Monthly Archives: November 2008


There was a headline on “The Drudge Report” on Tuesday about a Russian analyst predicting the break-up and fall of the USA. Don’t hold your breath, comrade. Today, all across this country, millions of people who go head-to-head on red state/blue state issues will go home, eat turkey, and then passionately go at it again watching Auburn take on Alabama, or Florida play Florida State. And we’ll get about as hot and excited as we do about politics, and none of it will matter. Because when all is said and done, we’re all Americans, together. That’s not something that Russian analyst — or just about anyone else who’s not a part of this raucous, screaming family — has ever been able to figure out. (Corner, Bill Whittle)

I’m also thankful for Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, and the Fair Use doctrine. 2007’s Comet post for Thanksgiving, about as relevant as ever, is available here.

Wednesday: Stay On Those Stories

There are eight of them. Their job is to make sure businesses are paying taxes. That’s critical — city officials say more than $10 million a year goes uncollected. But we saw six of the eight employees making little effort to find any of that missing money. What we did see was so alarming the mayor already is promising a tough response. (WTAE, Paul Van Osdol)

The last time a television news reporter alarmed Our Mayor with apparent malfeasance in city government, it was Marty Griffin and dubious spending at the Housing Authority. Pat Ford was swiftly dispatched to conduct a thorough investigation, and then um … um … ah …

Has anyone yet reported that Councilman Ricky Burgess has been appointed to the Housing Authority board, and made its new chairman? He would be the one to ask about the status of that inquiry into alleged wrongdoing, most likely.

But back to today’s story at the Finance Department…

“We expect our employees to give us a day’s work for a day’s pay,” Finance Director Scott Kunka said yesterday. “We take it very seriously. We have [the Office of Municipal Investigations] and we have the Law Department involved.”

If the allegations prove true, the employees will be disciplined, he said. (P-G, Team Effort)

Disciplined? Maybe I don’t understand the public sector. If I clock in for three or four hours in a function that is supposed to profit my employer, and I go home and play video games instead, I will thereafter be considered a liability and a slacker and be fired. Then some eager beaver who rightfully lusts after jobs which provide generous benefits will come along to take my place.

If, however, six out of eight of these folks are found to be slacking at the same time — who is it that requires discipline?


Neil deMause, co-author of “Field of Schemes,” a book that examines the public financing of stadiums and arenas, said he has never heard of development credits being awarded as part of a deal. He said they definitely qualify as a perk.

“Free land is as good as free money,” he said. (P-G, Mark Belko)

There’s no reason to get worked up about this again — for once this is exactly what was delineated on Day One of the arena deal in Spring 2007. It’s just that there was so much tough talk about “no local tax dollars” being given away — and only now it’s a headline that “development credits” actually mean something? That land is indeed of value?

The real game will be for how much we sell that parcel of land, and what the Penguins will seek to accomplish with the remainder. Remember that in accordance with the Community Benefits Agreement, a Steering Committee is supposed to be Master Planning that land in a Community Oriented way, which will Drive Development — except it is on a Strict Timetable before it turns into a Pumpkin at Midnight, leaving the Penguins with Carte Blanche.

Under the arena agreement, if the Penguins don’t develop at least 2.8 acres of the Mellon Arena site each year, they forfeit the rights to the land.

Do you mean, they really will be made to forfeit the rights? Or, as with the Steelers on the North Shore, is this to be regarded as set-in-stone either way?

Hey — don’t blame us for being cynical. You’ve conditioned us this way.


However. This Thanksgiving we have something for which to be thankful.

Parties in the bitter Port Authority labor dispute last night reached a tentative agreement on a new contract at International AFLCIO headquarters in Washington, D.C., after four days of special talks unprecedented in their 44-year history. (P-G, Joe Grata)

We don’t yet know the details, but as long as management and labor are in agreement, we don’t care. I can’t fathom what kind of black magic Dan Onorato employed in order to bring these two belligerent parties to a bargaining table in our nation’s capital, but if Legacy Costs are actually brought to heel under these new terms, this will be quite the resume enhancer.

If football is a game of inches, political football is a game of oh, about six days.

Bloggers Rule, Columnists Drool

It’s very gratifying to see all this attention paid by the MSM to our humble local blogosphere in light of PittGirl’s departure.

Some may have found it too fanciful or grandiose, but if anything less than Dennis Roddey’s epic tribute had run to mark the occasion, I’d have been pretty upset. Less heralded but no less appropriate was Eric Heyl’s straighter obituary.

Ruth Ann Daily chimed in with personal reflections and admonitions yesterday, and today Tony Norman shouts out not only to PittGirl but to Pierre 4 Pittsburgh and the gang at Carbolic. It’s nice even to have haters like Mike Seate feel compelled to pipe up.

But so as long as we have your attention:

Getting back to T-Noble’s column today, on the topic of Mayor Ravenstahl’s surfeit of campaign cash and dearth of opposition:

In today’s economy, who has $500 burning such pigeon-sized holes in their pocket that they’re willing to throw it at a mayoral campaign that faces no tangible opposition beyond a few feisty blogs?

Which got us thinking for about the trillionth time: why must it be this way? Or more precisely, why are we “feisty blogs” so rarely joined by any feisty columnists?

Editorials are well and good, but there can be no doubt that a newspaper columnist commands the requisite space, prominence, and artistic license to really reach out and grab readers, invite them to think about something, make it fun and make it edifying at the same time. Sometimes, our columnists do this (brilliantly) on a matter of local substance. But soooo rarely!

Let’s put it this way. How often does Maureen Dowd devote one of her columns to the joys of gardening or the frustrations of modern technology? When was the last time Paul Krugman marked the changing of the seasons or the sheer passage of time? Can any of us recall Joe Klein muse that election season is upon us once again, and gosh it will be interesting to watch the pageantry unfold? Can any of us recall Robert Novak leading us to the crux of an important issue, and then breaking out into song?

These national figures grab readers right in the frontal cortex, forcing them to examine complex issues of great moment at almost every opportunity. No punches are pulled towards Presidential or Congressional bogeyman. Specific advice is offered perpetually on economics, matters of justice and political strategy — along with withering ridicule as necessary.

Most importantly, it is all done with a sense of fierce urgency, of emergency: if I don’t let them know, who will? We can’t let this message, this ideology, this potential compromise, this perspective stay unknown for another moment. In fact, we can’t let it fade into the recesses of last week — we need to keep repeating it, refining it, expanding upon it. Events are upon us.

The national columnists we enjoy seem to regard their columns as mighty weapons, precious national resources. Too often — and at the Comet we try to point out every occasion on which the opposite is true — Pittsburgh’s columnists seem to regard their own as something to fill with pleasantries, equivocations, sighs, shrugs and meandering meditations. Polemic Muzak. At least when it comes to local politics.

Is it any wonder mere blogs are left to lead the charge toward a more prosperous and hopeful civic future? Is it any wonder that future remains stubbornly on the horizon? Is it a coincidence our politicians have nobody to run against?

Monday: T-Minus Seven Days

Your transit strike may be ready in as little as one week. (P-G, Joe Grata)

KD/PG with Pat McMahon: LINK; with Steve Bland and Richard Taylor: LINK.

The Post-Gazette points us toward this trove of slowly floating data, at which one can compare Pittsburgh (by which we mean Pittsburgh and everything within a 200 mile radius) to similar regions of the country. Did you know for example that the Pittsburgh region ranks below average on local government taxes per capita? Here we were led to believe we are the most dreadfully taxed region ever, ever, ever! (PittsburghToday)

Passing unenforceable legislation is all the rage. Let’s put that willfully negligent state Legislature “on notice”, why don’t we! (P-G, Edit Board)

On why there are suddenly like four million hotel projects in development in Pittsburgh: We don’t know. (Null Space)

MEDIA ADVISORY: Today. 4:15. 1360 AM. Mark DeSantis, Chad Hermann, John McIntire, and myself. For some reason. On Renaissance Radio. (UPDATE: Or wait. Is that what a Media Advisory is? Rather, isn’t that when you are letting the media know you are going to be available to them? What is this then? SHAMELESS PLUG.)

Here is a link to the podcast immortalizing last month’s blogstravaganza. Lots of points were left on the field, but rest assured that this time if anyone tries to peddle that weak, “All the good bloggers have quit because blogging is stupid” stuff, there will be heck to pay.

The Event: 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards

h/t: Dayvoe

Thursday: News for Yous

HARRISBURG — State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, was elected today as minority chairman of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees expenditures in the $28 billion state budget.

For 20 years, that Democratic caucus post had been held by Sen. Vincent Fumo, D-Philadelphia, who had a reputation for bringing sizeable state grants to his home town for various projects.

Mr. Fumo had to step down as minority chairman in early 2007, after he was charged with 139 counts of corruption by federal officials in Philadelphia. His trial is going on now and he didn’t seek re-election. (P-G, Tom Barnes)

Hey — better us than them!


[URA director Rob] Stephany said he recommended the Kuhn’s deal to the board because it would employ more people, and would yield greater tax returns and boost real estate values.

“But there are holes in the project,” he said. “But we are confident that in three months we can come back and authorize transferring the real estate.”

Stephany also referenced the Community Benefits Agreement, signed by members of One Hill Coalition, the city and the Pittsburgh Penguins in August, that calls for “a full service pharmacy” and “a full service grocery store that contains a minimum size of 25,000 square feet.” (Courier, Christian Morrow)

There are conspiracy theories abounding that Kuhn’s was selected so that everyone can get back-slaps for trying — but in three months Kuhns will almost certainly fail to get its financing together. By that time, Save-A-Lot may no longer be an option — and we all will have learned a little something about these new-fangled Community Benefits Agreements.

To me, the conspiracy sounds a little elaborate and a lot wrong. I’m sure if everybody buckles down as a team, this can happen. Remember, even the Penguins ran into significant cost-overruns, and all parties were able to work out a friendly accommodation on that.


Do you know there is a Save Race Street movement? Did you know that the real estate market in Homewood is “simmering”? These would be things to know. (My Homewood)

Nov. 18: Just Another Day at City Council

SPOILER ALERT: Actually, it would become Schenley Girls Soccer Team Day in the City of Pittsburgh, but that occurred later. At 10:00 AM, Council chambers was just starting to fill.

Patrick Dowd, former school teacher and father of five, was schmoozing it up at the front of the room with a bunch of uniformed young tikes sitting on the floor.

“And if we think it’s a good idea, we’ll vote for it. If we think it’s a bad idea, we could vote against it, or…”

Darlene Harris entered behind them, and Dowd stopped to introduce her. “Now, not only does Councilwoman Harris care very much about the people who live here, but Councilwoman Harris cares a lot for dogs and cats too! She loves animals!”

In walked Bill Peduto. They discussed how he lives near Frick Park.

“Oh, now here’s Councilman Deasy! Now he’s really really important, because he’s about to be a State Representative!”

Councillors began making their way slowly towards their seats, saying hello to a constituent or media member here and there. Dowd was now entertaining the Schenley High School girls soccer team.

“You guys didn’t do very well this year!”

(silent children)

“Just kidding! Ha ha ha.”

Reverend Burgess entered and began working the room a little more briskly. “How are you. How are you doing, sir. How are you.”

Council President Shields assumed the dais and made some Let’s-Get-Started noises, whereupon most everyone took their seats. Dowd had to be gently nudged to attention by the Sergeant at Arms.

The City Clerk was instructed to call the role. Mr. Burgess — here! Mr. Deasy — here! Mr. Dowdpresent!

The schoolchildren giggled.

These kids were introduced by Shields as the Ellis School 2nd grade class, and were asked to lead the room in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. In Council chambers, this means addressing two big American flags crossing one another over a gold bust of a Bald Eagle, high above the rostrum. After the pledge, each of the girls was invited to introduce themselves by first name into the mic, whereupon followed an orderly procession of at least forty that was so cute you could stick a fork in your eye.

Next, Shields acknowledged Tonya Payne, who introduced the 2008 city champion Schenley High School girls soccer team. Payne praised the young women not only for their athletic prowess but for their brains and grade point averages. She emphasized how well-positioned they are to do anything or be anything in this world. She then gave special props to her own niece, who is “this good at every single sport she tries,” and the Council declared Nov. 18th Schenley Girls Soccer Team Day in the City of Pittsburgh.

Payne had a 2nd proclamation to introduce — in recognition of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, who are holding it down locally for National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. HCEF was thanked in particular for some initiatives undertaken in Council District 9; Ricky Burgess rose to stand with them during the reading. Council declared the whole week Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in the City of Pittsburgh.

Our final proclamation would be presented by Doug Shields himself, and it would make Wed. Nov. 12th (retroactively) LIHEAP Day, or Low-Income Energy Assistance Program Day. Equitable and Dominion gas companies, Shields said, took part in an event at Heinz Field on that day recognizing and promoting the program. He also thanked Franco Harris for his advocacy.

Shields stressed that “low-income” pretty much means “any income” these days, and he was keen to note that several council members’ households would certainly qualify for assistance. Larger families in particular were encouraged to investigate, but at $23,000 in income or less, even a family of one can qualify. Others can pitch in for the holidays by checking a little box on their gas bills that adds $3 or $5 to the Dollar Energy Fund.

The City itself should get further involved in bringing down the cost of energy, he insisted, since working families are in need. He recommended that the URA conduct energy audits on all its buildings, since there are programs available from state and federal governments to fix up existing buildings. Things like that have been delayed for too many years, he insisted, while draping the President’s rostrum with black-and-gold LIHEAP t-shirts.

After the public comment period — in which mayoral candidate Les Ludwig urged us to move from “Yes we can” to “Yes we will”, and assured us he is the same man he was in 1960 — and after some routine approvals, one important piece of legislation was considered.


Dowd sponsored a resolution authorizing the Mayor to enter into an agreement with the URA to develop “a single, uniform, and readily administered set of requirements concerning the Authority’s retention and use of the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) loan repayment proceeds”.

As Jim Motznik explained to me the following day, a previous URA director had earmarked these moneys to be spent directly on salaries at the Authority. Dowd’s bill was seeking to provide clarity on what this grant money can be used for, and to reestablish the Council’s oversight over it.

Darlene Harris proposed an amendment putting more strict regulations on use of UDAG money right away — Bruce Kraus seconded it. Dowd objected to these changes, declining to go through them point by point, but assuring the Council that many of her concerns either already are addressed in the nature of UDAG money or will be in the process of developing the standards. Bill Peduto praised the intention behind this amendment, but marked his intention to vote against it to keep reform moving clean and orderly.

Shields allowed that it didn’t look like Harris’ amendment had the votes, but declared his own support for it, saying that both UDAG and CBDG monies at the URA should be brought under closer scrutiny, and hers were perfectly solid measures. Then he called for a vote.

Burgess — no. Deasy — no. Dowd — no. A cell phone began beeping loudly.

Motznik fiddled with his phone’s controls to no avail. He then rose, opened the door, set his phone on the marble floor of the hallway and slid it about thirty feet away, like an Olympic curler. Then he shut the door and returned to the table.

Harris — yes. Kraus — yes. Motznik — no. Payne — no. Pedutopaaauuse — yes, after all! With Shields the Chair voting yes, the amendment was defeated only by a close 4-5 margin. Councilman Burgess could be seen leaning back in his seat with his eyes closed, rubbing his forehead.

The vote for final action on Dowd’s legislation succeeded 8-1, after which Harris thanked Dowd for taking leadership on the issue, and Dowd declared his expectation that more will be done to straighten out URA budgetary issues by January.


Since there was no more pressing business and no announcements, the Council would recess for an hour and a half before holding a special meeting on a proposed handgun ordinance. Shields flagged me down to ask me to promote the LIHEAP program on the blog.

Dowd came over and somehow we three started talking about Facebook and MySpace, and then the future of the Democratic party. Dowd floated the idea that since he’s such an “extreme” Democrat, a real Democrat’s Democrat, he was thinking of maybe switching over to the Republican party.

“Oh, no,” advised Shields. “You don’t want to do that.”

Ethics Made Simple

Our own Ethics board’s guide (or one of them) along this mission of re-crafting Pittsburgh ethics laws has been Carla Miller, former Federal prosecutor and founder of the non-profit organization City Ethics.

Robert Wechsler is City Ethics’ Research Director. He writes the blog, and maintains the City Ethics Model Ethics Code Project which includes an annotated version of a “model” municipal ethics code.

After bulleting four “essential elements” to all good municipal ethics codes in the Forward to the model code, our authors identify a fifth:

The other essential element of an effective ethics code is that it be the center of an ethical environment. Rarely is the passage of an ethics code the result of an ethics environment. More commonly, it is a response to a scandal or series of scandals in an environment where unethical behavior has been accepted, up to a point.

Boy, howdy!

In such instances, work on a new or revised ethics code can be an exercise in political oneupmanship.

Everything in moderation. Oneupsmanship is a term of art. If a bidding war develops among several grandstanding council members, each of whom would like to appear More Ethical Than Thou, things can get ridiculous pretty quickly.

Then again, if no one at all takes a stand in favor of rigorous ethical standards — do we all pat ourselves on the back for not oneuping ourselves?

But the writing or revision of an ethics code can also be an occasion for, and centerpiece of, the founding of an ethical environment. The discussion of a new or improved ethics code can help a community determine its goals and ideals, and identify conduct that is consistent and inconsistent with an ethical environment. It can also provide guidance that will help people in and out of government think and act more ethically. Out of this process should come, besides the code itself, an ongoing ethics education system and an organized as well as informal system of rewarding ethical behavior and the examination of issues through an ethical as well as a practical lens.

SOLD! We like it.


From the model code itself:

It is central to gaining and retaining the public’s trust in our city’s government that public servants seek to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Fulfilling one’s role as public servant sometimes means sacrificing rather than gaining opportunities.

So far so good. Skipping ahead to the juicy stuff:

4. Gifts. a. An official or employee*, his or her spouse or domestic partner*, child or step-child, parent, or member of his or her household*, may not solicit nor accept anything of value from any person or entity that the official or employee knows, or has reason to believe, has received or sought a financial benefit*, directly or through a relationship with another person or entity, from the city within the previous three years, or intends to seek a financial benefit in the future.

If in doubt, the official or employee should refrain from soliciting or refuse a gift, and should first inquire into the person or entity’s relationship with the city.

And from Rob’s annotated commentary:

Cities have taken a great variety of approaches to the gift problem. The approach here is to limit only gifts from people and entities that do business with or otherwise get financial benefits from the city, including permits, zoning approval, etc. Other common approaches are to limit the amount of gifts or to limit the type of gifts or the type of givers.

That seems pretty cut and dry.

Officials and employees must file with the Ethics Commission, on or before January 31, a list of all gifts received during the preceding calendar year by them or by their spouse or domestic partner, child or step-child, parent, or member of their household, to the extent that the aggregate amount of gifts received from an individual or entity (including gifts from all employees, partners, or investors) during the year is $50 or greater. Information to be disclosed is as follows:

Well then. It seems in a model code, gifts may only be accepted from sources that have not had any recent significant interest in city business (even though it’s a small town), and in this example all gifts greater than $50 must be reported.

There is no section marking an exception for tickets.


107. Penalties for Violation of This Code

Now we’re talking. It’s all well and good to tell people you can’t do this and you can’t do that, but how are you going to enforce it?

1. Resignation, Compensation or Apology

Violation of any provision of this code should raise conscientious questions for the official or employee* concerned as to whether resignation, compensatory action, or a sincere apology is appropriate to promote the best interests of the city and to prevent the cost – in time, money, and emotion – of an investigation and hearings.

Yeah yeah yeah. Those would actually be swell in certain circumstances.

2. Disciplinary Action

Any person or entity that is found to have engaged in action or inaction that violates any provision of this code may be reprimanded, suspended, or removed by the Ethics Commission, or the Ethics Commission may seek or impose any of the sanctions or remedies listed below or in 215.

There it is!

The commentary notes that many cities do not empower their Ethics commissions to suspend or remove city employees. Indeed, this can at times be acutely problematic from a legal and collective-bargaining perspective, as can be the levying of fines. However, reprimands are cheap, and easy, and effective.

I would have chosen the word “censure”, but that’s purely semantics. What politician wants to walk around with two or three Ethics Reprimands on their rap sheet? That would make it hard to get ahead in life.

Sure, one could always argue that the Ethics commission was full of beans in your case, or that the Pittsburgh Ethics code is notoriously restrictive and bothersome and written by twits. And you could be right. That would depend on how reasonable and lenient our code turns out — a code which must also be strong enough to encourage good citywide ethics, and to establish a strong ethical foundation. It’s a balancing act.

So what should Pittsburgh do with its ethics code when it comes to the narrow, hot-button issue of accepting gifts? In the New Haven Model Code, no gifts at all are acceptable from givers directly affiliated with city business — and gifts given by unaffiliated individuals must disclosed if worth more $50.

Let’s call the approach inferred by the Post-Gazette on Friday “the opposite extreme”. It’s a very worthwhile project that we’re embarking upon and it’s good we’re underway.

Obama of Wasilla

“Just gonna have a good conversation about how we can do some work together to fix up the country…”

(Early Returns; AP photo)