Tuesday, December 30, 2008

District 2 Race: Now, Interesting!

We're down to what appear to be the Final Four candidates in the special election on Feb. 3rd. Let us review:

Chris Metz: Republican nominee. No website it seems, so here is an article. I've got no truck whatsoever with Republicans running for city offices, but at age 24, with no website and the election right around the corner, we may as well move on for the moment.

Brendan Schubert: Real-life Democrat now running on the Brendan Schubert for Council ticket. He is a zoning administrative officer in Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's Department of City Planning who was hired under Pat Ford, so there's that. At age 25, he was rumored at one time to have been Ravenstahl's personal choice for the seat, though that implication fell away well before the endorsement.

His Facebook politician page describes his political views as "moderate" and says his interests are "Moving Pittsburgh City Council District 2 status forward and bringing people together."

Theresa Smith: Democratic nominee, endorsed by the Committee, so there's that. She had a prominent role on outgoing incumbent Dan Deasy's election campaigns. Her website has no Issues material per se, but the homepage says she intends "to develop programs to unite communities, maintain a strong police presence and reduce neighborhood blight."

Smith's bio shows her to be the president of two community councils and to be a coordinator or committee member for many others, including Weed & Seed and Moms & Cops. She also created the South West Enhancing Environment Program (SWEEP) and the South West Eco-Evolution Team (SWEET).

Georgia Blotzer: Real-life Democrat now running as an Independent. A special ed teacher and activist in the special ed movement, a member of the Mt. Washington Community Development Corporation, and a Democratic committee person, her website has an Issues section that fleshes out her thoughts on Safe Streets, Viable Housing, Responsible Development and Campaign Finance Reform.

Blotzer links to a letter she had published recently in the Post-Gazette:

Confidence Breaker

As a taxpayer and a candidate for Pittsburgh City Council, District 2, I am very concerned about the way business is done in our city, as explained by Rich Lord in his Dec. 7 article ("Political Contributors Both Give and Receive").

Mr. Lord explained that dozens of businesses that make large contributions to campaigns of city politicians receive large contracts in return. The most troublesome example was the $10.5 million aid package for the Bakery Square Project awarded to developer Walnut Capital Management, whose executives gave $69,606 to city political campaigns between 2005 and 2007. That is an excellent return on a modest investment. But what is the real cost of allowing a small number of well-off individuals and corporations to, in some cases, fully fund candidates for public office?

Barry Kauffman, director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, states that this practice undermines public confidence. I believe also that large financial contributions to local races create the perception that influence can be bought and favors will be granted to the highest bidder.

As a candidate for City Council, I will work to eliminate this perception by adopting the limits imposed on candidates seeking federal offices, specifically the $2,300 cap on individual contributions and a $5,000 cap on political action committee contributions.

Mount Washington

Did she just kick off her campaign by calling out Walnut Capital? Looks like we have a favorite.

Her website also contains tabs to contact, volunteer and donate, just in case you feel like we do.

Tuesday: Peshat, Remez, Derash and Sod

Photo: The City Law Dept. researches the correct interpretation of Home Rule Charter § 321: Submission of Legislation to Mayor and Veto Power. (P-G, Bill Wade)

We tried to get Comet Senior Political Analyst Morton Reichbaum engaged on the subject of Vetogate, but he wasn't interested.

"You know who I'm starting to get tired of?" he offered instead. "That Dan Onorato." It was for the same reasons taken up by PghIsACity.

"First he says the drink tax money is for transit, and now all of a sudden he's changed it to something else," was Mort's take.

Now out of nowhere there's this:

Where are you on this one Mr. Onorato? Where is your leadership? You want to be our next Governor but you can't even protect county residents from dirty restaurants on McKnight Road in the North Hills. Why haven;t you made a public statement on this? What are you hiding from? (Pgh Hoagie)

Me? I'm still sore about Goose Auschwitz, but no one cares about me. My point is, he doesn't seem to have his "backyard" locked up, as it were, which makes life challenging for a candidate from Western Pennsylvania. It might be time for the media to provide a real think-piece about this Wagner fella who's been out of town on business.

We like options.


Council President Doug Shields said council should vote on any agreement, and that it's appropriate for the ICA to oversee the fund.

Mr. Lamb said the draft agreement wouldn't meet the city's goal of using the $45.3 million now to take later-year debt off the books.

"The whole point was to lower our debt -- and truly lower our debt -- and this doesn't do it," he said, echoing the opinion of the city's hired accountants, Maher Duessel. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Sounds like this one has matured past the Quixotic Patrick Dowd Jag stage.

MORE: The Slag Heap flags the ICA for inconsistencies.


Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents has caught a cybercold (cured!), but they were on to another very interesting story. From an e-mail Sue circulated:

Pressure is mounting from the right wing on local “conservative” County Council districts (probably the AFA of PA and their ilk with the usual fear mongering) to withdraw sponsorship of the legislation [to extend anti-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation]. Please pay attention to this story. More will unfold this week.

Turns out the American Family Association did stick their beaks in, and got three council members to withdraw their support. For you Facebookies out there, a group has begun Councilman Michael Finnerty Needs to Hear from you on Gay Rights.

Might as well do this one up. The last one (remember Blog for Equality Day?) went real nice.


UPDATE: All kinds of interesting: Trib, P-G.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Only not quite, but maybe, sort of, he tried to, it's close, we'll see.

This is not the whole story.

FINAL UPDATE: Having counted the votes, the Council elected to acknowledge the vetoes and override the controversial ones (attorney, video software) 7-1 with Motznik in dissent. Burgess moved to sustain the Mayor's veto of his own 5-year plan legislation for to take it back to the drawing board.

CONFIRMED: Sources say attempted vetoes were "not timely", by a period of either two minutes or one full day, depending.

UPDATE: This is most of it. x2: This also.

THOUGHT: Council is "politicizing" this? It's a veto, narrowly targeted against stuff Council needs to better do its job. And it's being justified by the unit of measurement "police officers"? That's politics.

Monday: Tip Sheet [w/ Correction]

This is the best article we've read about Pittsburgh politics in some time, though technically it has nothing whatsoever to do with Pittsburgh politics.

We'll write a rambling post on it at some point, but meanwhile I'm curious what it leads other people to think.


The "mostly administrative" "emergency" meeting of the ICA on the topic of the $45.3 million revocable fund somehow garnered more media coverage than the entire city budget process -- leading the evening news on at least one station -- despite the fact that it was called with almost no notice. We are left to assume that somebody genuinely important grew alarmed / concerned / irritated enough for some reason to initiate a big show of action.

Even still, according to Councilman Patrick Dowd, who attended the meeting, no further insight was offered on how our $45.3 million will turn into $51 million, where it is going to be deposited, under what terms, whether that will be a government account, and if there will be any fees applied.

The sole fact that emerged is, according to ICA executive director Henry Sciortino, that "the ICA will have control over these matters."


Proposed ethics legislation that has been crafted by an intra-governmental working group and was forwarded past the Ethics Hearing Board on November 14th does not yet appear to have been introduced* in City Council. The new rules are distinctly unlikely to receive any form of public airing until after the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, January 18th.

* CORRECTION: The legislation was in fact introduced on 12/9 and held for public hearing and post-agenda on 12/17, though it was not significantly discussed and these meetings have yet to be scheduled. The Comet regrets the error, and has learned to search for the word "conduct" in lieu of "ethics" when it comes to amending the city's Code of Conduct.


Tomorrow, Mr. Peduto plans to introduce legislation to spend $9,000 to study turning a freight line that runs from Hazelwood through Oakland to Lawrenceville into an artery for people. The study would lead to a proposal, submitted to U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-forest Hills, in the spring, for federal funding for the project. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Why not just try giving the people what they've been clamoring for, huh? Sounds intriguing. Our first question: did Rich simply forget to mention that the line can be made to continue into Downtown, or is that not possible via this channel?

After all, Downtown is turning into a hotbed of activity, according to a couple of Downtown real estate agents. (UPDATE: CB is more credulous on this point than me.)


In Democrat-saturated Pittsburgh, government functions much as it did in the old Soviet Union. Just about everybody is members of one big happy party. That may explain why there's been little public outcry, even on City Council, about large political contributions that go to the mayor or other candidates from donors who have or get lucrative city contracts. (A Fine Point, Tom Waseleski)

You know what struck us most about the big article that kicked off this round of fist-shaking? Sure, it was another story about how political contributors tend to get work. Big deal, right?

But it seemed to me the story had a shining star:

Shadyside-based Walnut Capital's generosity to city campaigns includes $27,500 to Mr. O'Connor's campaign, $16,000 to Mr. Ravenstahl's, $11,906 in checks and non-monetary help to Mr. Peduto's bids, and smaller donations to nearly every council member's coffers. Its total was exceeded only by the state Democratic Party's largesse.

"We do almost 100 percent of our work in Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh region, and we're happy to support people who want good development," said Todd Reidbord, Walnut Capital's vice president and a member of the City Planning Commission. Mr. Ravenstahl, in particular, "has really understood what it means to move the city forward."

The firm's Bakery Square office, retail, housing and hotel complex in the East End received an unusual boost from the city. Late last year, the $111 million project won a $10.5 million tax-increment financing, or TIF, benefit in which the Urban Redevelopment Authority borrowed money to back a parking garage and infrastructure improvements, to be paid off using future tax dollars from the site.

Under a city ordinance approved in 1999, TIF-backed hoteliers have to try to come to terms with unions that want to organize their workers. But URA lawyers ruled that a hotel at Bakery Square was not subject to that rule, because it would be built in a specially created tax parcel in the air above the site.

That would all be extraordinary even if Mr. Reidbord didn't disgrace himself at 2008's most important meeting of the City Planning Commission.

It's one thing to manage dealings with a high-powered local developer with political connections -- but why do we tolerate this brash practitioner of banal yinzer corruption having an actual seat at the public table? He should be gone already. He should be an issue until he's gone.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

City Council President Doug Shields sounds like a candidate in that race, too. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Well that's interesting.

Doug would make a great mayor -- probably a better mayor than a council president -- but as a candidate?

The less informed will prefer the glossier option, unless Shields runs a humdinger of a frank campaign. Picture John F. Kennedy meets Don Rickles. "The only thing we have to fear is this hockey puck."

The better informed? Well ... there are a lot of people out there who would rather Pittsburgh have a so-so mayor that they feel they can manage or get what they need out of, rather than a highly capable mayor who will interrupt the predictability of government by leverage and expediency.

The presence of Carmen Robinson (once she assembles a staff and gets her feet underneath her) will shake things up in an intriguing manner.

One thing is certain: this constitutes last call for anyone who figures they might have a better shot. I count two of you.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

From All of Us to All of You

First of all, just so that everybody who is new can catch up, we'd like to hand out our 2007 holiday presents all over again -- this article about radical transparency.

YOU get radical transparency! YOU get radical transparency! And YOU get radical transparency!

Some of you should really use it this year!

And now, brand new for 2008, we present this appreciation of the late author Michael Crichton.

The entire selection from several interviews we found to be pretty inspiring, but we especially enjoyed Michael's answer to Charlie's patented great / awful question about the precious "X-factor".

YOU get to hear Michael's answer about the X-factor! YOU get to hear Michael's answer about the X-factor! And YOU get to hear Michael's answer about the X-Factor!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Good Kwanzaa, Jolly Decemberween, and may the Lord bless you and keep you this holiday season.

UPDATE: Oh! A stocking stuffer! The ZBA decision. (h/t Rauterkus)

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Pittsburgh Comet: Two Years of Comedy. Chapter 1: Beginning.

I think I must have been between jobs.

I had been following the news regarding the casino license to be awarded by the state to some outfit in Pittsburgh. Would it be Harrah's in Station Square, Isle of Capri in the Hill District, or PITG Gaming in the North Side?

Seemed to me that a Station Square casino would be wedged in too tightly amongst too much other stuff in that strip. Meanwhile, activists on the Hill were protesting the very notion of a casino in a manner I'd only read about in history books. It seemed obvious to me that the license would be awarded to Don Barden on the North Side.

And so it was, but this came to everybody else as a major shock. I decided I'd better invest in some DSL home Internet access, so I could share my gift with the world.


I learned about the Thursday Massacre through PittGirl. My comment: Susan Malie looks like Alice Cooper. Her comment: this is beginning to look like the end for Bob O'Connor.

I majored in political science and had been a news junky with strong opinions for years, but I never knew or even remotely cared about Pittsburgh's politics. In 2005, I voted against Bill Peduto because I thought Burton Morris was a hack.

I can't recall how I ever discovered the Burgh Blog, but there she was -- every day at work, several times a day, right in front of my eyeballs. Another hour would pass and I'd get that little itch -- I wonder if PittGirl wrote anything new yet? I wonder if there are any new comments?

It didn't take me long to figure out, "Hey, you know what? There is life out here, on the Internets. There is arable land. Especially for local stuff."

When I left that job (being addicted to PittGirl had something to do with it) and invested in Net access I took it upon myself to write a local tip-sheet. My influences were ABC's The Note (back when it was authored by Mark Halperin) and to a lesser degree Wonkette (back when it was authored by Ana Marie Cox). I wanted to combine the best of both, and apply them to Pittsburgh, where it seemed nobody else was doing it. I wanted people to be addicted to me.

The Story at Hand is:

Rob Rossi and Jeremy Boren, the Trib. Know it, love it be it.

Now: Is this just a matter of needing someone to talk Mario down? Can anyone do that?

Or: is this just a canny, aggressive bargaining posture going into negotiations for Plan B+++.

The Real Story is:

With lazer-like focus, as always, on the upcoming Tostitos / Bank of New York Ravenstahl vs. Pedutobowl: (PghC, 12/21/06)

I enjoy spectacle.


I would write about whatever was in the news -- back then it was interminable Penguins negotiations and casino ironings-out. My editorial tone was more one of a sportscaster than a muckraker; I just wanted everyone to be on the same page. (Mine.)

Yet I also found myself covering Wal-Mart and landslides in Killbuck County, reconstruction at Point State Park and the endangered remnants of Fort Pitt, and rumored cuts to public transit -- subjects I only discovered I had feeling for once I started really exploring the news. But mainly, I covered headlines.

Which led inexorably to political scandals.

Other blogs (I was reading and commenting actively on other blogs both to do research and to network) were all abuzz about Mayor Ravenstahl's demotion of a certain police commander.

Today, a federal hearing will take place as to whether or not Ravenstahl violated whistle-blower protections and acted improperly by demoting Catherine McNeilly, in retaliation for her criticism of his then-appointee Dennis Regan.

There is no continuing mainstream news coverage of this story. Nonetheless, the blurghosphere has been incensed. Wherefore such a discrepancy? Is the media treating Ravenstahl with kid gloves? Is this too inside-baseball for most readers? Do news editors believe there's nothing to the accusations?

I await the outcome of the hearings and I reserve judgement. However, I have a theory as to why we find so much rancor against Ravenstahl on the Internet: haters.

You heard me. It is naturally offensive that such a young man has achieved such success and prominence. I feel it also; I could have run for city council when I was 23. Why didn't I? Surely, I wouldn't be making such a popinjay of myself, either.

Be that as it may, I do not think "Politician Rewards Political Allies" would make a very newsworthy headline, nor would "Politican Punishes Internal Criticism." If he has violated the law, McNeilly should be reinstated. But I do not expect saint-like forbearance from my public officials, nor do I require it. Even if he lied about motivations, or the details of his internal investigation, I just do not think this rises to the level of scandal. (PghC, 01/04/07)

That's apparently how I felt about life back then.

Just weeks later, yet another scandal would rock our cyber-world -- Luke had gotten into a shoving match with a police officer at Heinz Field, and had apparently lied about it. Better yet, news of this had broken on a blog -- one of us! One of us!

This was thrilling -- but in the days that followed, I felt McIntire was driving the story in a direction that I didn't entirely agree with. Knowing that McIntire was the big dog in the blogosphere and seeing an opportunity to differentiate myself from what was becoming viewed as an angry, monolithic horde:

John McIntire has been fighting the good fight against the Rush Limbaugh / Fox News / Drudge Report machine for over a decade, and it appears he has finally been corrupted by it.

His latest post includes an open plea for more Ravenstahl dirt from his readers, with the vague suggestion that he's heard something juicy. He is not asking for criticism of the Ravenstahl budget, of city services, or of development projects. He wants evidence of frat boy behavior, an overload of testosterone, and immaturity.

Also, since he is done misrepresenting the original Ravenstahl incident -- remember, his claim that Regan was involved? -- he has gone on to misrepresent Ravenstahl's clear misjudgement in denying that incident, once again backed by just enough "truthiness" to inflate the issue. We believe, as most do, that McIntire's account of the denial is shamelessly exaggerated and inaccurate. (PghC, 01/22/07)

So there you have it. The blogs became a little more aware that they were being read, and thanks to the City Paper, for example, the general public was now vaguely aware of us as well.

We would continue to write about whatever outraged or excited us -- off-duty police detail cost-recovery was a big topic back then, as was non-profit payments in lieu of taxes as well as Pittsburgh's general strategy for development.

Eventually, somebody compared one of our fine local journalists to Cringer from the old Masters of the Universe cartoon series. Presently we began merrily comparing various personalities of Pittsburgh politics to the superheros and supervillains from our childhood, as the 2007 Democratic primary elections approached.

Monday: We Are Gathered Here Today

Tune in to 1360 AM at 4:15 PM to hear myself and other bloggers talk about the nexus of technology and politics or whatever on Renaissance Radio, hosted by Mark DeSantis.

In a block where occupied homes are now valued in the $40,000s and $50,000s, the prototype's price tag is comparatively staggering -- from $240,000 to $295,000. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

Stash that one in the "interesting" file.

Is that story over with? Not even close. It's already built right? Somebody is going to be paying for that thing. (Null Space)

Mr. Metz said he intends to "hit as many doors and make as many phone calls as we can" before the Feb. 3 special election. (P-G, Karen Kane)

One possibility we're hearing is that Kevin Acklin may be the man to square off against Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Barring a comet striking his Summer Hill home, Ravenstahl almost certainly will be the Democratic nominee. (Trib Whispers)

In Democrat-saturated Pittsburgh, government functions much as it did in the old Soviet Union. Just about everybody is members of one big happy party. That may explain why there's been little public outcry, even on City Council, about large political contributions that go to the mayor or other candidates from donors who have or get lucrative city contracts. (P-G, Tom Waseleski)

If you can't wait until 4:15 to hear the sound of my voice, check out the Mark Rauterkus podcast that features Mark and I chatting only about half an hour after I discovered the Burgher was missing. It descends pretty quickly into technical bickering, but upon further review I think Rauterkus could be right; we could use some kind of threaded discussion board to handle the daily news inflow. I'm thinking maybe one like this.

DON'T HATE ME: If I had heard that I was being asked "what's left worth reading?", I would have insisted on compiling a list of not less than 20 different blogs. As it was, we were in the context of what other blogs explore local politics with such intensity and specificity, and I must have only heard "what are some other blogs out there?" (P-G, Dennis Roddy)

So I guess it's my turn to be the paid journalist who makes a big deal out of a blog shutting down. Which is fine by me, because I think this one really does matter. (Slag Heap)

Some new blogs have climbed aboard: the Huddler, Pittsburgh Polemics, and WWVB.

NOTE: I now have the 17-page opinion scanned and available as a PDF. If you have any idea how to post such a thing to the Internet, let me know; otherwise e-mail me and I'll shoot you a copy.

Loading for Anniversary Week...

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The 2009 Budget: Final Action (Conclusion)

Finance chair Bill Peduto opened discussion of the proposed controversial debt fund by noting that the $45 million had already been transferred from the City's fund balance to the Controller's office via "some mechanism or official component".

Speaking of the forecast in the budget document, Peduto volunteered for us that "this future forecast may change for the year".

He acknowledged that some are framing the central debate as one of "flexibility vs. reassurance", but warned that "a budget is a budget" and better suited toward providing candor and clarity than to leaving options on the table, whilst actually writing off obligations indicated elsewhere in said budget.

Darlene Harris and Tonya Payne raised only procedural questions throughout this portion, the latter yielding her time to colleague Jim Motznik. Bruce Kraus was in attendance but silent. What follows is a paraphrased representation of several rounds of discussion.


"There is before us a flawed budget", Patrick Dowd declared, which contains "an incredible lack of specificity with one of the most important strategic decisions before us."

Dowd pointed out that he'd been having "quiet conversations" with the administration since "early October" -- to defend himself in advance against charges of playing politics. He avowed that he went public only after all other options were completely exhausted.

Of the ICA's plan for how this $45 million is to be invested, he said, and turned into $51 million in savings, "those documents are in draft form". He then pointed out for the public, "none of us have seen them."

"Ask an accountant", he implored us, "ask the City's accountant" whether what is being done is proper or advisable.

In addition, Dowd theorized for us that "if we were to see an agreement with the ICA that extends beyond 2011," that that would amount to "oversight through a backdoor mechanism."


Jim Motznik then delivered his address in opposition to all that; he said after seven years on Council he was intimately familiar with political grandstanding, and "that's exactly what this is."

Recalling Dowd's statement during the preliminary vote, Motznik said "Shame on the Mayor? Shame on Councilman Dowd" for playing politics with the city's budget. He also delivered his line about how based on this budget and its forecasts, Mayor Ravenstahl would be deserving of "a big fat bonus" were he in charge of a private company instead of a city.

Ricky Burgess sounded cautious to the point of nervousness throughout the proceedings. "Working together has to be the flavor -- the statement of the day."

Again and again, Burgess insisted that the implications of that which Council was debating will be addressed as part of the new Act 47 Five-Year Plan, which he was proud to have successfully convinced his colleagues to push forward to a March deadline.

Burgess sounded as though he was claiming to personally have some special influence or credibility with the ICA and with the Act 47 team -- and was pleading with the rest of Council to do nothing which would upset the apple cart or sour the delicate negotiations he was trying to orchestrate.

Burgess did offer that as part of the amended Five-Year Plan, he personally wanted to see all gaming revenue placed directly into the pension fund.

Doug Shields declared his intention to vote for the budget, but did so about as grudgingly as possible. He termed the executive decision to transfer the $45 million prior to the vote to be "illegal, bad form, and bad faith."

"I don't understand how money can be moved unilaterally," he said. "I'm not prepared to accept that at all."

Tangentially on the topic of the administration's management practices, Shields mentioned a report circulating about the performance of the Bureau of Building Inspection. "It hurts to read that report".

Nonetheless, Shields said the ICA made it "very clear" that the intent of the fund is to pay off the debt, and "they did choose a defeasement vehicle". Though complaining that it wasn't made clear to the Council that that's what was going on, he had no particular objection to money going toward the debt in lieu of the pensions.

"Because that's just too big of an apple to take a bite out of," Shields said of the pensions. On the topic of sharing such information in an orderly fashion before it excites controversy, "Pittsburgh deserves to know where the endgame is on this."


Dowd, reiterating that his concerns in this case are not those of technicalities and process but rather of the highest order -- that of safeguarding the City's big attempt to confront its pressing financial challenges -- moved that a letter received from the ICA be included into the budget itself.

That letter of intent for what is to be done with the $45 million fund, Dowd said, is all that the City has in the way of a game plan, and as such ought to be included as an appendix to the budget, in order to keep everybody focused and honest. Without that incomplete sketch as guidance at least, he said, the mayor and the ICA have no justification for expecting $51 million of debt to be addressed -- and for writing it out of the forecasts today.

This motion caused a great deal of confusion, partially because Dowd had apparently written an alternate proposal on another piece of paper. There was much eyebrow-raising and clarifying as to the existence of this other document.

Burgess countered that including some letter into a budget sets an awkward and potentially dangerous precedent. Pretty soon, he said, the Council could be festooning budgets and other documents with all sorts of extraneous materials, confusing legislative intent. Dowd's motion failed 2-6, with Peduto joining.

At length Peduto weighed in on the budget as a whole, stating that what was transpiring today reminded him of what had transpired with one of Mayor Murphy's budgets. Back then, Murphy asked that something not entirely sensible or logical by accounting practices should be inserted into the original Act 47 recovery plan. Murphy had plead the Council take a "leap of faith" in him and in the recovery teams.

Peduto said that in retrospect, it was the wrong decision at the time, and would be the wrong decision today.

Nonetheless, the mayor's budget passed 6-2, with Dowd and Peduto voting no as they did during preliminary votes. Peduto exercised the Finance Chair's privilege of presenting his own budget forecast to his colleagues and to the city, which he did by way of a PowerPoint presentation. His forecasts showed the city's police pension fund on a trajectory to run dry in 2011, which city Finance Director Scott Kunka later disputed. In addition, Peduto presented a list of structural changes which should be made to get us out of this situation, including a state-wide restructuring of pension funds and securing the ability to tax hospitals and certain other mega non-profits.

This last proposal earned significant acclaim from Comet senior political analyst Morton Reichbaum.

"I still think that hospitals should pay property taxes," said Reichbaum. "There's no reason not for them to pay property taxes. They make so much damn money."

"Billions of dollars!" Reichbaum emphasized. "Between UPMC and Highmark, billions and billions of dollars!"

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lamar Story-Arc Update

Lamar's argument that it could trade six vinyl billboards for the right to put one, glowing, 19-foot-by-58-foot sign on the Grant Street Transportation Center, Downtown, didn't fly with Zoning Board member Alice Mitinger. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Yeah it didn't. The beginning of the story is HERE.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday: It's a Small World After All

Null Space is genuinely concerned about the state of our region's locks and dams.

Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents has been covering Mayor Ravenstahl's formation of a new LGBT Advisory Council, and is generating a lot of interest on the general topic of how-a-supporter-becomes-a-board-member.

is a City
questions whether the moratorium on new liquor licenses can be effective in changing the atmosphere of the South Side, or whether it's just for show, considering more drastic steps that are out there. She also wonders why Luke Ravenstahl doesn't seem to run an inclusive decision-making process.

The Pittsburgh Hoagie praises Bill Peduto for his initiative to upgrade city traffic lights to enviro-friendly LEDs, and points out an overlooked story about missing gift cards at Allderdice High School. He's also the first to notice mayoral candidate Carmen Robinson's new web space.

The MacYapper runs a good post that marks his Official Disappointment in Barack Obama -- and it also runs our favorite new pictures of him. Also his (John's) political comedy roundtable is tonight, details in link.

The passing of the Burgher is marked by the Busman and by the Slag Heap, both of which are blogging up storms in their own right. Keep an eye also on the Post Gazette.

Pop City Media has a profile on Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership CEO Mike Edwards. A selection:

Since January, 2006, the total completed or actively planned Downtown investment is an astounding $4.5 billion.

But with that number come the challenges. Downtowns can no longer merely locus, or focus. They have to be thrilling – and clean! In The Downtown Gospel According to Mike Edwards, there are two reasons. First, Disney. “Because of Disney,” he says, “downtowns have to be places that are exceptionally clean, safe, and interesting.”

Second, TV. Hit shows, such as Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City, all present downtowns as “exciting, youthful, positive,” he says. “They’re places to have a great time, even fall in love. Both of these factors helped change the perception that downtowns were dark, dirty, and dangerous,” Edwards says, “places to be avoided in favor of the mall. Now, of course, we have to exceed people’s expectations. We have to make downtowns as wonderful an experience as they can be. That’s what we’re striving to do.”

Wow, this takes us way back. Which reminds us, don't forget Comet Anniversary Week comes at you starting Monday Dec. 22nd. We'll be just oozing with content.

The Names Change, the Band Stays the Same

Michael T. Livingstone, 35, of Mt. Washington is accused of defrauding the city of $17,775 by conspiring with five others to rig the auctions at the city tow pound, police said. (Trib, Boren & Kerlik)

Well, that's unfortunate.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Tom Flaherty, a former longtime city controller, said he hired Livingstone, in part because he knows Livingstone's father, Donald "Red" Livingstone, a Democratic committeeman in the city's 19th Ward, which covers Mt. Washington.

The Democratic committee is what is frequently referred to as "the machine" (though the Comet has an even broader working definition of Pittsburgh's political machine that we will discuss in the coming year).

Committee members vote to "endorse" candidates for public office. An endorsement from the Allegheny County Democratic Committee (ACDC) or "the machine" brings with it a considerable amount of party money and human capital well in advance of what the rest of us call "Election Day".

A common objection launched at the machine is that its members can pressure elected officials to grant special favors in exchange for continued political support -- up to and including preferred treatment in city hiring, for themselves and for friends and relatives.

If true, this would lead to even more machine influence in the functioning of government, as well as to greater insularity and lessened of diversity in the workforce -- and eventually to some employees feeling specially entitled, protected or emboldened while on the job.

But that's a matter of debate. Some on the Democratic committee are known to loudly eschew such political hustling, and its influence may be greatly exaggerated as folklore. More to the point, there's no way of telling whether the machine was especially responsible for the hiring and harboring of this scoundrel at the Controller's office, who wound up bilking taxpayers out of tens of thousands of dollars in a car-auction scheme.

Or is there?

"I was really shocked when I heard about this," Flaherty said. "But it's just an allegation. I knew his father, and I knew Mike (Livingstone). Red was always involved in politics, and he was active in Irish fraternal groups."

It sounds like then-Controller Flaherty is willing to vouch for the initial decision to hire him. Where have we heard that name Flaherty again?

But if Democrats continue to have a party chairman in the mold of Mr. Flaherty, their luck can't be counted on to hold. Mr. Flaherty, 54, is an old pol beyond his years, one of the Dino-Dems we have railed against for years. Among that crowd, he is Hackosaurus Rex.

He harkens back to the era of the smoked-filled room, the political favor and government as employment agency for friends and relatives. As party chairman, true to form, he fought row-office consolidation, which has always threatened to bring the gravy train to a stop. (P-G Edit Board, 2005)

Party Chairman is as high as it gets in the committee. Not to kick a man while he's down (and we are glad it sounds like he's okay), but there is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that the machine and its ways have suffered a black eye with this arrest.

Whoa. "Hackosaurus Rex." The P-G editorial board was like a blog back then!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Burgher Packs It In

He/she/they did so in the contemporary manner...

Federal Money: We've Totally Got This

The Burgher is doing just fine.

My take:

Yesterday, for instance, the Port of Pittsburgh Commission outlined $580 million in lock and dam projects it could promptly start with some federal funds. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Excellent. Do this. In fact, don't do anything to get in its way. These strike me as the kind of jobs that need to be stimulated right now.

Michael Kenney, executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, said his list alone is $680 million. He said it's "very important" that the authority take advantage of the stimulus program, because it has to fix aging pipes and comply with a consent decree requiring reductions in the flow of sewage into the rivers. "It'll be infrastructure needs I won't have to pass on to ratepayers." (ibid.)

This one might be a slightly harder sell to the Obama administration -- there could be a perception that municipal government ought to clean up its own mess or something. But it's legitimately a massive, worker-intensive infrastructure project that is absolutely "very important".

And let's not forget:

As part of that new culture, Ravenstahl said an "energy audit" of the City-County Building is being done to evaluate how much it is wasting in utilities and find ways to make it more environmentally friendly. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Lost amid the comedy of miscommunication and ambitious fantasy in the sustainability piece was the reality that Mayor Ravenstahl put himself squarely out there in his intentions to upgrade 414 Grant Street.

Now, it is true for example that this energy audit needs to be conducted and completed, and then its results incorporated into a renovation plan, this plan itself likely needing to be put out for bid. Yet what I see now is a raft of three proposals that are perfectly up Obama's ally. They are (or can soon be made) shovel-ready or crowbar-ready, and can serve as trust-building exercises with Obama's government before we go tilting at wind turbines and other projects down the road.

We can bemoan the lack of fully prepared major projects if we desire -- and we can loudly bemoan some of the reasons for this, though our years of financial receivership probably have something to do with it.

Or we can put our best foot forward, pursue those needed river and sewer improvements that constitute no-brainers, and position ourselves adroitly for the second round of Obama money -- the round for projects that can only have been envisioned after the reality of Obama's presidency took over. The "Great Works" phase, if you will.

MORE: P-G, Trib

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Quick Thought of the Day


Council shall have the following additional powers:

a. to employ or retain its own staff and consultants including a city clerk and an attorney qualified to practice law before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, who may act as legal advisor to council, and may represent council as a body in legal proceedings. Council's attorney shall not represent the City as a municipal corporation in any legal proceeding;

I don't see the word "solicitor". Good thing we've settled upon a "legal parliamentarian" or whatever. Also, there may be a distinction between "represent council as a body in legal proceedings" and "litigate".

The 2009 Budget: Final Action*

The meeting began with the Pledge of Allegiance, led by John Sukernek, age 5 1/2.

"... one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

That seemed to be his favorite part.


Proclamations were presented by Doug Shields to Charlie McCollester and the gang at The Point of Pittsburgh project; by Tonya Payne to salvage artist -slash- community champion Jorge' Meyers; by Bill Peduto to Rabbi Daniel Schiff; and submitted by Ricky Burgess to Jack and Jill of America in Pittsburgh; and by Darlene Harris in formal remembrance of Catherine Baker Knoll. All five passed by unanimous consent.

The first one came replete with a thirty-foot banner and an original musical performance by a solo guitarist.


"Happy birthday to Pittsburgh
Twohundredand fifty years old..."

Verses were assigned to Pittsburgh's many military, labor and civil rights struggles that are told through The Point of Pittsburgh project, as well as verses for the Steelers various different eras of dominance, and then verses and more verses. It was all beginning to smell like an elaborate filibuster of the mayor's budget, until our anonymous folk hero signaled that he was in on the joke.

At length, he brought his epic ballad to a rousing conclusion and exhorted the Council, "Don't forget the workin' man."


During public comments, we opted to do some laundry.

Upon returning, a speaker (Kenneth Miller?) was describing to us all the progress being made in meetings with public officials, including Darlene Harris among others, as to how our city's sports teams can leverage their licensing agreements to combat the violation of child labor abuses and reverse the proliferation of sweat shops around the world.


Down to business.

First came a "technical amendment" changing the name of one line-item from General Services to Finance, which also involved a shift from $37 million to $45 million. This was approved by unanimous consent.

Second came a decision by Jim Motznik to repeal his amendment again seeking to increase the pay of the city's Store Manager, Department of Public Works, by roughly 20%. Motznik said he was acknowledging pressure under certain laws of state oversight, but has received assurances from the administration and others that pay equity between persons of similar job descriptions will be addressed in what has become known as the Race and Gender Pay Equity Study.

Third there was a raft several amendments -- one I believe for uploading Council meetings on the web ($56,000 transferred from fuel costs), another for legal fees incurred by the Lamar Four at the hands of a private attorney ($4,800 out of the Law Department's pie-share), and then maybe something else to make the Lamar Four thing not stand out quite so much. * UPDATE: I think it was Burgess's proposition to bump forward completion of the new five-year plan from June to March.

Patrick Dowd voted against the city paying the legal fees. Aside from that single objection, it was ayes all around.

THEN they all got to discussing the swift allocation of $45 million from the general fund to "something in the nature of an irrevocable fund for the purposes of paying down debt" in lieu of the pensions shortfall.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Pittsburgh Comet: Our Two-Year Anniversary

Comet Anniversary Week begins Monday, Dec. 22nd.

Tuesday: Treats

Okay, this is a little weird, but we'll go with it. Our fellow has a certain zen-like, tranquil intensity about him as well. (P-G, L.A. Johnson)

"He's a great, great coach and a great fit for Pittsburgh and we are going to the Super Bowl this year," she said. "We had one for the thumb and now we're going to be two-fisted."



As you know, the Ethics thing progresses. It may progress further today.


Whoa. Foreclosure. PNC Bank. The homeless. Allegheny County. Kevin Evanto. The URA. The Water Authority. Too much. (Trib, Wereschagin and Spatter)


So we have Consol Energy as a civic partner and meme. It is incumbent upon us green weenies to evaluate eventually how "progressive" an energy company (coal company?) Consol Energy is or is not, we suppose.

From a press release:

The second project is a first-of-a-kind, micro-turbine generator configured to use unprocessed coal mine methane gas directly from an underground source to generate electricity.

Don't worry about the first project.

"Our goal is to be a major stakeholder in such projects to ensure the environmentally sound and efficient use of coal, methane gas and alternative fuels," said Harvey.

Let's meet Harvey. The Google was surprisingly little help; he keeps a low profile. Maybe some Comet reader will volunteer to purchase one.


And you thought PittGirl's goodbye-page was spooky. (Story)


What has me wondering...... I have not seen any stories to suggest there is, but are there really no Pittsburgh connections here at all? That would be good, but it seems a bit improbable.


The URA, as should we all, has its eyes on that Obama money federal monies that are available or can likely be administered to us quickly.

Board members are expected to consider an agreement today that would provide up to $1.1 million in federal funds to install granite curbs, terrazzo sidewalks and new street lights and trees along Fifth Avenue between Wood Street and Liberty Avenue in the same block as the developments. (P-G, Mark Belko)

You want to spend some of that Obama money downtown? How about this: something sensible to be laid down upon the Mellon Arena acreage that would abate the disruptive traffic flow situation at Bigelow Boulevard and Sixth Ave., and reestablish the street grid.

That's a big job and surely far from shovel-ready, but we can start to plan it and engineer it now in advance of what surely will be a second wave of federal investment. These things always happen in twos. The space and the opportunity it would unleash for seedling development (and for several anchors) would be enormous -- this is a redevelopment plan that should always be ready to go.

Granite curbs? Terrazzo sidewalks? Why don't we just paint our faces, grow our fingernails to enormous lengths, and pierce everything?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Defeasement: Shake the Tree, Gather the Nuts

Chris Briem, one of Pittsburgh's foremost economists, throws a glass of cold water on the campfire that is becoming the Great Defeasement Debacle.


The current yield curve for government T Bills and bonds goes from 0-2.5% for maturities out to 10 years. For maturities out to 5 years the maxium yield is under 1.6%. At the low end, you can't really defease any debt these days. (Null Space)

So it appears that our Libertad, Egatitad, Defeasitad manifesto may not have been exactly the thing. We were conflating several issues, some of which being Pittsburgh's predilection to incur debt to pay off other debt, to over-speculate in the market, and to conduct plain old accounting gimmicks like these.

This may have been the most harmless example of its breed: a little accounting white lie. You would think that if Patrick Dowd chose to make a move here -- Shame on the mayor! Shame on the ICA! -- he would have done so supported by a ton of research and a certain degree of necessity. He may yet secure us our "clarity" as to how exactly these funds will be spent -- but he shook the hive pretty hard with little at stake, if in fact we can't profitably defease our bonds now even if we tried.

What was revealed were several artifices concerning our budget -- one being that our five-year outlook is "balanced" or "alright" in any real way. The best we can say is that the ICA approved it, and the ICA is after all only as much good as the State Legislature. (Do what you will with that.)


As Pittsburgh firefighters union chief Joe King left a news conference yesterday, he turned to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and said, "If you hide money, I'm going to find it." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Well, that doesn't smell like Team Spirit!

Almost all of the unions representing city workers will get new contracts next year, and the two biggest -- the International Association of Fire Fighters and the Fraternal Order of Police -- can take the city to binding arbitration.

Even if Mayor Ravenstahl and the ICA are "hiding money" -- even if they are setting aside $35 million or so (??) and renaming it and writing it out of the budget (this is how you get into trouble, people!) -- do consider that we're all making sacrifices.

"We're not here to bankrupt the city with wages and benefits," [Fraternal Order of Police President Dan] O'Hara said. "However, there is a real concern about what this police force is going to look like if wages don't keep pace with other communities."

Unfortunately, other communities aren't in as bad a shape as we, are they? Think about what the Port Authority just went through. "We need to do more with less" is unfortunately a gross reality across the nation, much less Southwestern Pennsylvania, much less Pittsburgh.

I'm not yet saying we need to make cuts. I'm just saying we skip "binding arbitration" on the stuff to which we can come to an amicable accord.


Now, back to the actual economist. He was intrigued by the very notion of going to great lengths to set up this "lockbox" or "non-lockbox" to pay debt when it comes due:

First off, why was the plan shifted from paying down pension funds to paying down debt? There would be no issue at all right now if the surplus in question was put into the pension fund where it could not be extracted. The city's debt level has not changed from its planned trajectory in the last year, yet the pension fund has been hard hit by the financial markets. You would think that the pension fund is far more in need of shoring up right now. (ibid.)

Pause for effect.

I can only speculate the reasons for the shift, but suspect the mayor's budget reflects some of the preferences of the ICA.

Pause for effect.

Without rambling more, I think the whole issue comes down to some key legal questions that I addressed when musing on the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings in Vallejo California. If you want more see what I said in
Why Vallejo Matters.

Bankruptcy proceedings? If a city goes through with a bankruptcy, I suppose that would relieve it of the obligation of owing money both to its pensioners and creditors.

If the city pays off its creditors on Wall Street in advance and lets the pension fund suffer, one might have difficulty winning reelection. Several advancing columns of current and former employees would not be ideal. (Nonetheless, it may be a good time to buy some AFLAC.)

Yet if the city takes care of its pensioners first and lets its creditors suffer instead, one may find one's bankruptcy judge unwilling to grant one the bankruptcy. "Try raising taxes on all those people who are getting pensions", she'll say ... and that affects everybody and everything. Meanwhile, nobody on Wall Street is doing business with us anymore. A slow and painful death.

So can the former be what is being perpetrated upon us ... real quiet-like?

I've been calling for Bankruptcy for years now. This forum visits that subject periodically and the majority of contributors say "NO" it'll be the end of Pittsburgh.But now as the nation and the world slips into the grips of a serious recession or maybe even a depression, cities like Pittsburgh, already fiscally distressed, are on the edge of the abyss. File now; be first.