Friday, April 18, 2008

The Song: Summertime

The Artist: Kenny Chesney

Community Meeting in East Allegheny

On Monday, over a dozen high-ranking public safety officers, elected officials, and other city workers met with residents of "East-East Allegheny."

The purpose: to bring them up to speed on the cause of the massive explosion that brought down two houses on Lovitt Way, and to respond to any questions and concerns.

Michael Huss, the city's Director of Public Safety, led the meeting. Together with chief arson investigator Michael Burns, the two described an investigation that is ongoing, though it appears that an "extraordinary" amount of natural gas poured into 845 Lovitt Way over a brief three-day interval between April 8th and 11th.

The owner of 845 Lovitt resides in a nursing home. The force of the explosion blew the roof off of 845 and onto 847; the lack of any fire or pyrotechnics was considered consistent with a natural gas explosion. A methamphetamine lab explosion, by contrast, would have burned on flame-producing ethanol. The lack of any chemical containers on the scene also argued against a meth lab.

Although previous news reports seemed to rule out a gas leak, Equitable Gas spokesman David Spigelmyer clarified that reports of gas lines being shut off and capped only applied to 847 Lovitt, and had a technical answer for the confusion about 845. The Comet did not follow along so well, but many residents who had been following the explosion closely nodded their heads sagely at the explanation.

Spigelmyer did reassure residents that Equitable Gas has been checking and will continue to check all underground gas lines and other connections in the area; he said to expect to see Equitable Gas trucks in the neighborhood as a matter of routine.

The cause of the leak is still unknown, although Huss suggested for now that theft of copper and other piping as a working hypothesis. "I'm not saying any of you!" he quickly assured the room, "but there are a lot of vacant homes in the area, and you see a lot of that."

Councilwoman Darlene Harris took the floor simply to offer her assistance to anybody adversely affected by the explosion. "Sometimes, it's very hard when you lose a lot."

She said there could be some assistance available from the Spring Garden Neighborhood Council and others, and remained long after the meeting handing out cards and talking to residents.

When the floor was opened for questions, one woman raised her hand and asked, "What about the homeless?"

Jean McCoy has been living in one of the surrounding homes that was badly damaged in the explosion, which will need to be torn down. She was out working when the explosion occurred. City officials were familiar with her dilemma and were extremely solicitous, yet seemed a bit uncertain how to proceed long-term.

Michael Huss said that they would be working with the Housing authority in order to find her a place to live as soon as possible, but admitted to "gaps" in service presently between Housing and those being provided by the Red Cross. Huss called on a representative from Red Cross in the back of the room, who described services available through shelters and other initiatives.

"We're going to take care of Jean," Huss pledged.

Daniel Cipriani, chief of Building Inspections, and the head of Demolitions took the floor to answer some specific questions about what to do if you have an insurance claim, who to call about debris on your property, and what to do if you fear a particular home is unstable. It is unlikely, they said, that the City of Pittsburgh would be liable for anyone's insurance deductible, but the city would do its best to clean up the area and make it safe.

After some more questions, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was introduced. He said of the recovery efforts he had witnessed, "I was proud to be a member of city government."

Ravenstahl would not take one ounce of credit for any of the work carried out by public safety personnel, nor by any others. He credited Director Huss, police investigators, public works, and many others for a rapid and professional response.

"Our work is not done and we realize that. We're just extremely fortunate that no one was injured."

Operations director Arthur Victor was also on hand, and his message was simple. "If you don't take anything else away from this meeting, remember to call 3-1-1 with any questions."

Fire chief Darryl Jones would only add his own appreciation for "fine job of the arson squad", before he intoned gravely, "We're gonna make sure this doesn't happen again."

A final comment from a resident thanked all those assembled for a job well done, and the City of Pittsburgh earned a modest but heartfelt round of applause.

Public Works director Guy Costa was also on hand, making certain all bloggers residing near the blast zone had comfortable seating at the very front of the room.

The Spring Garden-East Deutschtown Community Council has enlisted the Northside Leadership Conference to administer a relief fund set up for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed in a natural gas explosion on Lovitt Way last week.

Donations may be made to the East Deutschtown Explosion Relief Fund in care of the Northside Leadership Conference, 4 Allegheny Center, Suite 601, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For more information, e-mail Kelly MacKay at or call 412-330-2559. (Tribune-Review)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

BestFriendsgate: "I Didn't Broker the Deal"

UPDATE: WTAE lays a lot of this out for us, with some very interesting new details involving would-be subpoenas. Also KDKA, who has a Lamar exec saying "the rules changed in the middle".

Councilman Kraus held a press conference at 2:30 today to "assure the public that proper legal process will not be overlooked for Lamar Advertising."

In the statement, he says he speaks on behalf of Council members Peduto, Shields, and Burgess.

So that's four.

Today it appears the rule of law is prevailing. We are pleased that Lamar and the administration have acknowledged that the process was ignored, and is now taking steps toward compliance.

Our hope is that today's actions will allow for a legal and transparent process to take place, as required by the City Code.

So based on appearances, today those four characterize themselves as hopeful.


"This is a tremendous victory for process," said city Councilman Patrick Dowd, who had filed suit as a private citizen to challenge the issuance of the permit by city administrators without the project going through hearings before planning and zoning boards. (Post-Gazette, R. Lord)

That was this morning.

In the agreement, Mr. Dowd pledged not to "protest" the sign in subsequent public hearings, but the other members have not.

The agreement:

A new permit application for a digital sign on the new Grant Street Transportation Center will go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the city Planning Commission, each of which would hold hearings and votes. Mr. Specter said he did not believe it would require a vote of City Council.

This still appears to run afoul of Sec. 910.01.D.2, which says that electronic sign messages in the Golden Triangle district shall be permitted as a Conditional Use. Conditional Uses must be approved by Council, after the Planning Commission makes its recommendation.

Why is this important? It is a matter of considerable speculation whether or not members of the Planning Commission will be liberated to vote their consciences on this issue.

Some city watchers are telling us that the massive scrutiny surrounding Lamar Advertising and Pat Ford will force the mayor's administration to take a step back. Others tell us that monkeys are more likely to come flying out of George Specter's butt.


Also, in that same P-G update:

[Ravenstahl] said he stopped by the meeting "to say hello ... Pat mentioned that [billboard executives] were in town and I went over to say hello.

"They contributed [to his campaign] based on the fact, I'd imagine, that they thought I was the best candidate for the office of mayor," he said. "I didn't broker the deal."

Deal? Did somebody say, 'deal'?

Ford Left Pompano Beach Abruptly After Similar Zoning, Legal Controversy

Aug. 31, 2005:

At first, charter school proponents applied for a permit to open as an independent operation. Zoning Director Patrick Ford and the zoning board rejected that idea.

Then the seesaw tipped.

Charter school proponents quickly returned to the city with a request for a different permit, one that would allow them to become an addition to the neighborhood's Hope Lutheran Church, 1840 NE 41st St. They promised to use less than half the space of the 26,000- square-foot church and limit enrollment to fewer than 300.

Ford said he had no choice but to approve the permit. "My job is to interpret the code," he said. "If it meets those criteria, I approve it."

That's when Vice Mayor Susan Foster entered the fray.

"I just feel that the community should've been notified by this proposed charter school," Foster said. "They should've done their due diligence. They should be more responsible as far as contacting the neighborhood."

Hoping to overturn Ford's decision, Foster has appealed the zoning director's decision with the same zoning board that initially denied the charter school a permit.

"This school is a detriment to our community," Martin said. "This has turned into such a fiasco it's not even funny."

(Florida Sun-Sentinel, Jean-Paul Renaud, or 954-356-4556).


Nov. 22, 2005:

Such big headaches for such a little school.

Lawyers, petitions, appeals. All over the zoning director's decision to allow Eagles' Nest Community Charter School to open inside a Pompano Beach neighborhood.

Sound familiar?

In making his decision, Ford said church properties are allowed to have charter schools and that a school operated for at least 30 years until 2002 on the Hope Lutheran Church property. Five charter schools were able to open with the same type of permit in Broward County, said Ford, who noted that 30 percent of charter schools in Florida are annexed to churches.

Soon after his approval, the school's name was painted on one of the church's buildings.

"We all went, `What's Eagles' Nest?'" Fontana said. "None of us knew what was in there or what was going in."

Vice Mayor Susan Foster, who represents the area, appealed Ford's decision in September. A majority of that board, amid presentations by attorneys on both sides of the issue, agreed the zoning director was wrong.

Commissioners tonight have the final word.

"It's rather ill-conceived," Mayor John Rayson said of the school. "I think that's an inappropriate venue for the charter school."

But, he added, "I have no idea what's going to happen." (Florida-Sun Sentinel, JPR)

Pompano Beach city commissioners did reverse the ruling of zoning administrator Ford on that evening. The charter school had 30 days in which to appeal the decision.


Reported on Dec. 4, 2005, about an event that occurred Monday, Nov. 28. In other words, a few days later:

Suddenly, Pompano Beach has no zoning director.

Patrick Ford, who held the job since April 2004, resigned Monday without reason or notice.

"My resignation is effective immediately," he wrote in a letter he handed to City Manager C. William Hargett Jr. "The friends and associations I've made during my employment for the city of Pompano Beach will truly be memorable for years to come. Thank you for the opportunity to work for you."

A little further down:

Recently, Ford, who collected an annual salary of $76,655, was center stage in a controversial decision to allow Eagles' Nest Community Charter School to open in the residential neighborhood of Beacon Heights.

He allowed the school to open, but the community protested and the City Commission overturned his decision. That matter is now headed to court.

We don't know how that ever turned out for the residents and taxpayers of Pompano Beach. The Comet is done purchasing news articles from the Sun-Sentinel archives for the time being.

"It was a very interesting scenario," Ford said. "It's not my job to determine how the community or the City Commission might react to my decision.

"In my opinion, the City Commission in general handled this issue more gracefully than any other elected official I have ever worked with."

City officials say Ford gave no indication he was going to resign. He packed up his City Hall office over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and walked into the city manager's office on Monday to deliver his letter.

"I thought it would be the best for the city and for myself, in my opinion, to resign on Monday," Ford said.

"When an individual gives two weeks' notice, it tends to be a little awkward. I thought it would be more prudent to have someone else jump right in and take over, just to eliminate that awkwardness." (Florida Sun-Sentinel, JPR)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Matt H on Current Events

Matthew Hogue is a Pittsburgh blogger (who just celebrated his one-year bloggiversary), a former employee of the city Housing authority, and a Democratic committeeman to boot.

Since the Comet has been covering the Zoning and City Planning angle unto death, let's read what Matt H has to say about the Housing Authority.

What are you trying to hide Mr. Meachem? Why won't you just open things up and be transparent? Why did you try to stonewall Ford when he wanted to look around? Was it your shady doings with the Garfield project? Was it the lobbying of board members that you wanted to keep under the rug? Why so shady Mr. Meachem? What are you hiding sir? Why won't you open the books? If something wasn't fishy then why would the city controller's office and the DA's office be interested in this? Why did Meachem start sending inquiries out about Ford's position as Chairman after Ford began asking questions within HACP?

City Controller's Office? What?

It's seriously time for officials to get to the bottom of all of this. Let Zappala's office and Michael Lamb's office take a good look within HACP to see what is really going on. I will work my hardest to help these offices get the job done. I will talk to anyone who wants to know what is going on and I have plenty of other people who will also talk about all of the misdoings at HACP.

Michael Lamb's office? What?

Mr. Meachem you have some explaining to do. You owe it to the taxpayers of this area, to the employees that you can't get maintenance materials to and to the residents of HACP that you have neglected and shortchanged since you took over.

Is Matt H carrying water for Pat Ford? Unlikely, but...

ADDED NOTE: [Ford] said blogger Bram Reichbaum called Sirk and threatened to release a copy of the blog publicly if she did not tell him about the surround-sound system. (Tribune-Review, J. Boren)

The Comet characterizes this statement as wholly untrue. It is old news already, but we felt a need to make the point clearly and on-record.

Wednesday: Moving Forward

There is one last common ground for these candidates: They are both uncommonly smart, thoughtful and very well-versed in the issues. They care about people and they care about the workings of government. They are prepared. (P-G, Edit Board)

Drumroll please...

On Iraq, for those inclined to remember, Sen. Clinton carries more baggage, for she voted to approve the war in the first place. For those inclined to forgive, she would seek to repair relations with allies strained by the Iraq misadventure, as Sen. Obama also would.

Yes please let's think about that...

Nor is [Obama] any sort of elitist. As he said yesterday in effectively refuting this ridiculous charge in a meeting with Post-Gazette editors, "my life's work has been to get everybody a fair shake."


Sen. Obama has captured much of the nation's imagination for a reason. He offers real change, a vision of an America that can move past not only racial tensions but also the political partisanship that has so bedeviled it.

Pennsylvania -- this encrusted, change-averse commonwealth where a state liquor monopoly holds on against all reason and where municipal fiefdoms shrink from sensible consolidation -- needs to take a strong look at the new face and the new hope in this race. Because political business-as-usual is more likely to bring the usual disappointment for the Democrats this fall, the Post-Gazette endorses the nomination of
Barack Obama, who has brought an excitement and an electricity to American politics not seen since the days of John F. Kennedy.


"You shouldn't count on one-time revenues to fill your budget hole every year. That's just not good financial planning," he said. (P-G, Mark Belko)

That's not the kind of story Dan Onorato wants to see coming out of Pittsburgh!

Authority officials wouldn't say how much the bid for the new Gateway Center Station shell exceeded engineering estimates, but the number is well beyond the $25 million to $30 million range discussed two months ago. (P-G, Joe Grata)


"Voters can't just vote on a theme," Flaherty said. "That would be nice to do. I think they want to see concrete, hard facts in terms of financially what's going to happen as well as structurally what's going to happen." (Trib, F.A. Krift)

Flaherty. Flaherty! How could the Comet have been covering Pittsburgh politics for so long, yet never once mention a Flaherty? We are well past due for some Flaherty!


"This is in direct relationship to the pledges we signed in February" in which council and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl agreed to work together on a joint agenda that includes fuller pension funding, said Councilman Patrick Dowd, who wrote the legislation. (P-G, Team Effort)

See? Everything's hunky dory.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

And I Shall Call Him ... Mini Mayor

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office today revealed that he and his wife, Erin, are expecting their first child this fall.

"Erin and Luke Ravenstahl announced today that they have a proposed solution to Pittsburgh's declining population," the mayor said in an official release. "A joyful and grateful Erin and Luke are pleased to announce that they are expecting. (Post-Gazette, D. Majors)

Erin attributed the development to the mayor having had a "pervasive and consistent modus operandi," and of operating "under the cloak of wedlock."

Congratulations to the happy couple.

Kevin Miller is Gonna Get You

We just had a fascinating conversation with the Battlecat of the Airwaves, Kevin Miller (who said Pat Ford changed his mind about going on Marty Griffin this morning).

Miller's final question was, "Are there any adults left on Grant Street who are going to clean up this mess?"

Good question, and that's not a shot at Luke. The issue is, we told him, PF knows where all the bodies are buried.

If the theme of any investigation becomes a preponderance of special favors given in an official capacity to certain interests within the context of mutually advantageous personal or political relationships (aka corruption), this is usually pretty simple. One political party rolls the other one up like a carpet.

We have one political party. We've had it for a while. That's why this is so deep.

Failing that strategy, the "adults on Grant Street" would have to be persons who Mayor Ravenstahl and his predecessors have until now purposefully frozen out of the Reindeer Games of Pittsburgh. Or those too new to it all to have gotten involved.

Bill Peduto. Doug Shields. And the three new members of council.

NOTE TO MBB: CW ain't getting any guiltier.


The Comet is taking most of the day off to work on its taxes. Everything we have to say about the news of the day can be accessed in this comment here.

Meanwhile, here are some recent Post-Gazette endorsements you have no reason not to support:

Brenda Frazier: Experienced, conscientious, caring, and a forward-thinker.

Jake Wheatley: Strong on education, strong on health-care, strong in the community.

Steve O'Donnell: Detail-oriented, articulate, knowledgeable.

Common Thread: The P-G Edit Board seems to appreciate persons who, more than anything else, are their own persons. So do we.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hillary Clinton Goes Negative

h/t Michael Scherer, Swampland

The Roar That Moves Beer Cans

From the filmmaker who brought us East of Liberty....

Member of Council Declines to Walk Around with Walking Around Money

The Rev. Ricky Burgess today announce he is donating all of his City Council district's discretionary funds to a philanthropic agency founded by African Americans.

Councilman Burgess, who represents his Homewood neighborhood and other eastern communities, announced at a press conference today that $146,000 is being given toward a "Hope Fund" to be administered by the POISE Foundation. (P-G, Jim McKinnon)

Wait -- how will he be able to buy votes?

"For more than 27 years, the POISE Foundation has been supporting programs that add value to the quality of life of black Pittsburgh and the region as a whole," the Rev. Burgess said at the press conference.

"To our knowledge, this is the first time this has ever occurred. I'm excited about the possibilities and what it can mean for this community."

We suppose one could take shots at the POISE Foundation. Is it as reputable as the Rev. is making it out to be?

He said he will introduce legislation in council tomorrow to establish the Hope Fund with the leftover discretionary money from District 9's Neighborhood Needs Account. The $146,000 is what remains of a $1 million allocation 12 years ago by former Mayor Tom Murphy to each council district.

Each council district also gets $75,000 a year in Community Development Block Grants. The Rev. Burgess said his district's annual $75,000 allocation will be given to the Hope Fund.

If only all the city's CDBG money was apportioned so non-politically. The URA derives a great deal of its funding from CDBG grants, and the correlation between "neighborhood needs" and "URA board member needs" do not always perfectly overlap.

Monday: Is Disinfectant the Best Disinfectant?

Mr. Ravenstahl said the revelations of gift-giving are "very difficult" for him personally, because he considers both Mr. Ford and Mr. Vlasach good friends.

"But when issues arise like they did [Wednesday], and the acceptance of gifts is now something he's acknowledged, I have real concerns with that," he said. (P-G, Lord and Fitzpatrick)

We can imagine how uncomfortable it can be when things like this arise and must be acknowledged.

On Dec. 21, Lamar inked a lease with the parking authority that would have it pay $3,000 a month in rent for the sign. Mr. Vlasach negotiated the lease, and Mr. Ford was the authority's board chairman. There was no public bidding or board vote on the lease.

$3,000 a month? Could that be considered low for a Jumbotron (tm) in the heart of Downtown? We wonder what are the industry standards.

The key, Mr. Cox said, is disclosing anything you receive and decide to keep.

Ahem, no. The key is to refrain from going out of your way to subvert the city code on the gift-giver's behalf.


The billboard must come down.

It really is that simple. The electronic billboard that Lamar Advertising almost finished erecting last week at the north end of Grant Street, despite a legal appeal filed in early March, is nothing more than a symbolic middle finger extended toward Pittsburghers and the principle of representative government.

The billboard is in every possible way an obscene digital salute.

If it stays to bathe the elegant Pennsylvanian building in its garish light, it will be a monument to corporate arrogance, craven local leadership and, quite possibly, government corruption. (P-G, Ruth Ann Daily)

It will be interesting to see if the Planning Commission is amenable to this argument. It should be. The billboard would overlook the heart of Grant Street, where many of our civic leaders young and old pass everyday. They will either be reminded of one lesson, or another.

Yet there is nothing in the city code that specifically forbids developers from flipping us the bird, and the Planning Commission has taken an extremely narrow view of its powers under the watchful eye of Pat Ford -- so narrow that it would seem to have reserved for itself virtually none.


[There've been unsubstantiated rumors that the Sirk departure was already well underway prior to the news breaking and that this was merely a convenient and politically opportune time to dump her. I can't confirm that rumor.] (Angry Drunk Bureaucrat)

The same could be said of the other departure.

Leaving billboard companies and/or the State Ethics commission aside -- you may be wondering which if any other bodies and offices may be investigating which of the dynamic duo for which if any other dealings on behalf of the city.

The answer is yes.

The issue then becomes a matter of scope. Where will any of this lead, and what sorts of transactions will come under scrutiny?

Obviously, to a large extent this will be determined by the facts as they emerge. Yet to a not insignificant degree, this must also become a question of geist and its impact on the prevailing political climate; what is Pittsburgh fundamentally in the mood to see happen?

Will there be an outcry for further inquiries, as a trickle of gory details emerge? Or will all of us reach a point where we have seen corrections made and actions taken, and be eager to continue the work of the city with a mostly clean slate, given the fierce urgency of now and the need to move forward?

That depends on many things, we suppose. In the short-term, it would appear that there are only so many civic jackpots our government is in a position to deliver.

People's memories being what they are, our climate will have to be very well reestablished by the middle of next week, at the very latest, for better or for worse. Absolutely.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

SENATOR OBAMA: On Pennsylvania

These are the comments that supposedly landed Barack Hussein Obama in hot water. He made them at a fund raiser in San Francisco, in response to some questions about the campaign:

But -- so the questions you're most likely to get about me, 'Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What's the concrete thing?' What they wanna hear is -- so, we'll give you talking points about what we're proposing -- close tax loopholes, roll back, you know, the tax cuts for the top 1 percent. Obama's gonna give tax breaks to middle-class folks and we're gonna provide health care for every American. So we'll go down a series of talking points.

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations. (Huffington Post)

Both John McCain and Hillary Clinton have been assailing these comments by Obama as elitist and disparaging.

The cable news networks seem only to be reporting that Obama called Pennsylvanians "bitter", and that they "cling to guns or religion." No context, no further discussion.

You may find these remarks offensive in themselves, or take them as evidence that Barack Obama lacks empathy with the common man. That is fine. We do not.

We feel Sen. Obama was honestly relating his experience in Pennsylvania, and he was talking about it both sensitively and intelligently. Once again he was confronting difficult truths about America and what it will take to unite around common goals, and a common economic program. We are again heartened that he will not let political orthodoxy get in the way of needed dialogue.

"It's being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who face hard times are bitter," Clinton said during a campaign event in Philadelphia. "Well that's not my experience. As I travel around Pennsylvania. I meet people who are resilient, optimist positive who are rolling up their sleeves."

"Pennsylvanians don't need a president who looks down on them," she said. "They need a president who stands up for them, who fights hard for your future, your jobs, your families." (CNN)

Is this a fair criticism of Obama's remarks?

It does not seem like she cares to engage in the issues he raises, such as persistent economic stagnation and the political effects that can have on a people (more Democrats should be asking these questions, by the way). It could be said that she is the one who is being patronizing towards Pennsylvanians, by rushing to our unasked-for defense.

The Obama campaign's own response to this criticism:

"Senator Obama has said many times in this campaign that Americans are understandably upset with their leaders in Washington for saying anything to win elections while failing to stand up to the special interests and fight for an economic agenda that will bring jobs and opportunity back to struggling communities," said Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor.

"And if John McCain wants a debate about who's out of touch with the American people, we can start by talking about the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans that he once said offended his conscience but now wants to make permanent.”

One thing we must allow. Considering this latest episode -- together with his remarks on reproductive freedom, in which he said that when push came to shove, he would not want his young daughters to be "punished with a baby" -- Barack Hussein Obama could be a little too frank and casual for his own good. He should probably work on that.

BOTTOM LINE: The conditions on the ground in Pennsylvania are suddenly the hot topic in national politics. Hooray.