Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thursday: The Battle Outside Ragin'...

Economic justice is now one tick closer to a reality:

Allegheny County moved one step closer to a court-ordered property reassessment when the state Supreme Court denied the county's request for more time before it must reassess. (Trib, Mike Wereschagin)

It's terrible that not every county in Pennsylvania is presently under a similar court order to make its property tax system equitable and constitutional, but hey! I guess Allegheny County will just have to count itself wildly fortunate! Thank goodness for the judicial branch of government.

There is new movement in the ever-present War on Potholes:

Councilwoman Darlene Harris traveled to Ohio to look at Akron's new RE-HEAT system, which Harris said could reduce the cost of trucking and labor by up to 50 percent while speeding up the street-paving process. (Trib, Matthew Santoni; see also P-G, Rich Lord)

It doesn't quite excite me as much as does data-driven, politics-neutral resource allocation, but hey! Anything which might increase efficiency is worth looking at.

The upcoming G-20 Summit in PGH is continuing to alarm some folks:

Many expressed anger that city and national officials haven't briefed them on security plans for streets near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which will host the event. More than 3,500 delegates and journalists — in addition to the protesters — are expected to descend on Pittsburgh. (Trib, Kim Leonard)

I do sympathize, but hey! I can't reproach anybody in this instance. This was going to be a wild ride from its conception, and the disruptions should be well worth the herculean citywide effort. Let's just try to suck out the good and mitigate the bad.

And never fear! There shall be signs! (P-G Multimedia, Nate Giurdy)

The signs will be green, which is symbolic, and will have "Welcome" written on them in a bunch of different languages, which is appropriate. That's just super. I guess seeing as how we needed to hang something on a few billboards and over vacant buildings, and someone actually had to design the poor things, now we have to crow about them. Well, let me emphasize -- and this is no easy task -- you didn't screw it up. Kudos!

Nielsen said some heads of state will "want to do something different than everyone else" and go to a special restaurant or store. The security perimeter would move with them. One restaurant owner said Wednesday he was told Obama plans to visit Big Mama's House of Soul restaurant in the Strip District. (Trib, Greenwood & Boren)

That is a stellar idea. I recommend the sweet potato pie.

"This is a special year for us, and I think people may be losing sight of that. I hope to go there and in some ways be able to celebrate the great job we did last year, which we never really got to celebrate as a community, but this year, for the first time, the convention is very focused on action, trying to figure out how to get more people mobilized and hearing updates on the best practices that came out of this cycle." (P-G, Mackenzie Carpenter)

There are best practices?!? And here I was, thinking we were all making it all up as we went along! Pittsburgh Comet coverage of Netroots Nation and Right Online starts right now.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rendell Budget Gambit Backfiring?

I'm not sure if there are any polls out there asking the question, "Do you approve of how the Governor is handling the current budget standoff?", but folks don't seem all that enamoured.

That includes the state's 67 counties, which depend on state funds to pay for a wide range of programs, such as reimbursements for county court costs, mental health/retardation programs, drug/alcohol treatment programs and services for the elderly, children and physically disabled.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, meeting in Somerset yesterday, warned that "a total collapse of the human service ... delivery system appears to be imminent," said Butler County Commissioner James Kennedy, who is association president. (P-G, Tom Barnes II)

What I must have missed is what exactly gets funded in Rendell's sought-after budget, with its extra $0.9 billion, that does not appear in the Republican budget that passed the Legislature.

Even though Mr. Rendell signed the budget, he openly criticized it for not providing enough money for basic and higher education, health care, child care, senior citizens' programs, autism programs and other services. (P-G, Tom Barnes I)

Right ... so ... he is fighting to save the very same things he is squeezing the life out of in the present moment with his line-item vetos. I don't think he's going to win the PR battle on this one. It's possible that old gray mare just ain't what she used to be.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Post-Gazette Editorial Board Throws Cold Water on CBA Movement

Sure, we love them during election season, but do we care what they write the rest of the year?

Anyone who thinks it's easy to lure development to Pittsburgh has a short memory ...

But the local development scene has not always been so active, something City Council members must keep in mind when they consider imposing new rules on developers seeking to do business here ...

Some members have raised the possibility of linking development subsidies to the wages that would be paid by businesses that move in ...

A long list of developers who do business with the city say otherwise, and we agree with them. (P-G, Edit Board)

The prospect of shifting most if not all of the energy behind the Community Benefits Agreements movement to a legislative push for a generous, blanket minimum wage for any developments that receive any public subsidy also struck this blog as a bit off.

All the same, we were thrilled to see City Council hustling to get its arms around this populist concept. One of Pittsburgh's recurring themes is its big, ambitious development and infrastructure projects doing very little for, or even backfiring upon, regular Pittsburghers. In light of the Ravenstahl administration's scrupulous indifference to that exact dilemma, we felt more encouragement of these Council members and of these community groups was in order as this was published. Those were heady days for a couple of days there.

Then it was suggested to me that at the end of the day, Post-Gazette editorials must reflect the views of the Post-Gazette's publisher -- and the Post-Gazette's publisher is a city business owner who blames his own business woes on pricey union labor and an unavoidably challenging market (instead of, say, an industry culture so tradition-clad it borders on the superstitious, which is offended by innovation and risk-taking and tends to foster a passionless resignation to routine:

George Matta, the Rivers director of business development and community relations, said the casino was "extremely satisfied" with the numbers. They represent the amount wagered and the revenue generated from noon Sunday to 6 a.m. yesterday.

"We were very happy with our first day. We had a lot of people there. We'll see if we can keep it up," Rivers Chief Executive Officer Greg Carlin said. (P-G, Mark Belko)

That was from the third lengthy installment of the daily series, Casino Officials Say Casino Opening Pretty Cool. In order to find something genuinely thought-provoking, one had to access the P-G's Early Returns blog, which is not promoted anywhere in the print edition. Even still it will almost certainly take an actual blogger to raise questions about how widespread is this practice of casinos hiring former government officials, what it means for the regulation of that industry, and what it says about why casino gambling might have been legalized to begin with.)

But I digress. The editorial's concerns, if not balanced, are legitimate.

I'm tempted to go a little anti-intellectual on this living wage issue. We watch government give away precious public resources to industry titans year and year out -- then we watch those titans reward themselves with huge salaries and bonuses and arrange massive lobbying budgets to leverage for tax cuts, deregulation and even more subsidies. Now we're talking about raising workers' wages and all of a sudden we're a bunch of School of Lausanne economists? When's the last time the working class got a break in its favor?

Yet that would be inconsistent. I've said before that each development is different and each arrangement for community benefits may have to be unique. Is your project highly subsidized or non-subsidized? Is it in an affluent, or a hard-luck, or an extremely hard-luck part of town? Are you building a grocery store in an under-served neighborhood or a vomitorium for suburbanites? These are things which should be weighed by leadership as it gauges how to use its leverage.

However, that doesn't mean there's not a good law in there somewhere. Hopefully the Council critters are working hard to discover it during August recess. Most service workers, for example, don't get an August recess.

A final thought:

This is not to say the city should not impose conditions on developers that accept subsidies funded by taxpayers. For instance, a measure crafted by Councilman Bill Peduto and enacted last month requires them to meet green building standards, which promises environmental payback for the city and the developer. (P-G, Edit Board)

I know it's a broad coalition and I do consider myself an environmentalist, but for the record: given the choice I'd rather live on a grimy despoiled planet ruled with economic and social justice and compassion, than live in a verdant sustainable fairyscape with bike lanes amidst rampant poverty, poor access to health care and social services, and limited social mobility. But I'm just one person.

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."

Interview: Dok Harris, Part I

I asked the first-time political candidate and son of a Steelers legend what is his favorite restaurant.

"Oh, that's a great question," he replied. "Actually, I've really been enjoying Toast! lately. Have you heard of Toast?"

I had not yet heard of Toast, so he told me how it has been open in Bloomfield for about eight months or so (where the old something-else used to be), how "the concept is wonderful", and that one can purchase an entree and a glass of wine for $20.

Noticing his interviewer scribbling with great intent, Harris asked in which part of town I reside. I live in the Spring Garden / East Allegheny area, so he pointed me in the direction of Toula's on Federal St. -- a "great dive" that offers a deal for two hot dogs and two milkshakes for $8.60. He also recommended DeLuca's in the Strip District for breakfast.

"I'm a little bit of a foodie", he said.

Asked to identify a favorite neighborhood, Harris first suggested Lawrenceville. He said he likes the development there, but also that it has "a cool edge."

The Mexican War Streets on the North Side also got high marks, particularly for diversity. "Black, White, Black, White, Latino ... not so many Asians back then," he recalled from growing up in that neighborhood. "Doctors, lawyers..."

For favorite music, Harris answered classic rock, yet Paul Oakenfold occupied his iPod at that very moment. He drives a Ford Escape Hybrid, and his previous vehicle was a BMW X5.

His favorite authors are Jonathan Franzen, Christopher Buckley and David Sedaris. He declined to offer any favorite television shows, revealing he just cancelled his cable TV service.


Dok Harris has already criticized city government's pay-to-play culture during this mayoral campaign, so I inquired into his own campaign contribution guidelines. Harris says he is using regulations in place for federal elections as a model: caps of $2,400 for the primary and $2,400 for the general election per person. A couple may therefore contribute up to $9,600 to Harris for the year.

I asked whether -- having not actually conducted a primary election campaign -- accepting two cycles worth of donations is at all inconsistent with the spirit of reform. He replied that "not a ton of people" contributed during both cycles -- it looks as though about five donors have done so -- and pointed out that "a lot of that money was spent before May 19th".

The only thing that leaped off his campaign disclosure forms to me was how many of them thus far have Sewickley addresses.

"Am I some kind of carpet-bagger who really hasn't lived here?" Harris asked for me. "My parents live in Sewickley. A lot of family friends live out there." After attending Princeton for his undergraduate degree and weathering a stint in Washington DC, he moved back to Pittsburgh in 2004 to pursue his JD / MBA, which he earned last year.

Also, "They [the Sewicklians et al] are starting to realize good government is something we need to do on the local level."

"I haven't yet taken any PAC money" Harris points out, though he says that will probably change.


Politically, Harris begins his story like so: "Having met Al Gore, I was not impressed. Plus, we were coming off the Clinton era."

Harris describes himself as having been a "registered conservative" at that time, mostly due to having been part of economics classes at Princeton, and inhaling that oxygen. He today refers to himself as a "fiscal conservative", which he defines basically as "let's live within our means". He draws a distinction between that and "economic conservatism," which he says preaches that "people shouldn't have a safety net, people should help themselves."

"When you talk to [State Sen.] Jane Orie [R-McCandless], she wants to cut things like Headstart," he explained.

As for personal turning points, "what really got me was Sept. 12th, 2001," he said. For example, he wonders at a 1964 speech given by Ronald Reagan to the Republican National Convention, decrying the Democrats of the time for seeking to conduct wiretaps on citizens without a judicial warrant.


Dok Harris worked for a startup company called Neurolife, LLC -- they developed some sort of product or procedure for collapsed veins in the eye, among other things. He left Neurolife after about five months. Later, he filed a couple of patents for financial services products which "didn't get traction."

During law school*, he also worked as a legal and financial counsellor as part of several programs -- mortgage issues, how to start a business and the like. He said the experience taught him "how to properly tell your client no."

Also, he says he learned that "home ownership in Pittsburgh is very, very complicated." A lot of individuals have owned property or lived in houses for a very long time -- maybe they don't have a deed, or they built their house themselves and there is still no deed.

Assisting stakeholders with problems like these is one thing Harris says he wants to accomplish as Mayor: making Pittsburgh a "City of Yes".

"You have an idea? Great. Let's find a location," Harris says, "and get the votes on City Council."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Three Items Before Sunday Talksies

1. The P-G's Jill Daly ties some strands from Collier together about as well as anybody can. Left a mystery of course is how many of the 40 or so women have health insurance, and have insurance of the kind that will cover a stream of outpatient mental health visits.

2. Coro Pittsburgh is hosting something called an innovation fair on Friday. Huh.

3. Mr. Legato is a slots expert -- recognized as an expert in his field -- and he's going to tell us all how it is with slots gambling. (P-G, Mark Belko) Basically, you will lose money -- but not a lot most likely, it's fine, and there's nothing you need to learn, so just have a good time and you never know. The Rivers Casino vice-president of gaming agrees with him, so that's pretty much the end of the story.