Friday, November 16, 2012

Week End Digest: Leon Ford, Public Schools, the County Budget, Water and Parking

ActiveRain, Hathaway

We don't know what happened during this recent police vehicle stop in Highland Park. Sure, we can imagine a lot of different scenarios -- which is what happens when you don't personally know squat. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

But the police department is not letting Leon Ford's parents visit him in the hospital after having been shot in the chest -- a wide-open invitation to public outrage. What is the criminal justice concern there, exactly?

There might be a legitimate case in the aggregate. But as I wind up saying to Customer Service on most occasions, "Can you put me in touch with somebody empowered to make an exception to your policy?"


Meanwhile, School District Superintendent Linda Lane is putting a brave face on an institution that seems chronically broke, has not for a long time been high-achieving, and now seems to have suffered some discouraging performance setbacks just as things were supposed to be improving.

While there are a host of challenges over which the District has only meager levels of control (including its own past mistakes and other sub-optimal practices which are apparently human nature), an undercurrent among many seems to be: "Well, what else can we do to give these kids some kind of an edge?" And that gets to the bitterly controversial idea of using what measurement data is at our disposal to attempt to manage our crucial teaching force more optimally and intentionally. Such a move would not provide an ironclad guarantee for a panacea -- but it's trying something that has a clear and scientific rationale, that is within our control, and that instinctively most parents desire.

The Pittsburgh Promise might really become the huge game-changer it was hyped to be, but if and only if our District inspired confidence. Right now it does not, and has not, and we're a long way from it. The reasons for that are structural and systemic (including the politics of attaining proper funding). Let's introduce something structural of our own, something that's good news, something for which we and only we are responsible.

County Councilman Bill Robinson is suggesting that Rich Fitzgerald's proposed 2013 county budget be increased by somewhere in the singular tenths of a percent. In return we would keep the Controller's office staffed up (removing any unfortunate appearance of surreptitious accountability dodging and political sabotage) restore funding for our community colleges, and give a raise to an exemplary public safety official who seems to be making far less than his official responsibilities warrant. Sounds like a good, and responsibly modest deal. (P-G, Len Barcousky; Trib, Bobby Kerlik)

SurvivalwithBushcraf (language)
Veolia Water seems to be pursuing more ways to make our Water Authority more fair and efficient. (P-G, Joe Smydo) Meanwhile, the PWSA board has agreed to "performance indicators" by which we will evaluate Veolia Water itself (DowdNet, pdf). At a cursory glance, though it looks like Veolia will be very busy, it does not appear that helping to rewrite an infrastructure plan and to green-it-up is part of the contract. Maybe we can schnor it in there? Why not, we're buddies now. Let's schnor!

Finally, over at the Parking Authority, while it sounds like increasing revenue with new meters is moving along adroitly, Councilwoman Rudiak resigned from the board. In her resignation letter to the Mayor she cited that her term having expired a year and a half ago, "it's time to move on." (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012



That was the theme of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's otherwise unremarkable 2013 budget address.

"Today, however, we've brought the promise back to Pittsburgh," Mr. Ravenstahl said, crediting financial sacrifices that included paying down $250 million of debt. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

If you don't believe us, check out the pdf of the budget address: not only is it titled "Bringing the Promise Back to Pittsburgh," but that phrase appears in boldface on the three occasions in which it appears. It's important.

Councilman Bill Peduto, who already has formed a mayoral campaign committee, said it was inappropriate for Mr. Ravenstahl, who initially opposed the Act 47 recovery plan as a councilman 2004, to brag now about the financial improvements that oversight helped to engender. (ibid)

Sure, there's a whole lot to that. Take away the "dark days" of "despair and hopelessness" in 2003-2004 -- not to mention all the frustrations with Act 47 and the ICA since then telling us "no" and "lol" -- and we certainly wouldn't have gotten within fifty miles of where we are today, able to use a bit of borrowed money to pay for a modest capital budget.

But at the same time we suddenly have this casino, a new hockey arena, more doings between the stadiums, a more commercially viable Market Square, Fifth and Forbes starting to shuffle into place, and Bridging the Busway as apparently a thing. And everybody and their cousin has a master plan in the works. This all feels like momentum. Add to that the controversial decision to accept hosting the G20, and the brightened city skyline -- these all do something to reinforce a palpable feeling of resurgence.

So it's going to be challenging for anybody to convey, "All the good things you see and like, they have nothing to do with those guys over there." The buck stops here is a double-edged sword.

But Controller Michael Lamb, another would-be challenger to Mr. Ravenstahl, said the city still isn't putting enough money into the pension fund to boost its long-term solvency. The fund was 57 percent funded June 30.

Mr. Lamb also criticized Mr. Ravenstahl for touting six years of decreasing crime rates in his address, noting that police Chief Nathan Harper, in the bureau's annual report, said the reductions "mirror the national trend." (ibid)

As we of this salon know, the pension fund is not anywhere near 57% funded really. Heaven fore fend anybody ever learn that account's real liquid state. But more to the point, it wouldn't even have been funded halfway to that halfway point if it weren't for a shaky, last-minute model of the "Council-Controller Plan" which Ravenstahl fought for half a year, vetoed, and continued to criticize for another half a year.

But again, however we got here, we are emerging from Act 47. Counterfactuals are impossible to prove -- how much worse could things have gotten under different leadership for the past six years, making different decisions?

Good times are good times. Success is success.


Meghan McCarthy
All that burns me today as a straight-shooter is "BRINGING THE PROMISE BACK TO PITTSBURGH".

Are we trying to subconsciously link the Pittsburgh Promise -- which is not increasing enrollment, is not drawing new residents to the city, is certainly not doing any favors for academic achievement, and which is beyond question actively sucking community resources and energies away from that which might more directly benefit academic achievement -- are we on this date trying to link the Pittsburgh Promise to Pittsburgh's resurgence?

To its fiscal recovery? Its development boomlet? Its low unemployment, its famous livability? Don't be coy. Are we trying to position the Promise (along with the Mayor who seized on it like flotsam in the ocean and rode it to the shores of credibility) to take credit for what has been happening in Pittsburgh among Pittsburgh residents and Pittsburgh businesses for the last decade and more?

Well, it's genius. A familiar bouquet of genius. That's what it is.

So are the tiny grants in key neighborhoods, utterly segregated from Council.

So is the Downtown task force to keep the chamber-of-commerce busy and optimistic.

So are a hundred other things that come with epic tag lines, standard -- but they will all be repeated, frequently and loudly, like a chorus of jackhammers.

"Oh, you say I'm too laissez faire? Are you calling me a Republican!? We invented the Alternative Homecoming! Get out of here with that weak sauce!"

(By the way, a hearty kudos to the city's Youth Council for hitting that one out of the park. Huzzah! Huzzah! And way to make the Propel Pittsburgh commission look like a pile of ruin. The last time that thing was in the news was because Sonni Abatta was on it, and she's been gone for three years.)


Bottom line: they're much better at this than you. And it's getting hard to justify the proposition that they're failures at running a city. With the loud volume, the repetition and all the trump cards, it's hard to remember why we ever thought they were.

An ephemeral idea has been floating around that the golden message for an effective challenger is to portray the replacement of a political administration as the final capstone of Pittsburgh's renaissance. We've come a long way, that story goes: we've cleaned our air, we've cleaned our rivers, we've transformed our economy and transformed our river fronts. Now all that's left is to transform our dirty politics.

But that's a huge application to download, and there's only so much bandwidth.

You've heard of the concept by now, is this a "change election" or is this a "choice election". Right? Well, let me make it simple for you. If this is any kind of standard election, Ravenstahl wins.

Period. Full stop. Any kind of conventional election, Ravenstahl wins.

If however this is a heist -- if this plays out more like a big con, Oceans 35, Oceans 40 tops -- well then sure. Absolutely. Sky's the limit. But you'd better get to work.