Friday, July 4, 2008

Fourth of July: Your Doin It Rong!

Our founders would be revolted

Let's face it -- 232 years after it was declared, Independence Day hasn't exactly lived up to its hype.

Instead of meditating upon the meaning of our democracy like those delegates to the Second Continental Congress intended, a modern patriot's mind turns to thoughts of conspicuous consumption and the starting times for the latest Will Smith movie. (P-G, Tony Norman)

You know, it would be nice to have one holiday we are allowed to celebrate as a holiday.

Memorial Day impels us all obviously and directly to ruminate on the disconcerting aspects of our times. So does Veterans Day. The Martin Luther King holiday is a marker of tragedy and ongoing struggle. Christmas has its true meaning to consider.

We would have preferred Independence Day -- in recognition of that incredible victory of intellectual idealism which birthed our universe -- to have remained safely and purposefully a celebration. A day for optimism.

A party, if you will.

Randy Bish bummed us out similarly this morning in the Trib:

Our brothers and sisters who are at war of course should be held dear to our hearts -- and in fact we ought to be praying for them on most of the other 364 days in a year as well.

But how to go about it on Independence Day?

In consideration of that song in which "the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there," we feel like the proper sentiment to offer these folks on this day should be perhaps one less of stoicism verging on numbness and despair.

Perhaps something like, "Kick ass, you guys. We'll make our way through this yet."

Summarily: yet another diddy, well executed and brilliantly conceived, after a bit of an annoying intro:


Holiday Feature Film. Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag (Presented by Boeing)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Dowd and Peduto Agree on Something

[Ed. Note: Now with proofreading!]

This week, city council members Bill Peduto and Patrick Dowd both voted NO on tabling Council Bill 308. The controversial measure would have paid attorney's fees in the Lamar Advertising case, which is ripping through City Hall like a tornado or something.

It had been scheduled for final action on Tuesday.

Dowd, an opponent of the legislation, described his opposition to "tabling" the vote thusly for the record:

A vote to table is a vote to prolong.

He wanted to kill the thing already.

was in a different situation. His cohorts in the "Lamar 4," who had hired the attorney (including Council President Doug Shields, the bill's sponsor) evidently agreed with still others on council to set aside the worrisome measure into the future.

Here is what Peduto had to say in dissent of this action:

Because it is painfully obvious that the reasons to vote against the
payment (as outlined in the Specter Memo requested by Mr. Dowd and Mr. Motznik) were flawed and completely inaccurate to the City Code, the Home Rule Charter and the PA Constitution. I believe we should have voted this bill up or down - that is what we are elected to do. The arguments made by the other side that Council would be setting a precedent by VOTING to pay an invoice after a service had been rendered is without merit or any historical analysis. To be certain, as the Fein letter clearly proved (and an attorney, second or third year law student could attest) the precedence had been set in the 1890s and is part of municipal law throughout Pennsylvania - through action and case law. But, we were never given an opportunity to hear any professional alternative or minority opinion - that voice was silenced at the table - now there is some real precedence.

This vote was not about paying a legal bill of $5000 (even the Law Department agreed they were wrong in not paying the defense fund) this vote was a clarion call to councilmembers of the future that they would not be able to be threatened, sued and then silenced when they chose to stand on principle and on law to defend the city. For that reason, and the chilling effect it will have in the future to silence the minority voice, I believe it needed to be voted on and not tabled.

Now, there are other considerations. Some are troubled, for example, that the Lamar 4 seem to be holding the actual invoice from the attorney and its adjoining letter of retention close to their vests.

Separate issues in the public realm are also exacerbating the tone of conflict. For example, Dowd's shot at Peduto in regards to the Schenley situation hit pay dirt, at least in the form of a Brian O'Neill column and an otherwise brilliant Chris Potter column. (We say "otherwise" brilliant only because we think the voice of the Allegheny Institute put Dowd's salvo in a proper perspective.)

COMET CALL: This really is trivium from here on out, but in the philosophical abstract, for the sake of argument, we are still finding ourselves coming down with Shields, Kraus and Peduto.

It can be risky to challenge higher authorities in court, and even more so in a politically charged situation. If it might only be in hindsight safe for a majority of council members, armed with a demonstration in the legal arena, to defend the public need for legal wrangling and risks endured already by a legislative minority (or for that matter by public servants of any kind).

Council is properly empowered as a legislative body to underwrite said risk-taking for any reason, using any criteria they might please. It's not like they don't require a public majority at the end of the day.

Just because a process is different or new, that does not make it automatically immoral, illegal or fattening. By contrast, "the process" of zoning and city planning is also The Law of the Land. It is the only process available to us for these functions. Analogizing a need to revere the two different kinds of public "processes" equally is a terrible oversimplification of life.

We approve of this new process for paying city legal bills in extraordinary civic circumstances, and would approve of it in the future -- for it only kicks in should merit ultimately be found by a majority in such cases.

It did not, after all, take much time in this case.

Thursday: Handling Invasive Species

The arena's owner, the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority, authorized payments of $52.57 million spread among five contracts to begin clearing part of the 28-acre site within three weeks and excavating land along Centre Avenue in the Hill District next month. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

You know, that's right. The owner of this building is the SEA. Not Sydney Crosby.

Conturo said two of the contracts -- awarded to Noralco Corp. and Brayman Construction Corp. -- cover earth excavation and installation of concrete caissons, respectively.

Well well well.

Unconfirmed rumor: The Planning Commission still has to do "some stuff" regarding Our Arena, rendering these contracts a mite unorthodox.

Confirmed rumor: There is no CBA in place, there is no reason to expect one right around the corner, and at this point there will be little cause for optimism the next time there is cause for optimism.

Now, check this mad balance:

Separately, the SEA sold an empty lot on the North Shore for $500,000 to hotel developer Kratsa Properties, which plans to build a 10-story, 135-room Holiday Inn Express near the intersection of Federal and Lacock streets.

Looking at the map, we can't say this looks or sounds like a bad idea. Way to go, government infrastructure!

The site is across the street from the Kratsa-built SpringHill Suites hotel adjacent to PNC Park and just a short walk from another Kratsa development, a Residence Inn now under construction. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Oh. Atlantic, Ventnor, and Marvin Gardens, eh?

It is devilishly awkward territory, with the I-279 overpass, the railroad bridge, and the hustle and bustle of nearby Allegheny Center. Maybe it's not the worst place in the world to turn into Breezewood -- albeit a socialist, anti-competitive Breezewood.


The big everything is here: (P-G, Mark Belko)

Here is a small, bite-sized something:

"I am concerned about the proposed delay of the construction of the dock and access paths and on the long-term impact of certain design changes requested" at yesterday's City Planning Commission meeting, the mayor wrote. "I am not willing to compromise the development in a way that negatively impacts the riverfront and the City. It is my responsibility to ensure that the City of Pittsburgh and its citizens receive what was originally promised to us." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Huh. Nailed the tone, botched the message.

It is his responsibility to ensure that the City of Pittsburgh and its citizens receive an all-around great development, and the best possible one available to us moving forward. This may not be achievable through warfare / bickering.

Saber-rattling is one thing. Lines in the sand? Potentially counterproductive.


Weeds are taking over some city streets and sidewalks. (Trib, Adam Brandolph)

Way to lunge for the soft, partially-exposed underbelly, Adam Brandolph!

The mayor's office cannot provide how much money the city spends each year on vegetation management, said Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Never any luck, this one.

PennDOT District 11, which covers Allegheny, Beaver and Lawrence counties, received $725,000 from the state for weed, grass and tree management during the 2006-07 fiscal year, spokeswoman Erin Waters said. That included $280,000 for herbicide and $188,000 for mowing. Overall, PennDOT spent $24.2 million on roadside upkeep during that period, Waters said.

See what we mean?

"So much for keeping it up for the (city's) 250th anniversary," said Susan Smith, 38, of Reading, who was walking along the Allegheny River near the Point. "Otherwise, the city looks great."

So we are verdant. So what. Can we get any sauce for this goose?

The city has fought to contain Japanese knotweed, in particular, [Public Works director Guy] Costa said.

The weed sprouts flowers, making it look pleasing and leaving some people to let it grow, [Nancy] Knauss [of Phipps Convservatory] said.

"But it will actually take over and wipe out every other plant in its way," she said.

Pictured above. You see it, you KILL IT!!!!!


Fly that flag: Independence Day is Friday. This great nation of ours turns 232 years old. If you've been a tardy flag flier, there's no better time than tomorrow to break out Old Glory and let her exercise her stars and strips in a nice breeze. Indeed, enjoy the long holiday weekend. But take more than a few moments to commemorate the founding of the greatest experiment in self-governance in the history of the planet. (Trib, Edit Board)

We'll drink to that.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wednesday: Almost Nobody Knows Anything

Riverlife attorney Cliff Levine said Mr. Barden sold his project to the city and the gaming board in part "on the basis that they were going to create a unique riverfront site."

"They are cutting every single amenity out that was part of the incentive that was presented to the planning commission and the gaming board," he said. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Where can this possibly be going?

Our guess is that we are about to embark on the great Who Can Appear Perfectly Tough But Fair On The Casino Contest of 2008 & 2009 -- yet in the end we can only influence the development on the margins, because things are as they are.

(Note to all hand wringers: Hindsight is 20/20, there's no sense crying over spilt milk, stiff upper lip and all that. Had the commission based its decision solely on depth of pockets, we would have accused it of one-dimensional insensitivity to complex local intangibles et cetera, yet still we would be confronting economic climate change, not to mention bait-and-switchery. Lord, we've already been subjected to monumental bait-and-switchery*, yet nary a peep. But boat docks! Our precious North Shore! Oh the humanity!) * -- link recommended

The planning commission will formally consider the proposed casino modifications in two weeks.

When deviating significantly from a duly approved Project Development Plan, one must return to the Planning Commission for resubmission. This rule applies to almost everybody.


The city Law Department agreed yesterday to pay half of a contested legal bill four City Council members incurred fighting a billboard permit. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Formally agreed, yesterday. This has been fairly settled business for some time. Yesterday is foggy in terms of hows and whys.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo e-mailed council, offering to pay $1,000 of the bill and to help raise money for the rest.

You. Make. The Call.

A. Ferlo believes the Lamar Four are correct on the issue of attorneys fees.

B. Ferlo believes the Lamar Five or Six are correct on the larger issue of public processes.

C. Ferlo believes many of us are correct on the even larger issue of the appropriateness of the electronic advertising sign, and/or finds opposing it to be safely and unavoidably within his brand.

D. Ferlo believes he is safeguarding Ravenstahl from digging himself into a hole that reaches all the way to China and up the inside of Mt. Everest.

E. Ferlo is hedging some pretty major bets.

F. Some combination of the above.

"Having struggled hard in the past to get a sane and reasonable zoning code as it relates to billboards and outdoor advertising, these are laws that I want to see preserved, protected and hopefully enhanced," Ferlo wrote in an e-mail message sent to council members. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

We can say C for sure -- but that was the gimme.


The House Judiciary Committee on Friday issued a subpoena to the U.S. Department of Justice requesting, by 2 p.m. Monday, documents and electronic information related to six different concerns, including the identification of former CIA agent Valerie Plame and the department's decision to prosecute former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht.

Chairman John Conyers Jr. is seeking information on selective prosecution, specifically related to the cases involving Dr. Wecht and former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman. (P-G, Team Effort)

[#groan#] Alright. No more avoiding this thing.

First off, the Siegelman case sounds like a truly heinous tale involving a highly prominent, politically powerful and doggedly intransigent Democratic power broker (in what would otherwise be a Republican bulwark) having been not merely prosecuted but sent up the river (he has since been released) upon what at least some evidence suggests was the personal orders of Karl Rove.

If Rove and Our US Attorney conspired to kneecap our own local Democratic party establishment, they are either going about it in a circumlocuitous fashion, or are a couple of decades behind on their news. One cannot rule it out of hand, but to lump these two cases together seems to us a stretch.

Second, we learn from this Bob Mayo joint of "fake invoices from an out-of-business travel agency" that comprise an actually uncontested fact of the trial. The excuse of Wecht's ignorance as to that repeated fraud does not seem to wash -- heightening to a degree our ill disposition towards the rest the de minimus benefits Our Coroner allegedly arranged for himself.

Our friend the MacYapper has been flying the FREE CYRIL flag proudly for some time. However, unless we have missed something or misunderstood, his issue is that this has been an unnecessary and wasteful federal prosecution, not a politically corrupt one. His is more of a value judgement, and a tough one -- but an issue fairly distinct from that which Chairman Conyers is investigating in Washington.

As far as that issue does go, what gives the Comet pause is this: if the defense really comes down to, Come on, this is a bunch of nickel and dime crap that nobody should care about, well -- does that not sound awful Pittsburgh? Might it not be useful to remind local officeholders at this time that de minimus perks piled upon de minimus special favors are to be avoided as a whole, lest they be become de maximus or even de pandemic?

Monday, June 30, 2008

Monday: Random N'@

1. 414 Grant Street is getting antsy:

Sure we can argue about some Council member's legal bills (that taxpayers should not be on the hook for) incurred fighting this dreadful and illegal sign, but how about we focus on the fact that Pat Ford is still on the URA payroll. He is still collecting a paycheck and is still getting health and medical benefits paid for by taxpayers.... 83 days (by our count) after he was placed on administrative leave by the Mayor.

Go read the comments therein to get our take.

2. Keeping tabs on what anyone might do to a tree in the city is "a monumental task," said Mr. Gable [deputy director of Public Works]. "When we see violations, we cite people; we need calls to 311 to be made aware of it."

He said the city is considering whether to cite a contractor of Lamar Advertising for topping three trees on Court Place at Grant Street.

"That job had permission, but it was permission to prune, not top the trees," said Mr. Gable. "We have made the contractor aware" and may cite or require the contractor replace the trees. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

When Diana Nelson Jones is investigating and exposing your misdeeds, it might be time to take a personal inventory.

3 "I thought this council was transparent and we would want to hear both sides," said Councilwoman Darlene Harris, who wants the city to pay the invoice. "If anything, what I'm seeing right now is politics at its finest." (P-G, Rich Lord)

Similarly, when Darlene Harris is torching your ass at will, it may be time to rethink your political footing.

Let us be clear: Len Bodack wouldn't have voted in favor of campaign finance reform, Len Bodack wouldn't have supported a bill to curtail abuse of the city's take-home car fleet, and Len Bodack wouldn't have authored and successfully passed legislation to seize authority from the mayor on the city's Pensions Board. So some of the rhetoric appearing in the Burgh Report comments is way overblown.

Yet it is clear that something peculiar is eating Councilman Dowd when it comes to paying this legal bill.

As part of what Dowd himself dubbed a "sideshow" that is distinct from "the important business of the city", he ranted animatedly, and it must be said snidely, for a full 20 minutes comprising only his opener, over what now amounts to a $5,000 expenditure to pay retroactively for what both he and Our Solicitor admit was an action committed at least "in good faith" by the Lamar 5 4, and one that no one has yet suggested how it profited anyone personally.

We are reminded of an episode during our interview. We asked the Councilman why he had been opposed to a formal council investigation into the Lamar issue. At first he sermonized that City Council lacks the capacity and the resources to conduct an efficient, professional investigation -- until we pointed out that the launching of an investigation opens the budget, so that those professional resources can be secured.

Dowd's rationale shifted. He was actually being mindful of the oppressive ugliness that was the Watergate hearings, and didn't want to take the city needlessly down that acrimonious path at that time.

So this anecdote might be doubly relevant -- but for our purposes, we will say Dowd had a personal or policy preference, which he masked at first as a process issue because he felt more comfortable arguing on those grounds.

Similarly, he now objects that Council never voted publicly as a body to retain Attorney McGough, and that the process was unclear as to what this attorney would do. However, Council is in fact right now asking to vote -- a public, transparent, majority-rule vote -- and it is very clear what the attorney wound up doing. If he doesn't like it, if he thought it unwise, if he had some problem with the tactic or the outcome, he should say why. It makes no sense to hide behind a process argument, or to say "imagine if the situations were reversed."

The situation isn't reversed. We have a situation. What do we think of it? Is it a valid use of city resources?

4. Here is another good Null Space post. The Comet falls squarely into the "It's Too Big to Fail" camp. However, since we (before we were an 'us') used to belong to the "We Don't Want Casinos in PA at All" camp, we wonder if we ought now belong to some kind of "We Hope This Fails and It Serves You All Right" camp.

Probably not. But we cynics are all about the schadenfreude.