Thursday, April 18, 2013

Mayor Peduto would Expand Promise

Madison College

We interrupt our regular muckraking to deliver this breaking news:

We have to continue the great work of the Pittsburgh Promise and supplement it with a new program to offer free, universal high-quality early childhood education to every child in Pittsburgh...

I will pull together the stakeholders and the funding to make it happen when I am Mayor. (BP#34)

The Councilman says that "thanks to state leaders" and the "infrastructure" that is available, we can make it happen. If half of the things they say about quality early childhood education are true, this could provide Pittsburgh with several levels of benefit at once. And since it's early childhood education, nobody would be left out due to enrollment in private or parochial systems.

PIttsburgh Housing Authority contract filtering appears rigged

When you work for the circus

What do they mean by "bid rigging"?

Bid rigging is a form of fraud in which a commercial contract is promised to one party even though for the sake of appearance several other parties also present a bid. (Wikipedia)

It's not failing to bid out contracts, or ignoring the rules providing for fair competition entirely. It is just being tricky. And it's a crime.

The guy with sundry political connections who helped win the bid for the Housing Authority maintenance contract for a brand new company, also won a bid for his own company to demolish Addison Terrace.

He kind of won it:

Three Rivers Dismantlement is handling much of the razing of Addison Terrace, a 734-unit community that will be replaced with around 400 mixed-income apartments. The authority has hired Columbus, Ohio-based developer Keith B. Key Enterprises to transform and run the community.

The prime demolition contractor, Phase One Development Corp. of Penn Hills, hired Three Rivers Dismantlement as its subcontractor. Executives at three of the largest area demolition firms -- Noralco, PRISM Response and Bristol Environmental -- said this week that they were not invited to bid on the job.

Developer Mr. Key explained in an email that Phase One got the job because of their ranking in a proposal process conducted by the authority in 2010.

That's when the authority sought proposals from firms to perform "demolition work ... housing authority-wide on an as-needed basis." A resolution approved by the authority board in October does not mention Addison Terrace, but allows the authority to pay Phase One $3 million over three years. The resolution indicated that 12-year-old Phase One was picked over three other firms "based on their experience and capacity." (P-G, Rich Lord)

The Authority hired the developer, who hired a contractor, who hired the subcontractor that is connected both to the Authority and to nefarious politicians going way back.

Wikipedia: Rigging
The developer relied on an evaluation by the Authority for proposals to do work "on as as-needed basis," which entitled their contractor to privately solicit bids. They in turn selected a firm which until that point had only reconstructed a hillside and replaced a valve for the Authority. So a bid that appeared to go out for odd jobs over time -- perhaps too irritating and unsteady to be relied upon, not one company's specialty -- turned into a contract for their single biggest piece of business, and with bids solicited privately by the contractor.

These are the sorts of things which cast doubt on a bidding process: unusual processes and connected winners. But one feature of many political and entrepreneurial "connected" people may be their social adeptness, resiliency and streetwise in a way that wins them contracts. And Pittsburgh is a small town, coincidences happen.

But then there was that first process...

The authority requested proposals for the landscaping contract on March 7, 2012, and held a pre-bid meeting on March 23. Sign-in sheets indicate that 11 firms attended the meeting, and no one from Pittsburgh Property Maintenance signed in.

Computer records that Mr. Detrick showed, though, indicate that Fontana, representing Pittsburgh Property Maintenance, was one of numerous prospective bidders who signed up to get online access to bidding materials.


The proposal submitted to the authority by Pittsburgh Property Maintenance lists a phone number that is now disconnected. The address provided was that of The McQuillan Group, an accounting firm. A receptionist there said Pittsburgh Property Management used that address only briefly, and she confirmed that Fontana was the contact person for the landscaping business.

Despite the number of firms that attended the pre-bid meeting, only Pittsburgh Property Maintenance placed a bid by the April 4 deadline. Federal rules required a rebid.

The authority scheduled a second bidding deadline, May 7, which drew three proposals. One was disqualified as late, and another was deemed unresponsive because it didn't include participation by minority- or women-owned businesses, among other reasons. The sole survivor, Pittsburgh Property Maintenance, was awarded the contract. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Eleven that are initially interested and go to a meeting. They hear something, or go on to learn something, and all change their mind. None of them submit a bit.

One newly created and already mysterious firm with a connected agent enters the process and finds itself the sole bidder. That's not good enough obviously, so the project is "re-bid", and this time a couple of other firms are motivated for whatever reasons to submit non-qualifying bids.

Villains Wiki
Same agent as before, the one with the red flags -- not the least of which was a cocaine conviction.

So it is walking like a duck, and quacking like a duck.

And others in the contracting community -- who might not ordinarily invite the displeasure of the public sector -- are pointing at it, performing flapping and waddling pantomime.

Has anyone been paying attention to the city's Housing Authority who can explain why this is not the way it appears? Or has City leadership fully transcended the need to be either answerable or accountable to anybody?

Because if that's the case, one may as well step down.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ex-Chief Harper's payout fair, what Pittsburgh gets

~Axmgr; DeviantArt

It's hardly the worst thing that happened...

Former Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper cashed in more than $95,000 worth of vacation time, longevity pay and 30 weeks of paid sick leave when Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl forced him to retire. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

When you select a decades-long veteran officer for Chief, he serves in that capacity for six years, and during those long tough years he is complicit in ongoing fraud and improper mixed agendas, this is what should happen. We are not giving Harper any more than that to which he is entitled.

City Councilman Patrick Dowd said the payout is large but not surprising, given the city's legacy costs.

“It's a lot of money to me, personally, and it's a lot of money to my constituents, but those are policies put in place a long time ago when Chief Harper started, and they're policies that we've tried to clean up,” Dowd said. “The city was giving employees deferred benefits, and this is the consequence now.” (ibid)

Correct. After managing a crisis, Pittsburgh can learn all sorts of things. Maybe we can reform the financial controls and the institutional favoritism. Maybe we can reform more about what Bureau officers working private side-jobs with City equipment can and cannot do on those jobs, or whether they need to be so outfitted.

On Peduto, Wagner shares Preposterous New Perspective

Former Harrisburg financial watchdog Jack Wagner points out Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto's most obvious failing: that Peduto hasn't. hit. hard.
enough on Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.


His chief rival in the race, Councilman Bill Peduto, is part of a legislative body that has not provided “a check and balance” on Ravenstahl, Wagner said. (Tribune-Review)

Hold on. A moment ago, Wagner had us believing City Council to be far too acrimonious, and Peduto not a collaborative enough figure. Did that first message backfire?

Peduto “is so much a part of the problem it's impossible to separate him from it,” Wagner said. He said Peduto remained mum on issues such as Ravenstahl's failure to appoint a leader for the Bureau of Building Inspection. (ibid)

Say what?

As mayor, I will use every tool available to combat blight in our community. I will begin by appointing a qualified Chief to the Bureau of Building Inspection, a position that has not been permanently filled for five years. Working with a qualified new Chief of BBI, my administration will implement the recommendations made by independent audits conducted in 2008 and 2012 to make code enforcement a more user-friendly process. (Bill Peduto #59)

If you voted in Pittsburgh Policy Idol, you might have remembered that.

So this is more of the usual misleading white noise from Wagner for Mayor.

Wagner is making a loud and hammy demand to fill a vacancy. Filling vacancies is a demand this Administration, which flocked to Wagner over Peduto (or even Michael Lamb!), is prepared to handle. Aside from that, Wagner insists all problems in local government stem from the "absenteeism" of one man, the Mayor himself -- whose penchant for the occasional fishing excursion is riotously notorious, we grant. But the Comet begs to differ. The corrosive problem is a City government which since the days of Mayor Davey Lawrence is habituated to extend comfort and aid to some of those within, surrounding and dear to it -- hence, to the very powerful. It resists change. It insulates itself from the demands of taxpayers-at-large and from non-connected constituencies. It wins by cutting horrendously expensive or seemingly minor backroom deals, by not posing uncomfortable questions and by cleverly eluding its accountability to street-level working men and women.

Peduto is talking about broadcasting weekly meetings with all the Department heads. That's accountability.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Hold steady, Pittsburgh: Citizens endorsing!

BREAKING: Justin Strong of East Liberty's now-historically consequential Shadow Lounge and AVA endorses emphatically in the Race for Pittsburgh's mayor:

If there is somebody who can say what it takes to invest in a neighborhood haunted by persistent economic trouble and help make it viable and valuable, it's that guy.

AND NOW... The band: The Hold Steady. The genre: "Indy rock" via punk, folk, and hip-hop...

Playing you into your Wednesday. Five weeks 'till field day.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Your Guide to 'Burgh Drama, Ep. 4: Whiners, Hypocrites and Spite-Filled Things

New Season starts in 35 days

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is not a political candidate, but his administration continues on without apology nor so much as a nod.

Their very latest gaffes have included an insistence on the public office needing to handle campaign travel arrangements. Previously it was an insistence on a casual attitude towards expenses. Previous to that, it was the illegitimate use of legitimate expense accounts, together, of course, with revelations about illegitimate and illegal expense accounts blamed entirely on indicted ex-Chief Harper.

While the Controller and the Finance Director and then the Controller and former Controller in the Finance Department argued briefly and cordially over which one bears more of the blame for failures of oversight, and the mayoral candidates then-and-now debate whose leadership can best help to restore confidence, City Public Safety Director Michael Huss has been finding it comfortable not to comment on "what did you know and when did you know it?"  type questions -- although he did sharply and specifically deny ordering or creating the accounts.

Thomas Moeller, Trib
Records show that a Market Square valet amenity initiated and arranged by the Mayor's office has given one service provider, owned by the politically active Democratic party committee member Mr. Robert Gigliotti, access to more parking spaces, special access to and treatment from then-Chief Harper, an arrangement erupting in use of a URA lot, at least one confirmed case of illegal car towing, misinforming the public, claiming turf beyond even its generous allotment while marketing itself overly aggressively.

At the frequently embattled Housing Authority, a move to both privatize and philanthropically steer the business of maintaining Authority property has resulted in doing business with a newly formed and seemingly deeply under-qualified entity, Pittsburgh Property Management, brokered by a personally troubled and politically highly-connected intermediary.

And at a mayoral debate in Highland Park this week, three candidates for Mayor -- Bill Peduto, Jake Wheatley and Jack Wagner -- castigated the poor performance of the city's Bureau of Building Inspection. Wagner went so far as to say he would fix this problem by hiring a permanent Director for BBI, since it has been for years without one.

Now, fellow Opinion leaders, please indulge an instinct with this blogger. You see, this week will mark five years since the City and Lamar Advertising backed down after pretending for months that rules did not exist or did not mean what they indicated -- and agreed to revoke an improper permit and "restart" a lengthy open-door process in which they indignantly pretended that those rules either did not apply to them or could be ignored, all so City leaders could give some of their close friends and/or stalwart supporters an extremely lucrative chunk of City business on excellent terms. That mummer's farce was widely credited with triggering much of the intractable acrimony we've seen in City Hall since. So I feel like I have a decent nose for locating trouble, even if I don't fully understand what it is.

Press material; PghComet
The Bureau of Building Inspection has been in abject chaos since September 2007, when Ravenstahl fired then-Director Ron Graziano -- not for nothing, on the emphatic recommendation of strategist John Verbanac -- and has had trouble filling that role ever since. It has been roundly and soundly criticized by everyone from the Mayor himself to the ICA to the City Controller to every candidate standing for public office and most residents, for waste and mismanagement. Every step of the journey.

Is it something about inspecting buildings, that we fundamentally do not like?

Is it something about issuing citations?

BBI seemed guarded even about providing basic information.

Who does one talk to about persistent failure at a critical function such as BBI? It is Directorless, seemingly, by design. And it is not as though trash collection and street paving are constantly fallen apart, so this is special. For all its foibles, the administration is still famous for "getting it done." Whatever "it" happens to be.

The Director of Public Safety is a possibility in terms of satisfying this need to know, but he is a notoriously busy man, and besides this sounds like either a policy or a structural issue. The Mayor would be ideal -- but as we know he is exhausted with being Mayor, has more important things on his mind these days, and was rarely that personally invested to begin with.

That's Church; Yarone Zober
Is it McKrell? Do we ask Paul McKrell? That doesn't feel right. He's a messenger. Who is answerable for what has been our consistent policy at BBI: to keep it leaderless and ineffective?

And who is answerable if we mean to be truly unfortunate, and ask about the pattern of entitlement and casual patronage on display in the Mayor's office, in Market Square, at the Housing Authority, through the top of the Police Bureau and evident in the billboard follies? How can we not be suspicious when we see a legacy of problems at development-patrolling BBI, or any new development or civic proposal that is controversial enough to begin with? For how long must we be servants to the occult artifacts of an old fakir?

Speaking of politics, Jack Wagner is emphasizing that he is going to fix Pittsburgh by using his leadership and his accountability. He is joined in this effort by seemingly all of Mayor Ravenstahl's noteworthy backers, as the P-G's Jim O'Toole noted with admirable perspicuity.

Wagner and these officials have gone to certain considerable lengths to describe Peduto as variously vindictive, petty, ego-centric, arrogant, all talk, unaccomplished, a know-it-all, and unable to forge relationships; and, of course, his candidacy as doomed, running scared, suffocated in its crib, and hopelessly elitist and somehow "baseless."

It is noteworthy in our context to mention that one of these prominent Wagner backers includes the City's Director of its Department of Public Works, a Democratic party ward chair in his own right. That support was probably inevitable as result of data from Peduto's office about the distribution of public works and the occasional feud that manner of civic engagement engendered. But given Public Work's almost hackneyed reputation as a political carrot or stick, I was a little surprised to see support form a Departmental supervisor so overt.

Bill Peduto meanwhile has proposed putting GPS units in snowplows so as to increase efficiencies and discover new ones, and "professionalizing" street paving by collecting and making universally accessible the present state of roads. He also thinks it crucial to make all employees "more accessible" with e-mail and to free data generally. *-UPDATE: The Peduto team has announced this will be "Education Week": six education policies will be rolled out in six days.

Special favorite policy papers of the Comet's own have included a courageous call for traffic calming measures (after all, people enjoy the ability to drive very swiftly) and a courageous call for greater competition in taxis (after all, there is probably a taxi company or car service or two this gives indigestion).

Adam Burch
Recently, Peduto sat down with the Tribune-Review to explain how he represents a "new coalition" that is arriving to sweep away "culture of exclusivity" in city government, and suggested even some firings or replacements might have to occur -- particularly in order to capitalize on City parking assets, so that state fiscal oversight might be shed "for real" by 2018.

Jake Wheatley, however, also presents himself as "the most extreme form of change," and though he does not ooze confidence in this race he will not be seen as a spoiler. He has spoken in debates thus far as a persistent if non-specific advocate for distributive equity, and is described by allies in the Legislature as having leadership skills and financial acumen. This Saturday will see voting in the first Pittsburgh Black Political Convention, an event potentially rife with meaning if it is well-attended, popularly acclaimed and indeed if its community "agenda" is any solid indication.

Did you hear the one about UPMC's tax exemptions? Wheatley has reportedly indicated he would still rather negotiate than litigate, Wagner has indicated he supports the Mayor's current strategy, and Peduto has called the challenge of UPMC's tax exemptions "a good start" but would also take a look at Highmark and perhaps the most profitable others, out of basic fairness.

There are a few labor strategists who would rather apply these legal avenues as screws only to UPMC, perhaps to win other valuable concessions. Sophisticated and tricky. But perhaps the way they should be thinking is: can we really carve out special side-deals for our own interests like this, without subjecting ourselves to the whole lot of them? Who do you think is ultimately going to have the advantage in a government that operates that way? The working man? Really?

Rather, how can we build a sustainable coalition of wholly justifiable pressure? That shouldn't be so hard.

Hope you enjoyed this one. Spend some time with it. It's non-linear.