Friday, October 10, 2008

"Guys Like Jeff" and the Rest of Pittsburgh

We almost missed this Saturday article -- until Comet Senior Political Analyst Morton Reichbaum saved it, handed it to us mid-week, and said, "I don't want to keep nagging, but I think it's time you moved out of that neighborhood."

In a meeting room just off of Spring Garden Avenue, Bernard Grady looked at a list of properties and the foreclosed mortgages, housing code cases and ownership questions that entangle them.

As vice president of a new community group, he may now be partly responsible for a condemned bar on Chestnut Street, gutted houses on Tripoli and High streets, a demolition site on Gebhart Street and other sites throughout this slice of the North Side.

They're part of the wreckage of the Spring Garden Neighborhood Council, an organization that for 17 years built quaint townhouses and demanded better rodent control, before embarking on a three-year experiment led by pizza-maker-turned-political-player Jeff Dzamko. (P-G, Lord and Jones)


Mr. Dzamko, once secretary/treasurer of Father and Son Pizzeria, is a familiar face at political events, ranging from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's press conferences to the Democratic National Convention. He's also the subject of a bench warrant for missing a June trial for writing bad checks.

In recent months, he's been a no-show at hearings on housing code citations against him, further clouding the neighborhood's revival effort.

It's the must-read article you haven't read yet. You go now, if only to catch some of the flavor of today's post-explosion East-East Allegheny.

Mr. Dzamko said that the good things he did for the neighborhood are being ignored.

"I had flowers and gardens and whisky barrels all through the neighborhood," he said. "Every garden I worked on since 2002 is waist-high in weeds."

Others are sore at him for getting so much -- from the city, banks, the nonprofit groups -- that remains unaccounted for.

Now this is a very interesting, nay, revealing bit, at the very end:

"The worst form of failure is the failure to try," said Mr. Zober. "That's one way that guys like Jeff will never fail."

So North Side Jeff hustles his heart out, works his connections, repeatedly applies for and receives financing for a modest empire, flames out pretty much entirely -- and leaves the city coffers and his neighbors in the lurch. Yet North Side Jeff is to remain a profile in courage. Man tried his best. It's the cost of doing business.

Contrast this with the experiences of folks at the Lincoln Larimer CDC, the Hill CDC, and maybe a dozen other community organizations who every year seek to do similar work in similarly challenged Pittsburgh neighborhoods -- pleading with the URA for some faith and some support.

"You need to build your organization's capacity", they'll say patronizingly, when they are in a patronizing mood.

"I do not support any funding for any organizations within the community", they'll announce if they would rather cut to the chase.

All of a sudden, Pittsburgh's public officials become strident watchdogs of the public purse. Elsewhere -- and to others -- it's hey! Do your best! Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

"[Joe Edelstein] owns more commercial property on Butler Street than probably anybody," said Kyra Straussman, the URA's Mainstreets Program director. "So that's who we deal with if we're going to have an active Streetface Program. It's not like we could just give it to somebody we liked." (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Ms. Straussman may genuinely be unaware that there are 87 other Pittsburgh neighborhoods aside from Lawrenceville -- but what's the larger pattern here?

One could elect to see only the fact that public investments are tending to correlate with political support and campaign contributions -- which is itself no good, and a grossly inefficient way to build and maintain a city. Squash every conceivable rival and you're squashing and alienating a huge portion of your constituents.

Yet that's downright preferable to some alternate explanations, which would also be entirely reasonable at this point.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

State Ethics Commission Impresses No One

It notes only:

It has been determined that the value of the item received was below the threshold for reporting purposes. As such, no further action will be taken in relation to this specific issue. (via Busman's Holiday)

Well, that sounds like six months well spent: $200 < $250. Even Ford's own attorney volunteered that there were intermittent cigars and neckties involved -- to say nothing of well-documented no-bid contracts, no-consult board decisions, and sign permits granted in apparent violation of law.

Our review of this matter only relates to the above noted issue and does not constitute a determination as to any other course of conduct.

We wonder if that's standard boilerplate for transmissions from the State Ethics Commission. In any event, heaven forbid it should show the slightest initiative.

Lawrence Fisher, who represents Mr. Ford, called that final line "a gratuitous swipe at my client which signifies nothing other than the malice that the State Ethics Commission has shown throughout this matter." (P-G, Rich Lord)


"Today we reach the same conclusion that should have been apparent from the outset and point out that a purely political process was perpetrated under the guise of an ethics review," Fisher said.

Ravenstahl questioned how the investigation could have been politically motivated, given that Ford personally requested the commission's scrutiny. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

It is a very good question. What would be the motive?

"Of course, politics became part of it as the process moved through the state Ethics Commission," Ravenstahl said.

Of course how? What does that mean?

The only politics the Comet can infer is the politics of an under-resourced Ethics Commission not desiring to get in the middle of an ugly situation in Pittsburgh that each and every party does not desire it to be any further involved in -- save a few innocent taxpayers that are financing the settlement of everyone's grievances against one another.

The Commission did its job. It let the issue cool on a shelf for half a year.

Long enough that everyone got tired of being outraged. Long enough to scuttle that pesky and self-righteous Council majority. Long enough that we're about to accept a bevy of new and half-finished digital billboards from Lamar Advertising -- and thank them for the privilege.


Still, it's a strange story. Let us try to review:

On Monday April 7th, I telephoned then-mayoral press secretary Alecia Sirk, wife to Ravenstahl development czar Pat Ford. I asked whether a high-ranking regional executive of Lamar Advertising did indeed give her a Christmas present as my information suggested. When she confirmed this, I inquired about the general context of that gift and of that relationship, and whether or not she or Ford had any qualms about accepting such gifts.

(I received my information from the Burgher that Monday morning at 8:33 AM. I specify this because, according to later reportage, a HUD official wrote to Housing Authority director Fulton Meachem demanding Ford's immediate resignation from the chairmanship of that agency's board, due to a conflict of interest stemming from Ford's directorship of the URA, also on Monday April 7th.)

The very next day -- Tuesday, April 8th -- Ford hastened to the Tribune-Review offices to confess that gift, and thereby preempt myself and other bloggers from "discrediting" him. It appears he took this course of action without notifying the Mayor.

(Apparently incidentally, also on Tuesday the 8th, Ford met with District Attorney Stephen Zappala to discuss questionable spending at the Housing Authority. A spokesman for Zappala said the meeting was held at the DA's request, in response to concerns aired publicly by Ford, though Ford later described himself as coming forward to Zappala.)

When the Trib's article appeared on Wednesday the 9th, together with my take on the conversation with Sirk, it set off a furious chain of events, culminating in Sirk's resignation as press secretary, and Ford's placement on paid leave pending a review by the State Ethics commission. LINK and LINK.

So why did an inquiry about a surround-sound system cause Camelot to fall within 48 hours? We can only speculate:

#1: Some suggest that Pat Ford had become so radioactive, so personally loathed by Doug Shields and his allies on Council, that he became a liability to Ravenstahl, to the URA, and to Moving Forward. Ravenstahl and Zober seized upon these surround-sound revelations as a way to move the brash, quarrelsome Ford out of the picture.

Problem is, the whole scandal was bound to visit a great deal of political trauma upon Ravenstahl as well -- and as far as getting rid of somebody, it was about the sloppiest, most interminable and most expensive way to go about it. In addition, it's not this administration's style to cave in to Doug Shields' preferences.

#2: Some suspect that anything involving relationships between administration officials and Lamar Advertising executives which might possibly invite further scrutiny merits an immediate and extreme panic response -- up to and including unauthorized and uncoordinated media tell-alls, immediate suspensions and firings. Who knows.

I will say this: during that telephone conversation with Sirk, she did describe, on-record, one-time extremely close relationships amongst the cast of characters I outlined, and some of the spouses. At length, if very little detail. There was drama, regret, wistfulness, nostalgia -- it all sounded a bit like Dawson's Creek. So if anyone is wondering on the veracity of these folks being close, the impression I received is that they are/were.

#3: Some perceive that the parenthetical bits to the story regarding the Housing Authority must play a larger role than most of us realize. Usually, this suspicion has taken the form of: whoever tipped the Burgher and I off to Sirk's blog and Vlasach's gift must have been attempting to damage Ford during this critical juncture of their power struggle against him.

A problem: e-mails record that the Burgher received his copy of the blog Love of Chair way back on February 15th. However, I must admit it's plausible that the JV = Jim Vlasach piece of the puzzle did not arise to his knowledge until the advent of this power struggle, and that would be curious.

Yet here is another problem. Once the officer from HUD writes that letter demanding that Ford resign his position from the Housing Authority, it's over. That's checkmate. Ford could have complained that Meachem shouldn't oughtta have gone crying to HUD 'till he turns blue in the face -- once HUD was alerted and demanded Ford's removal, power struggle over. Why smear him only after your victory?

Besides -- that still doesn't account for why the surround sound should have caused such an explosive and immediate reaction.

My instinct? A modified #3: I was beginning to sense at the time that the Housing Authority imbroglio was Ford's real quandary, a serious problem for all concerned -- possibly with real consequences. During my conversation with Sirk, she was so very helpful on the Vlasach story, so very poised and deliberate and exhaustive on that issue, I felt she was telling me all that information for a reason -- to get me to use it. That could have been her way of hitting the eject button -- that, together with Ford's surprise Trib tell-all. The two of them saw their overbuilt house of political powercards starting to collapse, and were looking for a big distraction and a way out.

Yes, it's a little far fetched. We Ruminate. You Decide.


Among the fallout:

"The State Ethics Commission has ruled and found that there was nothing improper done, as I believed all along, not only on this issue but on any issue that's been raised by political adversaries or other members of the Pittsburgh community," said Mayor Luke Ravenstahl (P-G, Rich Lord)

I guess you could call that a "parting shot". Fair enough.


"I think it deserved swift action. When I was made aware of it, needless to say, I was very concerned and not happy," Ravenstahl said. "We needed to take decisive action to make sure that the public's trust is always in city government." (LINK)

"Obviously, I have concerns about it. As a result of those concerns, the actions of today were taken," Mr. Ravenstahl said. Mr. Ford "asked to be placed on paid leave pending a state ethics review that he also asked for. ... I would like to have the benefit of the State Ethics Commission's opinion as soon as possible." (LINK)

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.

It sure seemed to concern and alarm Our Mayor at the time. In fact, today's news is the first time he has put forward a stated conviction that nothing improper was done.

If Ravenstahl possessed such confidence all along, why not defend his lieutenant all that time, brush aside concerns about a measly $200 gift, and save Ford the hassle of being sent to Ethics Board limbo -- where he'd be liable to get all prickly about "corruption", "failed administrations", and "inappropriate affairs and activities"?