Friday, June 6, 2008

Friday: Slings & Arrows

Lance: To Bill Peduto. The Pittsburgh councilman, saying he's "burned out," reportedly will travel the world beginning Monday studying such things as how to use pension funds to revitalize neighborhoods and to learn about tolerance and understanding in Cappadocia, Turkey. Never mind that Pittsburgh's pension funds are bust and that Mr. Peduto has shown a weak understanding of what government's supposed to do. Let's all join hands and meditate together, shall we? (Trib, Laurels and Lances)

If he's trying to learn "what government's supposed to do", you recommend his staying in Western Pennsylvania?

On the "Watch List": Pittsburgh Stadium Authority Chairwoman Debbie Lestitian says the Pittsburgh Steelers are in breach of contract on their deal -- a sweetheart deal to begin with -- to develop land between Heinz Field and PNC Park. But her boss, Stadium Authority Executive Director Mary Conturo, appears to be trying to cut another sweetheart deal. So, why have contracts and agreeements and deadlines if they are ignored? This is the kind of garbage that breeds mistrust in government. (Trib, Same Jagoffs)

See, now we're feeling that. But wait. We thought authority Board Chairs were the bosses of authority Executive Directors. Provided said chairperson enjoys the support of the board. Hey! There's still nobody from Council on that Stadium Authority, is there? That could be a problem!


Audit targets Pittsburgh 911 call glut. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)
Audit says EMS overextended. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Lamb talks about this all the time. Data analysis leads to new policy prescriptions leads to tangible improvements both in terms of efficiency and results. How many more of these can we expect out of our former Prothonatary?


Council, Mayor to set budget based on performance goals. (P-G, Team Effort)

The office of Patrick Dowd provides some embellishment:

“I think we can all agree that accountability, which is the cornerstone of an innovative, productive and forward-thinking government, rests on a foundation of clear priorities with realistic goals,” said Patrick Dowd.

“In the past, we have failed to implement best practices in budgeting, including obtaining stakeholder input, establishing policy priorities, and creating clear implementation objectives. I am pleased that today we are taking a positive first step,” added Councilman Peduto.

“Our government is one of accountability, responsibility and performance. Sharing our goals with Council and the public is a critical part of working toward a collective vision of what Pittsburgh can and must be,” said Mayor Ravenstahl.

Everyone in the same boat.

“This agreement is timely because it coincides so nicely with City Council embarking on its Town Hall Tour in preparation for the 2009 budget process,” added City Council President Shields.

“I am one to always applaud open and substantive dialogue and this agreement will give us the opportunity to fully participate in the process,” concurred Councilman Bruce Kraus.

Council is touring? Is it running for something?

Council members Tonya Payne and Jim Motznik also voiced their support. “This would be a great way to improve government efficiency, make good budgetary decisions and enhance employee performance,” added Councilwoman Payne.

Councilman Motznik echoed those words: “Inviting city departments, including Council and the Mayor, to submit strategic goals and objectives prior to submitting a budget will give us the opportunity to be transparent and efficient during the 2009 budget process.”

That rounds out everybody mentioned in the press release.


Night construction keeps Downtown up.
(Trib, Jeremy Boren)

This is a tremendous little story. Three cheers for Kristen Ash and also for Highmark. You are the Pittsburgh Comet / Chicken Tonight Corporate Citizen of the Week.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Pat Ford Post Agenda Series, Part V: Pat Ford


Mr. Ford: Councilwoman, I'm very actually refreshed that you actually are allowing me to do this, and I have prepared some comments, fairly lengthy, to go over the history of this, because sitting in the audience and listening to this, it's unfair to the public, it's unfair to the new councilmen, and it's unfair to Susan and Noor to try to respond to all of the questions, and they did so admirably, when one question, when you get to the meat of it, might be based in a precedence in 2004 or a decision that was made in 2007 or a discussion that was made in 2006 to arrive at the decision that Ms. Tymoczko made to approve the LED at the Grant Street Transportation Center evolved from a history of events.

"A decision that Ms. Tymoczko made."

And I will be the first to tell you as a zoning expert, qualified as an expert in the court of law, that you never look at the zoning ordinance as a snapshot in time. It's a dynamic piece of work. Interpretations will evolve. Interpretations become precedence, and you will find a case history and not being an attorney, you will find that to be true.

That is an assertion. "Interpretations will evolve" is a passive-voice construction.

Being involved in this case, Councilwoman, in the twenty years that I have been in this business of development, this issue regarding the evolution of LEDs in the City of Pittsburgh has been the most highly researched, scrutinized, studied, reviewed, negotiated, argued, debated and approved case I have ever been involved in in the twenty years I've been in the development business.

Hyperbole is always a red flag.

A little later:

But involved in the decision in the discussion that started out with 2003 with Murphy and evolved to the approval of this Grant Street Transportation we have had attorneys, elected officials, councilmen, mayors, authorities, community groups, residents, school boards and special interest groups all participate in the original interpretation, and it's been a very dynamic interpretation, but a determination that has legal basis, and I would be more than happy to go into that, and in fact, since you've given me the opportunity, Councilwoman, I will, to lay the groundwork for that.

Note also the phrase "participate in the interpretation". It should mean that not everyone who inadvertently played some small part in the evolutionary kabuki would know anything about what was going on at the level of operations and policy.

And not being an attorney, you will find that to be true.


Mr. Ford: In an overview to provide context to this, LEDs came to the forefront in the City of Pittsburgh I will argue, and again my history only goes back to when I came here to Pittsburgh in 2002, with the approval of the CAPA school sign.

Here is Pat Ford's story:

1. The CAPA school installed a large LED sign Downtown without a permit.

2. Zoning Administrator Pat Ford issued a stop-work order, and issue of the sign was referred to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

3. When CAPA did a test run of the sign, it had a Coca-Cola advertisement on it, so it was considered an advertising sign at the ZBA.

4. "Ultimately, this was not called a sign, and I don't believe a permit was ever issued for the CAPA School sign, and I would have to have my zoning administrator clarify that for me, because I think the ultimate decision was we classified that sign as a work of art, because it is not showing advertising on it, and, in fact, they are showing what is being conducted in the facility."

5. Lamar sees this unfolding at CAPA and applies for 55 LEDs: "Summarily, the public doesn't know this, nor does council probably realize this, but summarily Lamar actually applied in the first round for 55 LEDs. They paid their fees and they came to me with their attorneys in tow, and they plopped fifty-five applications for LED billboards all across the city and demanded that I give them administrative approval. I'm no idiot. I knew this was an issue that I had to take to my supervisors."

6. Tom Cox of the Murphy administration directs Pat Ford to "negotiate the best deal possible" to avoid litigation, desiring to allow no more than six Lamar LEDs to be approved.

7. Pat Ford negotiated the "6 for 36 deal."

Mr. Motznik: (out of turn): What is that?

Mr. Ford: The 6 for 36. That means that the most I could negotiate, and this is, in fact, what I negotiated in that first agreement and approval, was that an average of six billboards would be taken down for every one LED that would be put up. So we could put up -- I would allow them to install one LED.

8. Between mid 2004 and early 2006, under Mayor Murphy and Mayor O'Connor, a second batch of six LEDs were allowed by city zoning administrators without review.


Questions about this story:

1. A Cola-Cola advertisement? Really? This actually happened? The entire city was okay with this electronic sign going up, until the city Zoning Administrator happened upon it and noticed a Coca-Cola advertisement during a test run? And this will somehow become critical to the deconstruction of why a Zoning Administrator is now entitled to approve certain LEDs on his or her own?

2. Between Pat Ford, Tom Cox, and Mayor Murphy, was there no one who suggested, "Hey! Do we have anything to fear from this Lamar lawsuit? Let's ask our solicitor!"

3. Could Pat Ford's handling of this early situation with Lamar have played a role in the circumstances under which he resigned from the Murphy Administration?


Skipping ahead to Q&A with Bruce Kraus:

Mr. Kraus: The zoning administrator, according to your words today, made the call, but, according to information -- to approve the sign, but according to the information that I have, they were being directed by the director of the URA, I'm only saying from what I have here, who was previously the chairman of the board of the Parking Authority whose board never heard or approved of this sign, and it never went before the board, and then the license and the permit was then signed and notarized by Ms. Tymoczko. Would you call that a vetted public process?

Mr. Ford: I have no idea what you are talking about, because that is just hearsay. I don't know who -- who is telling you this?

Mr. Kraus: You said that this sign was approved by the zoning administrator.

Mr. Ford: Correct.

Mr. Kraus: These are your words. So they made the call to approve the sign, and under information that I have from Art Victor, who's the operations manager of the administration, he's telling me that planning and zoning -- or planning and permitting answer directly to you, and you are the director of the URA and previously the chair of the board of the Parking Authority, and this never went for their board for approval, and then it came back to Ms. Tymoczko, who she then signed the permit for the occupancy and building and notarized the agreement. Would you call that a publically vetted process?

Mr. Ford: Mr. Kraus, I have no idea what conversation you had with Art Victor, and I don't want to comment on hearsay between you and Art Victor.

Mr. Kraus: It wasn't hearsay. It was his words written.

Mr. Ford: Is that recorded?

Mr. Kraus: It's in an e-mail.

Mr. Ford: It's hearsay.

Mr. Kraus: Well, then I guess your records could be hearsay too.

Mr. Ford: Absolutely. Those are just my recollections of meetings, absolutely.


On another subject to Councilman Kraus:

Mr. Ford: I want to answer your question fully. So if I may, going back to your first question, the plan is necessary, and that's why Mayor Ravenstahl has gotten $350,000 from DCED to lay the groundwork to prepare a city-wide comprehensive plan. So we are well on that track. Where we are still up in the air, and we are grappling with this is how we are going to prepare a comprehensive plan and move forward in the future and how are we going to administer our development services.

Do we use the existing department structure that we have in place which is a Department of City Planning that has a zoning and community development? Do we do it with the URA? Over the past twenty years the Department of City Planning has been completely emasculated.

Mr. Kraus: By whom?

Mr. Ford: Under Act 47, and I would go back during the Murphy administration...


Mr. Ford: So what's happening is, Mayor Ravensthal wants to prepare a comprehensive plan. He wants a vision, and at the same time he wants to streamline development administration. So how do we do this with the infrastructure we have in place?

Do we move some of the zoning into BBI? Do we move some of the finance here? Do we move planning into the URA?

These are conversations we are having internally, and the mayor has even said as much, and at the time when I think that, quite frankly, we have a plan in place, this council is going to be the first person we are going to come to to get your take on that.

Mr. Kraus: That hasn't always been the history, and I hope that is the history we will now build...


Mr. Kraus: South Side Works, an incredible development but shattered it by a consortium of people that were openly and publicly invited to the table to participate in that process. Every community group was at that table. And I'm asking how we would then fold the Department of Planning into an authority that we have no oversight on, limited oversight, I should say, and still protect that planning -- the people of the City of Pittsburgh and the planning process?

Mr. Ford: That's a very valid concern, sir, which is why the administration, the mayor has not been in any rush to do that. We've been talking to other department heads. We've been talking to finance people. We have been talking to everybody you can possibly imagine.

You will learn as you work with me, just like these councilmen have and these councilmen have, you guys' game is tight, Mr. Shields' game is tight, I'm not going to come here and unload a proposal that I can't defend. I'm not going to do it which is why you haven't seen anything, because my game is not tight there. I want to make sure that I have every single question that all the state and city laws are vetted before I come to you with a proposal.

Mr. Kraus: Are offices being moved or any structural changes taking place?

Mr. Ford: Yes, but those are strictly administrative...


All that work. All that vision.

One inquiry from a blogger about a Christmas gift from a Lamar executive, and the next day, Pat Ford requests and is granted a paid leave of absence from his job at the URA, and relinquishes his roles elsewhere in city government. By all accounts, the big plans come screeching to a halt.

We didn't even write the article yet.

Is the State Ethics commission actually in the practice of awarding Good Housekeeping Seals of Ethics to city development czars with vast, unprecedented responsibilities? Are we just cooling things off?


Mr. Ford: Summarily -- and again I want to take full responsibility for this, having been involved in this since 2003. It was the advice and the counsel that I have given three mayors as to why we have gone down this path, mine solely. I proceeded to negotiate the best deal as possible. I only thought I was doing my job trying to get as many billboards taken down, reducing visual blight and creating opportunities to bring cool new technology to the City of Pittsburgh, and at the same time when the opportunity arose to get some money for our authorities who desperately need it to maintain our infrastructure and our cost and/or maintenance, and unsightly billboards need to be removed or surrendered in order to access that technology.

The City never lacked access to the technology. It lacked interest.

If Pat Ford or the Mayor ever wanted to assist Lamar Advertising in earning a permit for a particular LED advertising display, all they had to do was be represented at public hearings before the mayor's own Planning Commission to state their case, and manage the political consequences.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Side Issues, Open Thread

Bill Peduto, Councilman-Blogger, writes about the side-issue of attorneys' fees for this whole Lamar fiasco:

Trying to figure out just what the heck is going on in City Council over the Lamar sign issue and the payment of attorney fees? So am I! Well you don’t need to use the Vulcan mind meld in order to get to the bottom of both sides. Here at RPN, we provide you with the documents to draw your own conclusions.

To read the Solicitor’s opinion on why certain Council members should not vote on the issue or possibly face removal from office,
click here. To read the concerns those Council members brought to the State Ethics Commission regarding this opinion click here. Lather, Rinse, Repeat, Enjoy.

This appears under An Interesting Conflict of Interest, where he also posts some YouTubage. We don't get it. We must be the dog.

Professor-blogger Chris Briem is writing his own series: Why Vallejo Matters. It has to do with all of the debt Pittsburgh carries, and whether or not we should file for bankruptcy. The way the Comet sees it, this all gets us back to debt, which gets back to pensions management which gets you halfway back to the side issue. Mike Madison has some similar contributions.


Monday, June 2, 2008

The Pat Ford Post Agenda Series, Part IV: Having Fun at Patrick Dowd's Expense

Mr. Dowd: I just for the record want to point out that we are going to have a time issue here. I mean, we are going to have to consider that.

People have said they want to go back to the basics, and so far there has been a lot of -- we have been here for an hour and a half...

AN HOUR AND A HALF!!! Call the FBI, we have a hostage crisis.

... and we'll continue to be here I'm sure. We started off -- to go back literally to the beginning. We started off with the resolution introduced by Councilman Peduto calling for an investigation, and then we agreed as a body, it was suggested to Councilman Peduto that we have a post agenda.

Now I'm new to this, but this doesn't feel like a post agenda. This feels more like an investigation. It feels more like we are playing attorneys on television, and I am not. I wasn't elected to be an attorney.

There was your money quote on the evening news.


More from Dowd's opener:

My point here is that I'm a little confused. I can't state my particular opinion either as an individual or as a legislator on this particular sign. So I'm not allowed to speak to the matter of the sign. So I'm not going to speak to that matter...

Nobody had. All the conversation had been about the permitting process.

... although I do have very strong feelings about that.

Ooh. Teaser.

SIDEBAR: One strong opinion on the appropriateness of the digital advertising sign on the Grant Street Transportation Center can be found in a letter to the Post-Gazette by Donald K. Carter, who hails from Downtown and has a background in architecture and planning (see LINK).

I'm going to start literally at the most basic level, because I am confused. Here is my question to you, Mr. Specter. What is council's role with respect to planning, and then as a subset of planning with respect to zoning?

Mr. Specter: Well, council's basic role is insofar as, yes, number one...


Mr. Dowd: I just want make sure I'm clear. I'm sorry I'm new at this. So council's only role in planning, you are saying, is to confirm or affirm an appointment to the director of planning, the city department?

Mr. Specter: You said let's get back to basics. That would be the basic power of council.

Mr. Dowd: No other powers?

Mr. Specter: Obviously, council has its whole body of legislative powers available to it...


Mr. Dowd: So the council writes the legislation that governs land use. The planning director is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council?

Mr. Specter: Right.

Mr. Dows: And that person has a staff, and that staff also -- it serves as a department of the city government, therefore, under the executive branch, and it also, you said, helps staff and provide support services, if I understand what you are saying correctly, to a planning commission?

Mr. Specter: Correct.

Mr. Dowd: That is a planning commission again? I apologize for my limited knowledge here.

Yes Virginia, there is a Planning Commission.

All three newer council members are known to play this I'm the new guy card, but nobody does it quite as brazenly as Patrick Dowd. "How does a bill become a law? Where do we keep the printer cartridges? What happened to my shoes? Shouldn't you be in jail?"


Dowd and Specter would discuss many arcane topics: the birth of the zoning code in 1923 and the role of the city zoning administrator, the origins and purposes of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and the legal process of applying for building permits ("although practicality enters into it as well," says Mr. Specter).

Mr. Dowd: So if I were a citizen and I did not like a decision that was made through the planning -- the zoning director, I didn't like that decision, if I felt that it was somehow made in error, that there was a misreading of the code, that there was something that was wrong in the process, if I had any problem with the permit, where do I go for that?

Mr. Specter: The Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Mr. Dowd: And if I was not satisfied there, where would I go?

Mr. Specter: Court of Common Pleas.


Several weeks later, Patrick Dowd, as a private citizen, would lawyer up and file exactly such an appeal with the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The story goes that Dowd had other city residents lined up to file appeals who had more apparent standing to protest the Downtown project, but in the end, as the deadline approached, they all backed out for their own reasons.

During our recent interview with Dowd (Pist-Gazette), he described for example requesting every bit of public information anew from city offices, just like a private citizen, if only to make totally clear he was not taking advantage of his office.

"I just knew, in my gut, that something good was going to come out of that appeal," is how he recalls his decision making.

Council members Burgess, Kraus, Peduto and Shields would hire their own attorney and join Mr. Dowd in appealing the sign permit in their official capacities -- in an effort both to buttress the appeal's legal standing, and also to take up shareholder interest in the legal contests that would ensue.

Before our ZBA even ruled on the appeal, Lamar Advertising sued all five council members in the Court of Common Pleas for conspiring illegally to revoke a legitimate sign permit, and it issued subpoenas in order to uncover these plots. In response, the attorney for the four members was able to maneuver the case into Federal Court, where the council members might issue their own subpoenas for the purposes of fact-finding about coordination between Lamar and administration officials.


Back to the Post Agneda and Dowd's questions. At length:

Mr. Specter: Well, we might as well get to part of the issue without further ado, so to speak. Councilman Peduto with his resolution has raised the question of whether a what is called a Condidtional Use is involved in this process. A conditional use is a form of zoning approval which is a permitted use but that subject to a level of scrutiny which includes first a hearing and recommendation by the planning commission and then a vote by city council. Otherwise, you do not have administrative powers with regard to zoning.

Mr. Dowd: And does this matter fall within those sort of parameters that you've described?

Mr. Specter: I understand there will be presentations made as part of this hearing to the effect that they do not. [Cue the theme from Matlock.]

Mr. Dowd: Do you as a solicitor for both the mayor's office and for city council feel that we [Council] do not have the authority to act either administratively or adjudicatively in this matter?

One issue, as you can see, is whether or not City Council itself was getting its powers jacked.

Mr. Specter: It depends upon -- there has been a history, and, again, we might as well get to some of it to save some time, some of which I was aware of, some of which I was not on certain approvals which have been made in the past of this nature, the nature of this sign which is the subject of this hearing by Mayor Murphy, by Mayor O'Connor, by Mayor Ravenstahl, and so that will be the questions, whether this policy and practice which was developed years ago -- well, years ago, five, six. I'm not sure precisely, but you'll get that chronology, whether that was an approporiate process and whether council does or does not have to be involved.

Mr. Dowd: When can we anticipate that that would be concluded work?

Mr. Specter: I would say within a couple of weeks.

That would be the answer that would so disappoint Council President Shields, pushing as it would any city-assisted legal resolutions past the 30-day window for appeals.


To conclude Act I of the meeting, we join Patrick Dowd's second line of questioning already in progress.

Mr. Dowd: ... and might Lamar seek some sort of remedy outside the government [if the permit was revoked on appeal after 30 days]? I mean, legally do they have the right to sue the government, in other words?

Mr. Specter: I suspect they would.

Mr. Dowd: Thank you.

Ms. Payne: Could I have my second round of questions?

Reverend Burgess: Yes, you can. Councilwoman Payne.

Ms. Payne: I just wanted to make this clear for Councilman Kraus. We all know that this is our job to be at this table, and all of us are willing to spend hours upon hours, but we still also have obligations to the public who live in these districts that we represent. That's why I clearly said yesterday if we are going to hold public hearings and post agenda, we've got to have some kind of consensus on the day and time, because I had a 2:30 today, and at 2:30 we were just at the president [Mr. Shields] making his speech, and we had listened for maybe an hour and fifteen minutes of Mr. Peduto, and they have all of the right to use as much as they want to use at this table, but I have a 2:30 , and I can't tell this person, you know, well, you travelled all the way here. Be it, because I need to sit here and listen. I do need to be here and listen. Now it's five minutes to four. I have a four o'clock. So now I have to go back here and tell my staff to cancel my four o'clock, probably cancel the six o'clock, because I probably won't make that. That's where we run into these issues on time. It's not that we don't want to sit here. We can sit here until two o'clock in the morning. It's no problem. It's just that we need to find some way to be consistent on days and times if we are going to be having post agenda. And I have never seen it -- I've been here a little into two years, and we have plenty post agenda and plenty public hearings since I have been here, and I've never seen it where a councilmember or two requested someone not come to the table and that's okay. Normally it's like we all agree that someone can come to the table and that's it. We bring them to the table. I have never seen it where we kept people from coming to the table. I've just never seen that.

Reverend Burgess: Councilwoman Payne, I am a new member of council, and I have not been here two years. And so as someone who years in a former life used to teach parliamentary procedure and Roberts Rules of Order...

Oh. No.

... I can only follow it as I remember it and as I've studied it. My understanding of the process is that people can only come to the table when all nine members of the group allow them to come. If any member has some hesitation why someone cannot come to the table, until that hesitation is removed, that person cannot come to the table. I am simply following that. Now, what my preference would be is to have our five minute break. I think that if we have the break, some of these discussions we can talk internally. If there is some parliamentary differences, we can work them out and then bring Mr. Ford to the table. I would prefer to do that. [Mr. Motznik signals] Mr. Motznik, before we break.

Mr. Motznik: Before we break...

A pause...

We all want transparent government, and we have our stenographer typing over there...

[This was new, for post agendas. Hat tip to that guy.]

I would like to know publicly which member of council didn't want Pat Ford to come to the table in this round and why. I'm not comfortable talking about it when the camera is shut off during our five minute break.

Reverend Burgess: That's fine. Mr. Shields, you can respond.

Mr. Shields: I don't think there is anybody that is precluding Mr. Ford from the table.

Mr. Motznik: Somebody is.

Mr. Shields: If I may finish, sir. I have the floor. Is that what the intent here was to have these three people before us to get the foundation questions regarding law and zoning. Once that has concluded which it seems it has, others will be invited to the table, and no one is precluded from the table, and that's pretty much it.

Mr. Motznik: I would just like to respond. We've had post agenda. I have been on this council for seven years. When you have a post agenda, you bring the people to the table who have the information so we can find out what the hell is going on. That's all we want to know, what went on with this billboard and why. Mr. Ford can explain it. He should have been brought to the table, and we should have asked him what's going on and why.

Reverend Burgess: And Mr. Motznik, had you been the chair of this committee --

Mr. Motznik: I'm not blaming you. I'm not blaming you. I'm blaming some senior members of council who are giving some bad advice to the chair of this meeting, senior members giving bad advice to the chair of this meeting.

Reverend Burgess: This kind of discussion, this kind of ongoing discussion does not further our agenda. I do note your exception. I do note your concerns. Now, if those are all of the concerns, I have about five minutes to four. Can we take a five-minute break, a ten-minute break. After that Mr. Ford and other members that council may want to ask question of, have questions with, will come and make presentations, and that order will be in reverse order starting with Councilwoman Payne. Ten minutes starting now. Thank you very much.

It would take them about 25 minutes.

Monday: Everything Is Illuminated

Matt H wrote the blog post of last week. It was entitled, appropriately enough, Wednesday Things.

Here was one thing:

--Pittsburgh City Council should indeed have their own attorney. It's not right that they have to use the same sources that everyone else use on certain city matters. It is a clear conflict of interest if you ask me. Hugh McGough should be considered and hired for this position. He is an excellent attorney who would get the job done.

We at the Comet would again like to say we take a lot of institutional credit for helping to bring Matt Hogue into the local online publishing realm. We appreciate all the hard work you do for the city.

Just one thing -- Hugh McGough? We doubt it. He's a partner at his own firm, isn't he? The City wouldn't be able to afford him!

Um. Ahem.

Not full time. Good to know that we do have that kind of option available to Pittsburgh when it must navigate certain kinds of legal turbulence.


The city of Pittsburgh is broadening efforts to sell vacant lots as side yards, expanding a program that has tripled in volume in the past year, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has announced.

Since 1995, the city has sought to sell the empty lots it owns. It will now help transfer abandoned, privately owned lots to neighboring homeowners for around $200. (P-G, Rich Lord)

It's like Rich Lord said, "Luke, please, I'll write about whatever you want!"

Three changes have allowed the city to increase the volume to the point that there are now around 115 side yard sales in the works. The first was the city's purchase last year of old tax debts sold by former Mayor Tom Murphy's administration to Capital Asset Research Corp. The debts had slowed sales when Capital Asset insisted on having them paid off.

The second was a push to identify and market potential side yards to neighbors, in which the city wrote to some 1,200 owners inviting them to buy the vacant lots next door.

Third, a doubling of the demolition budget, enabling the removal of 600 condemned homes this year, is creating more eligible lots.

Adding the abandoned, privately owned lots to the program should result in more of the sites becoming side yards, the mayor said. The Public Works Department's Green Team, created last month to plant grass on demolition sites, can call in the Penn State Agricultural Extension to provide a would-be side yard owner with gardening tips.

That's a relief.


And now, a special comment. It has been suggested to us that the story in which Mayor Ravenstahl skipped out on Memorial Day ceremonies in Pittsburgh in order to watch not just one, but a second Stanley Cup hockey game live at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, at an even greater cost to taxpayers, was a "cross-checking." A dirty move, a dangerous play, a foul and a penalty.

Do not expect the Pittsburgh Comet to disown the issue. It was a good, clean hit.

One game in Detroit? Great, let's go Pens. Two games, and skipping Memorial Day? He doesn't feel the duty of being mayor in his gut.

Ravenstahl should have laid a wreath on the river because we all should have.


Operation Safety Net, located near UPMC Mercy in the Bluff, has compiled 16 years of relationships with homeless people in its role as Mercy's street-medicine outreach team. Founded by Dr. Jim Withers and funded by outside grants and donations, the Net is also the subject of a film now making the rounds.

"One Bridge to the Next," a 30-minute documentary made by the BeCause Foundation, co-won this year's Aspen Shortsfest audience award and advanced the Net's reputation as a pioneer in the field of street medicine.

Last week, Dr. Withers gave an online tutorial to medical students in Oxford, England, and taped a segment of "Fresh Air" with host Terry Gross on National Public Radio. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

Just read it.


BOOBY PRIZE: At first we thought this was a good, clean hit by Teacher. Wordsmith. Madman. Then we thought about it.

Well, here [Obama] goes again:

A certain segment has basically been feeding a kind of xenophobia. There's a reason why hate crimes against Hispanic people doubled last year. If you have people like Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh ginning things up, it's not surprising that would happen.

There are several things wrong with this argument -- the sophomoric conflation of correlation and causality, the lazy, sleazy insinuation that blowhards like Dobbs and Limbaugh incite real violence -- but the biggest is this: it's just not true.

There are many reasons the Comet is irritated by TWM, not the least of which because we have difficulty adjusting its font when we cut-and-paste excerpts from it, which we do often.

"Slate's Mickey Kaus has the breakdown here", Madman writes -- and that is basically his argument. The difference between Mickey and the Madman is that Mickey has the intellectual courtesy to write:

Am I missing some Obama data source? Or is this an overly overlooked incident of Obama pulling convenient facts out of the air? ...

To which we can respond, well, how much hate crime is not prosecuted as such, how much is not prosecuted at all, and how much goes unreported entirely because the victims fear they or their loved ones may be deported if they call attention to themselves by going to law enforcement?

Maybe there is data to back these things up. Maybe Obama's statistics come from universities, non-profits and other research groups. We take the Pentagon's estimates of Iraqi casualties together with those of international NGO's -- perhaps there is more to the story. If the story is one's concern.

TWM is happy to just whack away:

In a week when Scott McClellan reminds us what can happen when a President prefers facts of his own making to those that actually exist, it is also worth remembering that at cynical, self-righteous times like these, the Audacity of Hope can look and feel (and smell) an awful lot like the Mendacity of Bush.

You can conduct that symphony, but no way it'll have rhythm.