Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday: Action!

Do you read the Comet?

Not out of a sense of, say, grudging dread and paranoia, but from a desire to be informed and info-tained, or at least gratified by reinforcement of your own preconceived worldview?

If so, you may be interested in surfing over to the Progress Pittsburgh PAC and giving them ten dollars right now.

They're good people whom we can vouch for, and they'll do righteous things with your money. Click the links, read up, and if you like what you see give them your digits. We'll wait for you. Go ahead. Dum dee dum dee doo. You back? Good! We've got a swell thing going on out here in the Intersphere (as you know) but the rubber's got to hit the road sooner or later. The spring primaries are right around the corner, and Pittsburgh's more decent challengers need excuses to run -- and excuses to demonstrate to even wealthier contributors that they deserve serious money.

Somebody vetoed campaign finance reform, after all, so now we all have to play like bigshots.

It won't be the last time we ask you, but it's important their little PAC enjoys an impressive start-up. Think of it like the Obama spam you've been receiving in your inbox. We are the ones we've been waiting for! Aren't you proud of my husband! There is no try! Ditty mao!


So the annual budget first goes to the state oversight boards -- and only then, upon approval, will it get submitted to City Council? Nice government we've arranged for ourselves!

The Mayor also announced that the updated plan will increase the City's annual payment to the Pension Fund by 15 percent in 2009, cut 65 vacant positions, and put 40 more officers on the patrol by hiring civilians to take over administrative functions. (Pittsburgh, Doven & Zober)

One minor point for now.

Excellent that 40 more police officers are being put on the streets. Does that mean we are adding 40 brand new persons to the payroll? And will that mean it will be inaccurate to say things like "we've cut 65 jobs" -- especially when the jobs we've cut have been long vacant, and the jobs we're adding are, well, occupied? If we are expanding the workforce, we should be frank about that.

C'mon, people. That's just off the top. It's a budget -- how hard can this be? [UPDATE: 50 bonus points if anyone can muster an argument that claims the budget is structurally unbalanced ... or non-structurally balanced]


Three shootings this week that carried the deadly signature of retaliatory gang violence are the sort of attacks Pittsburgh police might be able to prevent by this time next year, city officials said Thursday. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

The perception sure isn't that violence is at a "40-year historic low", as certain press releases would have us believe. But at least the plan is being hastened, and that should be applauded.

"We want you to know, the hammer is coming," [Burgess] said yesterday, in a preview of the message of that meeting. (P-G, Rich Lord)

You're gonna send Jim Motznik after them?

But for those looking to escape thug life, there's "a pot of jobs at the end of this rainbow."

Only in America.


Superintendent Mark Roosevelt argues that the goal of the policy is keeping students engaged in the educational process. And Pittsburgh is not the only district to take this view of grading. In suburban Philadelphia, the Bensalem School District had a task force look into testing and grading, and the panel recommended the minimum score of 50 percent.

But giving students marks that are higher than they deserve is grade inflation, a practice that is dishonest and does a disservice to the students themselves. (P-G, Edit Board)

The Comet comes down with Superintendent Roosevelt on this one.

Let's say there are eight exams during the term. If a student scores 20's on the first three exams (let's say due to a bad run at home, or prior to some intervention) he or she would have to score 85's the rest of the way only to escape with a D. Hard to rationalize showing up for the rest of that academic year under those circumstances.

Meanwhile, if those 20's were to be counted as 50's, a student who picks it up to a respectable 70% average from there on out would get a passing grade. Any student capable of picking it up and maintaining a C average after that kind of start deserves to pass.

Failure is failure. The District is assigning a baseline value to failure on an exam, and ensuring that kids who fail a test or two especially badly do not to blow off the rest of the term, get held back and fall into more serious spirals. The difference between a mathematical 10 and a 50 is only the difference between guessing well and poorly on multiple choice tests. No one is being given a free ride, and we're not allowing Western civilization to rot.

See, Rosey? We're not so bad. Say, how is that community input committee that is supposed to decide "what to do" with the Schenley building coming along?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

O Come All Ye Faithful

On What's Been Happening

Now efforts to resolve recurrent city billboard conflicts have been overtaken by a debate over whether the Kraus measure [from April] was deliberately hijacked or merely overlooked. Either way, the city's Planning Department managed to have de facto veto power over the legislation, which should not happen, and the city failed to get moving on a policy that keeps sparking controversy.

It's time to get to the substance. (P-G, Edit Board)

Alright, if you say so.


City Councilman Ricky Burgess and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl teamed to spend $200,000 in grants to bring Kennedy's expertise in crime prevention to Pittsburgh. Kennedy will work with the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work and city and county police to systematically identify gangs and other criminal groups that are responsible for most of the violent outbursts in the city. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

This may be the only significant news to have occurred in Pittsburgh since we started blogging.

The Comet's sneak-preview of what is now the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime (PIRC) can be accessed HERE. We are told that for about fifteen minutes, it was to be called the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Violence. That was right out.

The big change since that conversation in July: it is no longer to be unfurled as a pilot program for District 9. The PIRC is to be city-wide at the very least, upon the advise of visiting experts. No sense playing cross-town whack-a-mole.

The encouraging news is that all major players on the Law & Order level who needed to buy in -- the police commanders, parole officers, probation officers, magistrates, prosecutors, executives -- have bought in. It wouldn't be getting rolled out, funded, and endorsed by academics if it were otherwise.

Pittsburgh's hardest young troublemakers will be identified, rounded up, and brought together.

They'll be told that enough is enough -- by grieving moms, neighborhood elders, ex-cons. Some will cry. Others will shrug. They'll be offered alternatives to the street life. Few will bite.

Later, someone will commit a murder, and the full force of law enforcement will crash down on the perpetrator and their friends. (P-G, Rich Lord)

"Get tough". "Crack down." The P-G's version of the story was awful heavy on the heavy aspects.

This is the root of some of the nascent opposition to the plan. It can sound punishing, although it is designed to be surgically discriminating. We suspect the P-G may have played up the harsh aspects so as not to make it sound liberal and effete.

"It's not hug-a-thug," [Prof. Kennedy] said. "We're not asking. It's going to stop."

See? Wethinks they doth protest too much -- but that's fine. As some of the police commanders themselves have indicated, you can't arrest your way out of this problem.

Pockets of grassroots opposition also have developed because some in the community have felt not quite as clued-in and consulted as one might have expected for a crime plan that relies so heavily on that community. Others feel the PIRC lacks a strong and clear enough economic development aspect.

To us, it seems like there was good sense in securing buy-in from upstairs levels before presenting the community with something with which to engage seriously. However, these are all things to pay increasing heed to moving forward. Without community buy-in, up to the level of ownership, there is no plan at all.

The Mayor's website provides additional background on plans like this that have worked elsewhere in PDF formats: I, II, III, IV.


Back to that other thing.

Both the Kraus and Burgess bills would broaden the legal definition of electronic message signs to include electrical, LED, plasma and other displays. Under the Kraus plan, City Council would have to vote on their approval, where the Burgess measure would give that authority to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

A fair and rational interpretation of our present zoning code would include electronic billboards as one species of "electronic message sign" -- and therefore prescribe conditional use approval, that is, the Council's approval.

To illustrate this: we know "tickers" do require conditional use approvals. There is no way the framers of our zoning code intended that those narrow little scrolling message signs containing time, temperature etc. should be subject to a higher level of scrutiny than far larger and more intrusive illuminated billboards. To have demanded Council's attention to the smaller thing and not the larger thing would have been absurd.

However, that was before the Ford Doctrine took effect -- which informed us that somehow, due to dubious and carefully stage-managed precedents, electronic message signs only mean ticklers, whereas electronically illuminated billboards were as yet entirely undreamt of in our philosophy.

Mr. Kraus's legislation therefore constitutes a reiteration and a restoration of the existing zoning code. Mr. Burgess's legislation weakens that code in a manner that advantages the advertising industry.

"To bring [every permit] before council would be an undue burden on both council and the applicants," [Burgess] said. There are more than 100 billboard permits on hold due to the moratorium. (P-G, Rich Lord)

The inundation of the Planning Department with troves of new applications just prior to new legislation being considered is standard industry practice; a form of intimidation and coercion. We can dispense quickly with that consideration.

The burden Kraus's legislation (i.e. the status quo) would allegedly place upon the Council is still a legitimate matter for debate -- as is the prudence of trusting the ZBA to these decisions in the context of a fiercely pro-advertising administration and an activist and well-heeled advertising lobby.

Such matters will soon be sorted out on the merits, or for other eminently rational reasons.