Friday, July 6, 2007

Connect The Dots ... La-Lalala!

About three weeks ago (Trib):

"I think it's overkill," said Kyra Straussman, the commission's vice chairwoman. "I think (UPMC) can get what they need out of a smaller sign."

About ten days ago, as reported this morning (P-G):

The three members who originally voted against the sign all said yesterday that they were not pressured by UPMC or the mayor's administration to change their positions ... Kyra Straussman did not attend the second meeting because of a family matter.

And now, late-breaking, c/o the P-G's Diana Nelson Jones:

The Urban Redevelopment Authority today confirmed the hiring of two community-development specialists who have made their marks in East Liberty and the South Side...

... Kyra
Straussman, a co-founder of Cool Space Locator and member of the city's Planning Commission, has been named real estate director...

... Ms. Straussman will earn $87,700.

As the editorial said this morning, "None of this sounds very good."

How else might the URA be exhibiting friendship toward UPMC? Also from this morning's Rich Lord piece:

Council, for instance, is scheduled to vote Wednesday on whether the city should act as a pass-through for a $10 million state grant toward expansion of UPMC's Shadyside cancer treatment complex.

It is on the URA's recommendation that Council is being asked to approve this scheme, according to council minutes.

Why would the City of Pittsburgh be so generous with taxpayer money to an organization that tries so hard to continue offering almost nothing in return, during our desperate hour of need?

We have no earthly idea.

Headline Writers Should Take Mulligan

Tribune-Review: Pittsburgh mayor's free golf may not be on par with city code

Post-Gazette: Mayor's foes call golf outing an ethics bogey

Ooooh, isn't it just precious! What an adorable little news story!


Handsome city beat reporter Jeremy Boren may be blacklisted from the 5th Floor, but he is finding new ways to earn his bread. From his take in the Trib:

"That definitely is a sticky situation," said Sister Patrice Hughes, chair of the city's Ethics Hearing Board, who learned of UPMC's gift through news reports.

Ah, Sister Hughes. She may be maddeningly circumspect, she may be ludicrously overcautious, she may have invented this role of "education" wholly at the expense of sorely needed investigation and adjudication. Yet in the end, she is not corrupt, and is no friend of corruption.

How could she possibly quell the desire whip out her ruler, already?


The new City Paper profiles Mark DeSantis, for whom they do everything but photoshop a cape and some huge pectoral muscles onto their cover image. (NTTAWWT.) Charlie Deitch embeds some advice:

But his best selling point may be the vibe he gives off: a Pittsburgher who has just had enough of watching the city he loves crumble.

Also, John McIntire turns his enormous wit against UPMC:

Two weeks later, the commission reversed its vote and approved the sign 6-1. You don’t think UPMC used its massive influence as the area’s largest employer to scare some of those bureaucrats into changing their votes, do you?

We suppose that's something.

Post-Gazette Allied with Peduto, Republicans

ONE: A long article by Rich Lord suggests, among many other things, that Luke Ravenstahl's City of Pittsburgh is becoming the political wing of UPMC International.

"I have discussions with all major stakeholders and business owners and businesses in the city of Pittsburgh, and UPMC is no different in that regard," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "It just so happens that our discussions took place on a golf course, rather than my office."

So he was arranging city business with the lobbyists who furnished the $27,000 outing, and who gave him the chance to play 18 holes with Sidney Crosby. That appears to be an uncontested fact.

TWO: The lead editorial, which calls Ravenstahl a "slow learner," closes like so:

Last week he decided to hire as his director of public affairs not some experienced hand in political or government communications, but his former high-school athletic trainer. It's true, however, that David White, the man who will fill the new $88,859 position, did have a community relations job.

With UPMC Health Plan.

None of this sounds very good.

Columnist Tony Norman, perhaps too trusting that Pittsburghers pick up on sarcasm (his headline reads Go easy on the mayor: He's young but learning fast), dubs Luke a "Cheney Democrat."

Initially, the mayor's office claimed he was in Harrisburg on the day of the hearing. When doubts were raised about that version of the story, Mayor Luke's office took a page from Vice President Dick Cheney's "separation of powers" playbook and refused to say where he was. Since when do the people who pay the mayor's salary have a right to know where he is?

And this is the nice, friendly newspaper!!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Little Editorial Satire

Black-Eye Gets Infected, Gangrenous

The mayor said he was a guest of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center at the event. (Rich Lord, P-G)

The phrase, "The Perfect Storm" gets thrown around a lot these days.

For example, the Comet is still wondering who else was in that threesome.

UPDATE: On the day of the hearing, according to UPMC, the mayor golfed with George Huber, formerly the health system's senior vice president of corporate relations, and Robert Kennedy, the vice president of government relations who was city operations director before leaving for the healthcare giant in 2005.

(h/t's to Burr Reporr commenters for all of this, by the way.)

There is some debate as to whether or not accepting this gift of access to a charity golf tournament constitutes a violation of the city code.

Since the Mayor's office just went out of its way to intercede on behalf of UPMC, in order to reverse the original ruling of the City Planning Commission and thereby allow its advertisement to adorn top of the the US Steel Building, there would also seem to be a possible (and whopping) ethics violation in play.


Luke spoke on-air with KDKA's Marty Griffin. His message focused heavily on the fact that mayors do not go to public hearings, and it was irresponsible to report that he "missed" a public hearing.

He described a media environment in which everything involving him gets blown out of proportion, because he is who he is.

When asked by Marty why some media were first told by his staff that he was in meetings, or in Harrisburg -- and if this reinforces a pattern of lying when considered together with Heinz Field, Ron Air, and Oakmont -- Ravenstahl said, "You know, I disagree, and you know, these stories are what they are."

Ravenstahl painted both the original reporter of this story, Jeremy Boren of the Trib, and his most persistent critic among the women's groups, Jeanne Clark of Sq. Hill NOW, as politically motivated allies of Bill Peduto.

Our favorite: When read a long quote by Mark DeSantis on how the decision to go to the tournament reveals a lack of judgement and immaturity, Ravenstahl responded that it's a convenient way for his opponent to score some "cheap political points" ... and then he reminded us, "He has an association with President Bush."

Finally, when asked who footed the bill for the golf outing, the Mayor at length replied that it was UPMC. If Marty Griffin broke that news, shame on Rich Lord for not hat-tipping!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Black-Eye Situation Worsens

Jeremy Boren of the Trib reports that Mayor Ravenstahl was attending a celebrity golf tournament while the Great Women's Hearing (for lack of a better term) was taking place.

This probably would not have been news, had Ravenstahl not conspicuously refused, on multiple occasions, to divulge his whereabouts when asked point-blank.

"What's astonishing is that if he was really trying to raise money for charity, he was trying to hide it from people by not answering the question," said Jeanne Clark, a member of the Squirrel Hill chapter of the National Organization for Women, which petitioned to have City Council hold the hearing.

Heather Arnet, who you will recall took a conciliatory and forward-looking approach at the hearing, responds to today's news:

"We thought that his coming to the hearing would be a strong showing of his commitment and support," said Heather Arnet, head of the Western Pennsylvania Women and Girls Foundation, Downtown. "We were disappointed that he wasn't at the hearing."

Editorial Comments: The Comet never faulted Ravenstahl for declining to attend the hearing. Not for one moment.

It does not seem to be standard practice for a mayor to attend council hearings, and for good reason -- it is likely that such a session would devolve into sensational political sandbagging.

Besides, where would he even sit? In that ornate dais at the far end of the chamber? Would he have to wear a wig?

However, we are troubled by two aspects of today's revelations:

1) Luke had just written, "I have made a firm commitment to dedicate myself in total to my responsibilities as mayor. It is my first and foremost responsibility, and its scheduling requirements are enormous."

Ravenstahl went on to attend both days of a golfing event, smack in the middle of the workweek.

2) Luke attended the event as an amateur, not a celebrity. This implies, as the Burr Reporr points out, that he would have owed a charitable contribution of $27,000.

CORRECTION: $27K would cover a group of three golfers for the two days, so his cost would appear to be $9,000.

It would be worthwhile to discover if anyone "staked" him this considerable entry fee, thereby affording him the opportunity to network with some very wealthy benefactors in a relaxed setting, and also to be seen in public rubbing elbows with celebrities, in the midst of a heated electoral campaign.

In light of these real concerns, the Mayor's accusation against the Tribune-Review of "crass politics and yellow journalism" rings pretty hollow.

Differences, Disparities, DeSantis

P-G columnist Tony Norman on why this study constitutes real news:

According to "Pittsburgh's Racial Demographics: Differences and Disparities," black folks in Greater Pittsburgh live lives so far below the national average as to qualify for honorary membership in the Third World.

Trib columnist Mike Seate reflects frankly on some of the difficulties:

"A lot of people around here have never spoken with a white person who wasn't a cop or a caseworker," I said. "And many have no idea where to go to apply for a construction job, or how to get there."

Mike Madison of Pittsblog gets unusually horse-racey:

Republican mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis needs to find a way to get traction in pre-election news coverage. He needs to find issues beyond competence and cronyism in city government; otherwise, he not only won't get even 30% of the vote, but worse, he won't get anyone to listen to him. How about urban poverty? That's not usually a leading issue for Republicans, but with the incumbent already acting like he's won the race, Pittsburgh isn't facing a real election.

To which commenter Mark Rauterkus responds:

Urban poverty, and how the poor are treated in relationship with public policy should be the window that is used to look at everything in the mayor's race. That is what one of my advisor's has pitched to me. It is a very valid approach.

However, you won't find that kind of talk from Mark DeSantis. No way.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Monday's News -- On Tuesday!!

The Mayor is moving forward with plans to install security cameras wherever they may be necessary, and of "wide-spread information sharing" with any other existent surveillance systems.

He and Police Chief Nate Harper dismissed concerns that cameras might be deployed or used in ways that disproportionately affect minorities. (Rich Lord, P-G)

They also seem to be dismissing privacy concerns, on the grounds that people in crime-ridden communities would prefer the added security.

Meanwhile, P-G columnist Sally Kalston just refuses to let the police promotions story die! She suggests that those cameras ought to be turned on the police themselves.

Way harsh, I know. But what reaction did Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper expect when he promoted not one, not two, but three police officers with domestic abuse allegations on their records?

Did he think the public wouldn't notice? That women, in particular, wouldn't view this as a giant step backwards? That it wouldn't reflect badly on the entire police force?

Also, we have not been entirely at peace with the selection we chose from last week's Tony Norman column. Here is a different one, which may be more representative:

There's a reason Chief Harper was popular with the rank-and-file. The cops knew he would put their interests and aspirations first. They especially liked the fact that their new chief would be an African-American family man who did not have a reputation as a mealy-mouthed pragmatist.


We don't have a link, but yesterday on WPXI we saw Mayor Luke Ravenstahl speaking some very gracious words at the Garden Party on the North Side, praising ten years of work by lots of individuals, and his being present only to acknowledge those efforts.

In related news, after weeks of the official city website featuring a photo of "a beautiful June day in Pittsburgh," it now bears a photo of the O'Connor family at the Bob O'Connor Summer Tennis Classic.


Finally, Luke hired a bunch of people.

The quintuple hiring "fulfills my commitment to diversity once again," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "Three of them are women, two of them are African American, and all are very highly qualified in terms of their previous experience and their educational experience." (Rich Lord, P-G)

Already, the most controversial hire is David White, who will be earning $88,859 annually to fulfill "a very interactive role with the community and various agencies, other outside community organizations, other government entities, boards, authorities and commissions, the business community."

He was the athletics trainer back when Ravenstahl played football at North Catholic High School, but since then has worked for UPMC Health Plan, among others.

Council President Doug Shields today called Mr. White "talented, seasoned. He's an experienced administrator."

Good will is in the air.

Interview: Mark DeSantis

"You know, it seems like a lot of people really don't like Luke," says his opponent, Mark DeSantis, as we first sit down.

"I don't agree with that. I'm really not sure where it's coming from."

Twenty minutes later...

"You were appointed!"

We had brought up the letter he received from Ravenstahl, which suggested that his mayoral responsibilities would make scheduling debates difficult. (Trib)

"That's troubling. It looks like he's providing an out."

DeSantis moves to the edge of his seat. "We're all busy. I'm busy; I'm the head of a company, I sit on all these boards."

"But especially if you're appointed to an office, you have a moral obligation to prove to people why you should be there. We should be debating the issues thoroughly ... frequently ... it's a primary responsibility!"

We bring up some inconsistency in his attitude toward the Mayor, and he laughs out loud, grinning sheepishly.


"What I look at in city government -- it's supposed to deliver some stuff: quality infrastructure, fiscal responsibility, a thriving economy, and public safety."

Mark DeSantis is not wild about our performance by any of those standards, but he says our paramount concern right now must be fiscal responsibility.

"The data is out there, and we're a freaking disaster."

Whereas the county is managing to fund 100% of its pension liability, and most American cities are funding between 85 and 90%, we are lagging a bit behind.

"Forty percent is a joke."

How did it happen?

He shrugs. "Somebody raided the pension fund."

As to the city budget, he compares us to someone who makes $30 thousand a year, who has accumulated $1.5 million in credit card debt.

Out of a $430 million budget, $90 million goes to pay our long-term debt -- which is just paying the minimum balance.

Other cities may not have Pittsburgh's beauty, he says, or Pittsburgh's cultural assets, but they are making do with what they have -- while we ourselves are grossly under-performing.

So what will this mean? What is the municipal equivalent of getting harassed by collection agencies, wrecking our credit rating, and going into foreclosure?

"That's the great unknown," DeSantis admits. "That has only happened a few times in American history. Smart lawyers disagree."

He said that although New York went into bankruptcy around the mid-70's, they were New York -- nobody was about to let the nation's biggest city fall into ruin. By contrast, people could decide to make an example out of Pittsburgh.

He suggests that the pension fund could disappear; no pensions, no health care, no workers compensation. Insurance costs could skyrocket to prohibitive levels. All the union contracts could be made null and void; a bankruptcy judge would basically take control.

To say nothing of the reputation of the city.

"Avoiding bankruptcy is the overriding concern. That doesn't mean you can't do anything. Your moral obligation as a mayor is to get more from less."

That's where his plans to "right-size" city government come in. It happens all the time in the private sector, he says: there is always a way to do more with less.

Yes, but he's a Republican. When he talks like this, it is easy for people to imagine that services are going to suffer, or be eliminated.

"As far as the fears people have, I don't know how to address those," he admits. "It's not about competing philosophies of government. It's about survival first."

DeSantis touts consolidation as a way to maintain high levels of service, while saving cash. He says we have been far too slow to adopt cooperative strategies.

"Look at 911 services. It took years to combine that. That's a joke! There's no reason it should take that long."

"Do what Wal-Mart does -- when you buy things in larger quantity, you save money. I don't mean you should be dabbling in it -- it should be done on a massive scale."

His interest in consolidating services and joint-purchasing reminds us a lot of Michael Lamb.

He's a fan of Lamb. He threw a fund-raiser for Lamb in 2005, when he ran for mayor; he also "might have given him a check" this year in his bid for Controller.

At another point in the conversation, he also spoke highly of "Pedoots." In fact, it was only after Bill Peduto withdrew from the mayoral primary, that DeSantis says he "stopped talking like Hamlet," and decided to go full steam ahead with his own mayoral run.


We ask what he would do about our failing neighborhoods.

He describes an article he read about the drug trade. They asked a dealer how he knew where to set up shop, and he answered, "I can see a neighborhood in decline. That's where I go."

"The city is disintegrating. Sidewalks are crumbling. Lots are abandoned."

So it's just a matter of fixing infrastructure?

"We are living in a divided city," he allows. "A quarter is African-American, and they are not doing well," he says, referencing a recently released University of Pittsburgh study from its Center on Race and Social Problems. (Ervin Dyer, P-G; Bill Zlatos, Trib)

"I'll speak openly: I can't remedy this. These are deep problems. What I can do is start a frank and open dialogue."

He cautions that security cameras are just a tool, not a solution. He says it will take "very, very close collaboration" with the community to start turning things around, and he is just beginning to reach out to community leaders.

We ask about the Penguins arena and the Hill District, and the possibility of securing a community benefits agreement.

"It's unclear to me how that arena is going to play out -- this goes into transparency," he says.

"Why don't we know? If you're using public money to do it -- why aren't public officials giving us all the details?"

He actually starts to get as worked up about this, as he did on the subject of debates.

"It's not the Penguins obligation. Our public officials should be making it unambiguously clear, and not in some speculative, off-the-cuff fashion. It's a mentality that I don't get."

"Common sense is not a radical concept," he explains, in an exasperated tone. "I'll tell you right now, I don't have any 'new' ideas."

"I just have ideas that have worked in countless other cities, for decades."


We notice that Mark DeSantis already has the new iPhone. We ask how he likes it.

"I feel empowered," he deadpans dryly.

He feels a little guilty that he didn't have to stand in line. He just walked into a store on Saturday, and walked out with it.

"I have a theory about technology," he offers. "We are at a point where we are adapting to technology, faster than technology is adapting to us."

Is that a good thing?

"No!" he cries. He cites text-messaging while driving as an example, and also our fixation on checking our e-mail, the news, and the blogs every five minutes.

Nevertheless, and despite the sometimes heated emotions of the blurghosphere, he tells us that that, in the end, is a good thing.

"People are now able to speak the unspeakable ... talk about what's underground. That's essential," he maintains. "People are angry because of what could be."

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Onward! Into the next newscycle ...

No Other Words: Lying and Scapegoating

During the Q & A session available on WTAE, Mayor Ravenstahl says:

The way the civil service laws are written out, these individuals, by way of a test, are entitled to promotion, and you have to disprove or show just cause to not give them that promotion.

If all the reporters had then left the room to write their stories, he very clearly would have been lying. Fortunately for him, the question later was raised:

The civil service laws seem to show that there is a choice there: you can pick one out of a group of four, for example. Can you reconcile this?

Ravenstahl's answer:

First of all, I didn't make the choice, and I was not consulted on the choice in terms of two of the three individuals, and I stand by that.

So he implicitly concedes that there was a choice; he just claims he wasn't in on it. He continues:

Certainly that's something we're considering in the future: when sergeants and lieutenants are promoted, that there is some input from the administration, perhaps at least some briefing, or some opportunity for discussion.

It doesn't currently allow that -- um, shouldn't say doesn't allow it -- doesn't exist or require it -- and again that's something when we look at the policies and procedures in the future, will be considered for implementation.

Chief Nate Harper, when asked why he made those choices, gave a straight answer:

The standard has been, sergeants and lieutenants, there's a competitive test. If they take the written test, they appear on the list. And usually we go straight down the list.

In other words, whoever wrote the civil service laws must have intended that somebody ought to be examining this list and making educated selections, but that practice has fallen into disuse.

Instituting a formal review panel will only force his administration to pay attention -- something that they were never prevented from doing, and something that he suggests may not have changed anything with regard to these promotions, anyway.

To suggest that the policies and procedures are "obsolete and flawed" is a pretty disingenuous way to avoid blame.


When asked by Bob Mayo whether he accepts any personal responsibility for what went wrong in the process, Ravenstahl responds:

I think it's clear that my directors and chiefs have to share all information with me -- understand that they have a job to do and sometimes it requires them to make decisions without first consulting me ...

... but decisions of this magnitude and this type of activity are certainly something that I think it's clear to everybody, and we all understand, that this is something that I should have been briefed on, and been made aware of before this decision.

We think it's clear that his directors and chiefs are not mind readers. They would have benefited from some previous indication of interest in Police Bureau promotions, or some direction as to how to handle domestic abuse allegations in the immediate wake of the Trosky revelations.

Luke is doing everything he can think of to avoid responsibility.

WPXI Anchor Sasses Governor

This also struck our funny bone for some reason.

Ravenstahl's final decision on the police promotions got little or no play on most television newscasts, because Governor Rendell chose Friday night to assault the local airwaves.

Some state legislators are threatening to refuse to earmark money for the new Penguins arena, in a transparent attempt to secure just a little more sugar for their themselves first.

David Johnson chose to end his live interview with this query:

Governor, real quickly: is there a real. chance. the funding could be held up, and the arena deal could fall through? I mean, really.

Nicely done.