration project of some kind in Pittsburgh were reasonable in their own ways.

      But that is not really the issue. The issue is that it is incredibly easy with the benefit of hindsight to sneer about people supporting ideas like this that eventually don't pan out (when it comes to large transportation projects, usually because all the really relevant policy decisions are made at higher levels of government). And yet if that is your true attitude--that local officials should never risk supporting big ideas that may not pan out--much of your actual case FOR Peduto (as opposed to your case AGAINST Wagner) would disappear.

      Of course that isn't really your attitude, you are just adopting it for the sake of making what you deem is a politically-expedient argument against Wagner. I'm just trying to remind you that hypocrisy like that is not usually as effective as committed partisans like to think in the heat of the moment, particularly not when the hypocrisy in question is on display in the very same text.

    3. I yield. The Maglev segment was a bit more arguable in comparison to the others. But that was a *huuuge* amount of public investment down the drain ultimately over many years, and it didn't reap the benefits of a "moonshot". And the "easily impressed by the guy lobbying Maglev at him, Mr. O'Laughlin" charge I'm standing by as a reasonable interpretation. Maybe hindsight is 20/20, but Mayor O'Connor was more up my ally with the second coming of streetcar trolleys. Economy.

  3. Heck, just reverse the order of these two sentences:

    "It has bolder, more impertinent, more ambitious ideas. . . . But is that the kind of impractical, unrealistic, easily-impressed thinking we want polluting our very largest investments and our most crucial decisions?"

    See the problem?

    And again, that seems like an unnecessary distraction from the main message of opposing transparency in the service of protecting closed-door deal-making.

    1. I agree that the focus could have been tighter on that (and by extension, exclusion). Thank you for highlighting.

  4. Thats one hell of a story, the world according to Bram. Are you really that paranoid ?

  5. I don't agree with Bram a lot lately with his unquestioning support of Billy P.; but, I have to say, in this town, he has good reason to be paranoid.

    Remember Pat Ford? Dennis R?

    Without Bram and other, we would still be stuck with those two.

    1. Memories... thank you for the support, and I'll circle around to questioning.

  6. Filed Complaint 311:

    Over the past several years in the month of June the 'Gay Pride Flag' has shared Flag Pole @ 414 Grant Street Pittsburgh PA 15219. (City-County Building)

    I have no problem with this as long as I have Equal Access to 'Political Billboard'.

    Consider this a Legal Request: "I want to fly The Flag of the Vatican on June 7, 2013." "Independence was gained by The Vatican @ 11am on June 7, 1929 when Mussalini, the Italian Prime Minister, and Cardinal Gasparri exchanged the Instruments of Ratification in Rome."

    Truly Gary W. Zirkel (Copy and File)

    1. Gary aka etc - Neat. I'd say no to the Vatican, because that suggests the establishment of a religion (neither equality, nor freedom, nor love, nor rainbows are inherently religious) but you are on the right track with suggesting your fair ups with a political billboard. Now, what flag or symbol sends a message of strict reverence and obedience for tradition, the need to enforce cultural taboos, and the central authority to manifest the majority's ideas of improving the race of humanity by curbing freedoms and allowing sanctions on the minority? Let me know if you come up with anything.

  7. Bram and Billboards....(?)

    1. Go back and read the archives --- Bram led the way on that investigation

      Best archives are at the PG although Trib has some info on the whole billboard debacle

      Just shows that it is good to have questioning watchdogs regardless of which side of the aisle they sit on

  8. Bram, serious questions - are you being paid now by the Peduto campaign or do you expect a job if he wins?

    1. No and no. You shouldn't be upset at the blogs, social media, reddit and the activists therein. They couldn't possibly be doing what they're doing if the candidate and his/her message weren't effective and timely themselves. You can put lipstick on a pig, but no one would ever want to take it home.

  9. Speaking of Maglev. I think Bram is confusing two very different projects. The big "High Speed" maglev that got the vast bulk of public money is NOT the "low speed" maglev that was the O'Laughlin project. (at least I think Bram is confusing the two, have to admit it is quite a tome there to read through)

    I could be wrong on some petty cash along the way, but because of opposition from Murphy and folks in the Hill Disrict the low speed maglev really never went very far at all and never spent much (if any?) local public money. It was big Maglev (Maglev Inc) that received so much federal, state and even some local $$ over the decades only to finally go bankrupt recently.

    But there was no linkage between the two projects as best I can tell. Different technology, different firms, different principals, different geography, and possibly different endings since I am not even sure the low speed idea is dead.

    Not that anyone cares I know. Except Paz has to buy a round.

    1. We all care, C. Briem. Thanks.

      Like I said to BrianTH, Maglev seems by far to be the weakest link.

      The Buncher Co./ Strip story and parallels are pretty fascinating, though. (PDF)

  10. I bet Theresa is pretty mad at you for not endorsing Jack!!

    1. Certainly not the last time we spoke... Of course, this is the first time I've included her in a photograph in forever [gulp]

  11. Ask Rob Kaz about the time he tried to attack a Council staffer who was sitting in his bosses car outside of 414 Grant Street. Kaz had to be restrained by that Council member.

    Loose cannon.

  12. Maglev, as a subway, in vacuumed tubes, among cities, makes sense. Don't go to the airport when you can go to Cleveland, on demand, in a small car, say 6 people, in 25 minutes. No property right issues when 300 feet underground.

  13. Regarding The Comet's new banner photo showing Bill's support among elected officials, I see that Molchany and Rudiak are front and center, which reminded that Corey O'Connor posted a photo on Facebook yesterday of him, Molchany and Rudiak all smiles at the annaul Spring Hat Luncheon in Schenley Park. I don't see Corey in the Bill's supporters photo though. Everyone on council seems to have taken sides; where does Corey come down?

    1. Rudiak might lose, Molchany is out of a district, she will have to run against Readshaw and lose, why should O"Connor be on any side, the future is his!

  14. Psst: "Mayor Harris" should frighten everyone.

    1. Not for 7 months. No way. Not "frightened." And depending on the timing she could always elect to pass in favor of a majority Council vote.

    2. Mayor Harris = bye bye Trosky

  15. Mayor Harris = interns making Cig runs down to Smithfield

  16. Rudiak might lose, Molchany is out of a district, she will have to run against Readshaw and lose, why should O"Connor be on any side, the future is his!

    1. Big mistake to assume that a Molchany vs. Readshaw battle is a done deal. Erin Molchany has something going for her that Readshaw never will: women. Harry Readshaw is a hide-bound, anti-choice, anti-woman cretin who likes to call his constituents babykillers and broadcast his daughter's medical issues to the public as a talking point, and if she harnesses her messaging, Molchany can use that fact against him to the vast benefit of this district that has suffered under Readshaw's utter incompetence for far too long. I live in hope of Erin Molchany.

    2. I was going to say, I want tickets to Readshaw vs Molchany.

    3. Molchany can pretty much just run a mail piece with Readshaw's vile letter to a female constituent calling her a baby-killer and all other manner of horrible things. And the new district is not at all hostile towards her. She will be a very strong candidate.

  17. I just finished reading hillabaloo or something like that. I found it surprising that it states that Peduto and Lavelle don't get along. Hmmm, I remember when Daniel prior to getting elected was a big Peduto supporter. I guess working with divisive Bill Peduto does that to you!

    1. Working in politics does that to you...

      It's hard to get along with people whose job (as given to them by this petty, politically-obsessed mayor) is to not get along with you. Ravenstahl bought Lavelle with a seat on the URA board and he's been Peduto-bashing ever since, though I need to give Lavelle credit for being a bit more understated and dignified about it than his colleague from Homewood. Maybe his heart's not in it.

    2. Personally, I'm curious about the fact that Lavelle doesn't seem to have endorsed in the mayor's race. Too busy with his own 3-way battle?

    3. Probably. And I hate saying Lavelle was "bought", I'm obviously abbreviating. He has some standards.