Monday, August 10, 2009

Interview: Dok Harris, Part II

"Pittsburgh should be the Silicon Valley of the East, focusing on creating green jobs," Harris says of his development policy with practiced ease. "We will help you do what you need to do."

Furthermore, "we're the right size to be the crucible for your product."

Community benefits agreements are on the agenda as of late, and Harris wanted to clarify that although "big box development" tends to shy away from that type of arrangement, "startups -- not just start-ups but high tech -- a lot of them are for CBA's."

"If public money is being used -- and in this 3rd Renaissance, all but one building is receiving subsidy -- that money should be used to ensure fair wages, and fair treatment for the workers. People want to create windows where we can create family-sustaining wages."

At the same time, however, "we don't want to legislate it. Legislation is typically written by lawyers for lawyers. What we need to do is make sure we don't box ourselves in. We need a baseline to protect against ... leaders who don't have vision, or who aren't looking out for all stakeholders."

Harris sees CBA's as best being negotiated between businesses and government entities -- not with community groups directly. "You do want them to be party insofar as they have rights to sue under the process," Harris clarifies, but that's it.

Fair wages, fair treatment, and everybody having a seat at the table. These were the themes to which Harris kept returning.

He described this as "government as the steward of the public trust, and not as the means of putting money into private development and getting kickbacks."


Kickbacks? Yes, Harris went with "kickbacks".

"There is not a move towards transparency," he complained of the present regime. "A lot of decisions have been made outside the purview of the proper function of government. Decisions are made that do not benefit the City of Pittsburgh as a whole."

I asked for an example of this, and he brought up the electronic billboard permit for the Grant Street Transportation Center. Does this mean he agrees with the criticisms that Councilman Patrick Dowd put forth about Mayor Luke Ravenstahl during the primary election?

"What Mr. Dowd did very well is highlight a lot of issues that needed to be highlighted," answered Harris. "But he could have done a better job."

For example: "The garbage cans. The Mayor's response was, he decided to show an e-mail from Mr. Dowd saying, 'We need garbage cans'. Let's say you need cars, do you go out and buy Cadillacs?"

Harris supported Bob O'Connor in his bid to become Mayor in 2005, both because he had been a close family friend for a long time and because "you saw authenticity in his passion. Bob's love of the City sweated through his shirt."

In the next breath, however, Harris was saying he is also a fan of Councilman Bill Peduto's vision and political ideals. So he was content with Pittsburgh's political outlook in 2005.

"Then came that strange period where Bob O'Connor was falling ill, and Yarone Zober was taking over the city," Harris recalls. "[Ravenstahl] really had an amazing opportunity to project youth and vigor into the process," but instead went in the other direction.

So, anyway. What's so important about the billboard?

"It's important because it highlights the failure of process -- when you start talking about process, you lose everybody -- but it shows the judgment and behavior of the people behind that."

Which is what, exactly?

"You can't stop us."

As in, when the Mayor's staff organizes a meeting to discuss a plan of some kind: "Coming in and saying 'Please tell us your stuff, blah blah blah', and then putting their fingers in their ears."

Inconsistency and unpredictability in the practice of building inspection also came in for a little criticism by Harris -- keeping this function separate from politics he thinks would be a boost for small business in Pittsburgh just in itself.


In terms of getting our city finances under control, Dok Harris first wants to "fix" purchasing and contracting "so we're not overspending".

Of leasing the parking garages to provide a one-time infusion of cash to the pension funds: "The idea of leasing off an asset for a long period of time is not terrible in itself," but he's worried about the "large fees" and getting the "best deal".

Secondly, Harris says he would go "line by line" through the budget "to see where we're wasting our money."

He provided no specific examples of where to cut, and eschewed the idea of cutting staff, but said he would go after "repetitive processes", and to substitute in "green, efficient technology" for what we are currently using.

Believing that the a city budget deficit is on track to return probably in 2011, Harris is also in favor of generating new revenue sources. He notes that the average suburban commuter brings back $44K annually to their homes, whereas the average Pittsburgh resident earns just $27K but is leaned on disproportionately to support the city.

However, "just suddenly bumping up the commuter tax is going to scare a lot of people." Harris says he wants to be fair, and this is a matter of "determining the best fee structure."

"We're putting together a somewhat sophisticated plan, that hopefully will not penalize small non-profits. We're playing with all the different levers."

Equity in public service distribution was also discussed. There are sections of the city, he says for example, that never see a paving crew. As our interview approached the two-hour mark, Harris was gesturing over a map of Pittsburgh and explaining how he intends to spark, organize and incentivize development in parts of town known for high rates of vacancy and neglect.


"Growing up, it was very tough," says Dok Harris, on whether his noteworthy lineage has always been an advantage. "I was not athletic. I was not tough. I was a math nerd and a science geek."

At the same time, he said, being the son of Franco Harris "taught a lot of lessons about how to act."

Near the very end of our interview, I asked what he thought of folks who are skeptical whether the twenty-something son of a local sports hero, a political neophyte, should be taken seriously as a mayoral contender.

"If I were some random educated jackass," Harris replied with complete affability, "that'd be a legitimate question."


  1. The HUDDLER needs to digest this, lots of thoughts come to mind. Lots of questions. Would have LOVED to sit in on this interview.

    None the less. Nice job Bram.

  2. Great interview. Apparently, Kevin Acklin liked it so much he quoted it without attribution:

  3. That is one strange coincidence, Anon 6:53. Pittsburgh better actually become the Silicon Valley of the East now, or it'll be embarrassing.

  4. Oh, yeah, because F. Dok Harris was the one and only person ever to say that.

  5. I'm hoping Pittsburgh becomes the Eugene, Oregon of the East. I've already got slugs in my yard, so we're close.

  6. Anon 9:23:

    Eh--google searches turn up Harris far more frequently than anyone else. I recognize it's not exactly a unique sentiment. Still, had Acklin himself said it before this afternoon, your point would be well taken. As it stands, though, Acklin's tweet is just lame.

  7. Amen to that.

    Spot on, MH.

  8. The first place I see it in reference to Pittsburgh is in this article of July 28th: LINK.

    Wait no, actually, here it is in February of '08 from Dr. Larry Pileggi of CMU and "Fabbrix": LINK. And now I see someone named "Captain Obvious" wrote in on a local discussion board in June of 2007.

    I see it has also occasionally been attempted by the already well-branded "Research Triangle" of Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durmham, NC -- as well as Tyson's Corner in Washington DC. So it's a bit of a low-frequency meme. Most often the phrase pops up in reference to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan -- the "Far East".

  9. Dok is about a banking crisis and two bubbles too late on the Silicon Valley statement. I'm sure if Briem wasn't carrying his bike to Arlington, he'd dig up a sweet blurb on local politicos attempting to lure chip makers over here way back before net admins were driving 944's and posting ascii porn.

    Why not take a few notes out of the turtle creek valley circa 1885. Westinghouse did pretty well for himself, ja? Futuristic, high technology manufacturing.

    Throw in some fancy Bucky Fuller words and a dollop of pro-union/CBA whatnot n'such.

  10. I giggled when Pgh's past mayor talked in glowing terms when Seagate moved here. They were a hard-drive maker. Sure, it was a start. But, it wan't the mother load he made it seem. BTW, is Seagate here now?

    SV has plenty of problems.

    But, we should be a mecca for something. Pgh has been that for many opportunities over the ages.

    I'm of the mindset to be a mecca for something more universal, with more humanity. I'd re-brand to be a Mecca for "parenting."

    And, I'd champion the "liberty" message. People will move to be more free. People will vote with their feet to escape the boots of authority the hovers over them.

    Finally, ROTFL with this line: "Legislation is typically written by lawyers for lawyers." Not in Pgh Dok. No wonder he finds it okay to turn off his cable service. He must never have watched the city cable channel.

  11. "He must never have watched the city cable channel."

    That sounds like good judgement to me.

  12. For the average Joe Six-pack, watching city cable of city council meetings is a massive waste of time. For the random candidates who aim to run for mayor, it seems like a worthy way to get some perspectives.

    One would be hard pressed to confuse lawyers with present members of city council.

  13. Doug Shields is a demi-lawyer. In most cities of Pittsburgh's size, the council would have a lawyer to draft the actual wording of ordinances.

  14. Which reminds me: Council hired itself a lawyer in this year's budget. It was kind of a big deal. I wonder if that process has moved along at all...?

  15. Don't know. I rely on you for information.

  16. Full time, or did council approve a line item of funding for council to solicit and receive lawyerly-typefonts on heavyweight, non-recycled boise-cascade, scented, watermarked parchment when a majority of council portend that Mr. Specter and Co. cannot provide sufficient professional opinions to two branches of local government at a given time?