Monthly Archives: March 2009

Tuesday: Politics, Politics, Ethics, Ethics**

It’s getting heated out there.


“Taxpayer dollars are being wasted through mismanagement and cronyism,” Dowd, who is challenging Ravenstahl in the May 19 Democratic primary, said as he stood over one of 250 steel trash receptacles the administration purchased for $1,010 apiece without seeking competitive bids. (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Criticize “mismanagement” all you like, Patrick, but going after the opposing candidate’s religion is out-of-bounds. If Luke practices Cronyism that’s his personal choice.


“We have a desperate candidate with no plan of his own, showing himself to be just ridiculous,” said Ravenstahl campaign manager Paul McKrell. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Hmm, so we have a campaign manager acting as the attack-dog. That is a new thing for our political landscape I believe — I wonder if it will be effective. Let’s see if we can get him on camera in action; people deserve to become familiar with this chap.


*-UPDATE: I should say, on camera more. (WTAE) The reason we have had “three balanced budgets” is A) the oversight boards have long made it the law to balance budgets on a piece of paper and B) the budgets are not actually balanced. Remember, the Finance Director said the five-year plan is “only a piece of paper”? It’s a shell game between the “City” budget, the Authorities budgets and where we choose to notate our debt. Look at the condition of our streets and neighborhoods, total up all the vacant positions throughout city government, and tell me again we have a “balanced budget”.

Thoughts on Schultz carries the chart detailing the cost of the waste. I have to believe we can add things to it if we think about it.

**- UPDATE: Oh yeah! Holy cow, KDKA is hosting a mayoral debate in which YOU (we, us, people) submit video questions a la the YouTube debates. Details on how to do that here at KDKA. Or, let the League of Young Voters help you submit a question here.

Continuing….

The P-G Edit Board ran a lengthy editorial on Sunday entitled “Trail of Influence”.

I love it when politicians argue that there are no “dots” to “connect” but rather coincidences — and that they personally are never influenced by money. Maybe other people are, but not them, never ever. Come on guys, it’s MONEY. It’s influential. I don’t care if you’re a “good person” or a “bad person” — to claim that large sums of money and significant gifts do not influence you over time, is to argue that you are something more than human.

Let’s ask this — why are they giving it to you? Again and again, year in and year out, people offer you stuff. What do you suppose motivates them to do so? Do you think it is because you are charming? Good looking? Lucky? Do you think you do a great job and it is out of appreciation? Lots of people in every industry perform great work that is appreciated — rarely are ten thousand dollar checks slid under their door.

I’ve never received anything from Millcraft Industries. I’ve been sitting here waiting, and not one dollar, not one ticket, nothing. Why not? Maybe it’s because I’m powerless to do anything to help them. Maybe it’s because, contrary to popular (among politicians) belief, they only give stuff away whenever they feel it will become profitable to them, when it will influence the course of their business. Which makes perfect sense. For them.

##

I embark upon this tangent because I just viewed Council’s post-agenda on new Ethics legislation. First of all let me say that I’m positive lots of earnest people worked really hard on this, and probably without twirling their mustaches and cackling evilly even once.

However, the meeting was so chock full of mutual admiration — the working group was wonderful, the Ethics board was wonderful, the Law Department was wonderful, we are all so wonderful — that I feel a little balance and frankness is in order. Sorry, that’s the job I’ve taken on; I don’t mean to sound like that fellow who’s been offering public comment hollering about “Solicitor Sphincter”, but it doesn’t really seem like what is being offered is significant reform. I’d be happy to learn more about it if I am mistaken.

Meanwhile, here are some notes on the meeting:

1. The Ethics board endorses the proposal of the working group.

2. The new rules detail what is acceptable in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was verbally italicized on at least half a dozen occasions — apparently what is ethical in Pittsburgh differs rather significantly from what is ethical elsewhere, or from what appears in the City Ethics model code.

3. Often in close proximity to this Pittsburghism, it was noted that “at the neighborhood and city level”, attendance at public events is “expected and encouraged”.

4. There are updated, specific and “realistic” dollar figures of what defines “nominal” value.

5. For most categories of gifts, it is “recommended” that public officials “seek” “voluntary” “advice” from the Ethics board before acceptance.

6. Doug Shields now concedes that Ravenstahl’s acceptance of UPMC’s and the Penguins’ offer to attend the Lemieux Invitational charity golf tournament was AOK. Bill Peduto disagrees on this point, saying that if the event host invited him it would be okay, but the minute UPMC writes a check to pay his way that event admission becomes a gift.

7. Ricky Burgess was taciturn and generally unenthused throughout. He said his “personal ethics” are “higher” than this and indeed one must do more than what is required. Yet at the same time he “wholeheartedly supports” this measure, it has his “complete and utter support”.

8. Related to this, I think at some point it was implied that the Council is shooting for and expects unanimity on the measure.

9. Shields and Peduto seem to want to add penalties for the interested parties who offer things to, or “dangle things in front of” public officials.

10. As to penalties for public officials who accept untoward gifts, this seems to reside almost entirely through a “transparency mechanism” — that being, gifts are “encouraged” to be declared officially, so that the public can make up their own minds. This is because elections happen so frequently, the public pays such close attention to city government, and what is ethical and what is unethical depends on whether or not one gets caught and can retain 51% of the vote.

Again, if I’m way off-base here I hope to be corrected, but this is what I gleaned from the meeting. A public hearing will be held on Monday the 6th at 1:30.

Desperate Times….

Monday: Flabbergasted!

At City Council’s recent special meeting on campaign finance legislation, mayoral Manager of Policy Gabe Mazefsky sat at the table to represent the Mayor’s office. This is how he started:

“Mayor Ravenstahl has long been a proponent of campaign finance reform.”

I try to keep my comments policy-oriented here, lively for certain but always in good spirits. Nonetheless, readers must continually sense something because from time to time it is suggested to me that boy, I must really hate the mayor!

“Hate” is both a strong and a wrong word, but in the future I think this would be an excellent item to stick a pin in — if in the future readers should ever notice a degree of anger.

Patrick Dowd must have felt similarly, because he looked for all the world like he was fixing to take a swing at the mayor’s Manager of Policy. That’s dangerous — I think it must be a tactic by now for the administration to be so glibly and punishingly mendacious that one cannot summon an adequate response. Even still, Dowd gamely plowed ahead with his prepared questions, barely concealing his outrage.

First Dowd asked: the Mayor wrote in his veto letter of last summer’s CFR legislation that he objected to the effect CFR would have on challengers to build campaign war chest capable of knocking off incumbents. What had changed over the months to alleviate those concerns?

Mazefsky’s only response was to point out that Dowd himself had raised $80 thousand during his campaign for Council, and to quote him on one occasion saying he was proud of that. He did not address why the mayor dropped that concern.

Then Dowd asked: the Mayor also wrote that it is important CFR be enacted only statewide, so as to “level the playing field” for everybody. However, not only is this new bill the mayor and county exec submitted not statewide, it does not even address the many municipalities and governments within Allegheny County — it only address City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officeholders. So again, what happened to the Mayor’s previously stated concerns?

Mazefsky’s only response to this was to point out that Dowd failed to propose campaign finance reform for the School Board while he sat on that body.

You can check the video.

After this was concluded, Councilwoman Harris opened her turn at questioning with the observation that “there’s a lot of politics in the room” — and certainly there was. However, it was clear that Dowd was playing politics at least with a set of verifiable, real-world facts and interesting questions. Gabe Mazefsky, by contrast, was playing politics with … I don’t even know how to describe it.

Those members of Council who voted against campaign finance reform back in June reiterated their skepticism and their objections once again — with Theresa Smith now filling the role of Dan Deasy. Of course I disagree with their positions, and the City can debate all of that on its merits. Yet none of those individuals pretended to have been “long time proponents” of these particular reforms, none of them were wild about the current measure, and none of them veered off into abject childishness like Mr. Mazefsky.

Assuming Mayor Ravenstahl has or ever had convictions on the subject, all he is accomplishing by proposing these weak and tentative reforms is to sell out the colleagues with whom he shared some convictions last summer — for the sake of play-acting like a progressive reformer immediately before an election.

Continuing Education; Lifelong Learning

I’m thinking of taking some classes in West Virginia this summer.

Get Involved: Driving Change in Your Community
When was the last time you spoke with your Council representative? While it might sound like a strange question, you should be making your voice heard. Each of us is responsible for the place where we live. Learn how to protect and improve the quality of life in your hometown. Where you live shapes every aspect of your identity. It is time for you to create the changes you want to see in your community.
Instructor: Patrick Ford
Pat Ford, a skilled and passionate public speaker with a genuine desire to see communities, organizations and local leaders achieve their best, has been a town and city planner as well as a consultant to several city projects in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida. He has also worked with both young people and adults in planning processes such as “Teen Leadership Fayette County,” and the Pittsburgh “Intern Shadowing Program.” He earned both baccalaureate and master’s degrees in urban planning at the University of Virginia.

Wait. It gets better:

Leadership Tactics of Attila the Hun
Attila the Hun was not even 13 when a king sought to break his spirit through tutelage in the Roman courses. By staying true to his ideals while learning customs of the captors, Attila was able to emerge as a leader of diverse peoples, skilled in policy making and diplomacy. How might you incorporate the leadership tactics of Attila the Hun? You’ll learn how to manage responsibility, run successful meetings, create agendas for different audiences, deal with dissenting opinions and delegate responsibility.
Instructor: Patrick Ford

The War of Fog: Ethics Reform, the Lamar Appeal, RRZ Public Markets

City Council will be discussing proposed changes to City ethics legislation at a post-agenda session this coming Monday, March 30 at 10:00 AM. A public hearing is then set next week for Monday, April 6th at 1:30.

Not that much time to get up to speed. The Pittsburgh Comet’s last significant post on ethics reform is available HERE; those are still more or less our thoughts.

The history of Pittsburgh ethics is interesting — when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl accepted the request of Board Chair Patrice Hughes to appear publicly before the Ethics Board on August 21, 2007, it was the first significant activity of City ethics infrastructure in the City’s history. It was also the last.

Following that hearing, there was a stated consensus that the city’s Code of Conduct would need to be improved or tightened, and that doing so was important. There also seemed to be a sense that the City’s existent Code of Conduct had been ignored for too long for anybody to take entirely seriously. The matter was eventually taken up by a “working group” involving some members of the Council and the City Law Department.

After 19 months of research and consultations, the resultant proposal appears to my eye at least to be best described as a relaxing of our Code of Conduct, with particular respect to the issue of “tickets” as a protected class of gift. However, the whole of Council has yet to apply its legislative elbow-grease to it.

As City Council President, Doug Shields deserves the credit for committing the Council to these two public discussions. To do so in such close proximity to a conversation about campaign finance reform is both bold and I think sensible.

After these are held, the Council will have the opportunity to amend the proposal before them and to pass something. However, they will be under no particular obligation ever to do so. What will occur over the next two Mondays are required steps along a legislative process, but they do not in themselves guarantee completion of that process. So we still have a shot of getting into the Guinness Book of World Records for lengthiest municipal ethics deliberations.

##

Speaking of ethics (not!), Bob Mayo fills us in on the next round in the billboard battle.

It the Lamar brief, attorney Sam Kamin argues that “this is not an appeal from the issuance or denial” of the sign permit”, but instead “”the action requested of the zoning board was the revocation of Lamar’s Sign Permit”. The Lamar brief cites past court cases to argue that the zoning board’s tie vote constitutes a refusal to revoke the sign permit, not a refusal to approve the electronic billboard. Lamar also argues that the split vote means the status quo should be maintained — and it considers the status quo to be that the sign and its permit remain. (Busman’s Holiday)

Wowee zowee!

In the immediate aftermath of the Zoning Board’s decision to reject Lamar’s applications for the variances and special exceptions they did not have to suffer through during their original run, we asked Patrick Dowd, who protested that original permit, whether Lamar was likely to appeal the ruling. He said that would be like “two kids who killed their parents, and then went before a judge pleading that they’re orphans.”

The City of Pittsburgh also hired outside legal counsel to argue its own position. What is its own position?

Like Lamar’s Kamin, Lucas argues that a tie vote of a governmental body constitutes a negative decision and preserves the status quo. Where do they part company? They differ over what exactly the status quo is in this case. Implicitly, the city is arguing that the status quo is that there is no permit for the electronic billboard. It also argues that the Mitinger opinion (against Lamar) is the one that controls the court’s review. (ibid)

Curious. I wonder if the City is trying its very best here. I hope someone is present to represent those who actually have been protesting the sign permit. The City, as it were, is brand new to that position.

On behalf of the city, Lucas opposes Lamar’s wish to reopen the record to include public statements by a senior planner with the city’s Planning Department about earlier informal city agreements about replacing non-conforming signs. Lucas writes “the only thing that requiring the testimony of Mr. Sentz would open is the proverbial ‘can of worms’. (ibid)

Knee-jerk reaction: might as well start popping open cans of worms. Right?

##

No time at present to delve into the continuing stooooory of municipal bond-swap deals turning all maggoty. Pittsburgh’s situation and Patrick Dowd himself are mentioned in this new Bloomberg article (h/t NullSpace), and once again the Butler Area School District and other Pennsylvania entities are mentioned along with Greg Zapalla of RRZ Public Markets in this previous Blooomberg article (h/t Pgh Comet).

We know it’s not easy to be that closely associated with AIG right now, but pretty soon I don’t think it’s going to be pleasant to be seen as an enabler of J.P. Morgan’s worst proclivities either. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Mixed Fruit: Georgia Blotzer, Mt. Washington, Mike Veon, and U.S.A. Buchanan

First: Maria posts a very good breakdown of most of the fallout from Council’s initial stab at campaign finance reform.

I’m partial of course because it leads with Georgia’s statement to the press — but don’t overlook anything, particularly the chart by Bob Mayo comparing other cities’ CFR ordinances.

More Blotzer activity: The Mt. Washinton blog 15211.org posts the text of the candidate’s presentation to City Council regarding intractable property vacancies along Grandview Avenue. Citing a section of the City Code in regards to Public Realm Districts, Blotzer implored the Council:

I would hope that council and the planning commission would be more vigilant in monitoring developments and in this case specifically, LACK of development or maintenance in areas designated as a Public Realm District. I would also hope City Council would consider reviewing or creating new legislation to enforce development timelines for all such speculators/developers. (15211.org)

Note for Georgia: You may well be right about new legislation, but my worry is, who is going to come along to enforce legislation that is supposed to help enforcement elsewhere? If enforcement is a problem we have identified — we may require new enforcement procedures, or a different kind of leadership.

However, the Council (including Councilwoman Smith) seems to be with you on the need to tighten up the code’s language and maybe make it more actionable, so we’ll see.

15211 also posts some observations on the public hearing, and on the issue of underperforming Grandview Ave. in general:


As people fought to retain control of their neighborhood, they didn’t anticipate that their success in doing so would result in an overcorrection of sorts. Mt. Washington developed a reputation for being “anti-development” and the developers that did purchase land were less than motivated to do anything with it. So here we sit. MWCDC Executive Director Chris Beichner brought a petition to Councilwoman Smith and City Council is finally taking a look at how to get us out of development limbo responsibly. (15211.org)

Now. On to another subject…

What about that Big Beaver Initiative?

A statewide grand jury sitting in Pittsburgh said the pair essentially used the Beaver Initiative for Growth, ostensibly an agency designed to improve communities in Mr. Veon’s district, as a cash reserve from which they paid bills for political work, gave bonuses to state employees who worked on Mr. Veon’s campaign and directed millions of dollars in salaries and contracts to family and associates of Mr. Veon. (P-G, Dennis B. Roddy)

So it really was a non-profit. Mike Veon simply was the Big Beaver Initiative for Growth. All of BIG’s efforts, allegedly, went to further the cause of Veonism.

Mr. Veon told John Gallo, Beaver Initiative’s onetime executive director who resigned over expenditures he viewed as illegal, that “since Edward Rendell had just taken office as governor there were going to be millions of dollars coming to BIG.” After Mr. Rendell took office, the grand jury said, Beaver Initiative received more than $9.9 million in grant money from the state. (P-G, ibid)

Given everything we have learned about the scope of “Fumoworld” and given these new charges regarding Veonland — do you think it’s possible the Governor never knew about any of this, as his government was helping to strengthen these respective citadels? It’s starting to feel like WHAT DID YOU KNOW AND WHEN DID YOU KNOW IT season.

Rendell spokesman Michael Smith and Community and Economic Development spokesman Mark Shade said the governor has no role in awarding grants. (P-G, ibid)

Up until a few days ago, he didn’t have any role in supervising the Turnpike Commissioner, either.

##

A very good cover story about the life and times of Mary Beth Buchanan appears in this week’s City Paper. On a scale of one to ten — one being an outstandingly fair and balanced piece of journalism, ten being the usual ill-informed gut reaction that passes for analysis from many well-intentioned leftist writers — I give this article about a three.

I think the “controversy” about the case surrounding the pill-distributing doctor is pretty thin, for example; I had thought only one of the six witnesses recanted her testimony, and even then who knows when she was telling the truth, and what difference would it have made. And as usual, I think there is too little cognizance not only of the role Attorneys General play but the roles everyone between that officer and a U.S. Attorney play in decision-making — when it comes to “pulling the trigger” on certain potential charges, for example.

For more of my thoughts on the matter, SEE HERE, but the C-P did a fairly informative job.

The cover is very cute — it depicts Ms. Buchanan mounting heads on a wall with one space remaining for Dr. Cyril Wecht, with Rush Limbaugh and National Review literature on the coffeetable and a signed photo from A.G. Ashcroft on the mantle.

One thing that caught my eye was the Constitution burning in the fireplace — that is a very serious charge and would need to be backed up with something! — but then I remembered, this is satire! Just like the Barack and Michelle cartoon on the cover of the New Yorker! The City Paper is actually lampooning how certain less-informed liberals view Ms. Buchanan. All in great fun.

The Band: Culture Club

The song: Karma Chameleon

Wednesday: Yeah, There’s News*

Today’s charges grow out of the operation of the Beaver Initiative for Growth, a Veon-organized economic development program that was funded through state grants. (P-G, Dennis B. Roddy)

That’s gold, Jerry.

In response to what he termed a “complete failure of leadership” on campaign finance and eliminating the appearance of impropriety in contracting, Dowd outlined his campaign finance reform agenda: (Dowd press material)

7 points. Try not to be overwhelmed.

*-UPDATE: More…

Mr. Wagner, who has described the deal as a “fire sale,” said at a news conference today that he has asked his office of special investigations to determine the full cost associated with the transaction, which involves the relocation of more than 800 state employees to three other office buildings Downtown.

“This is a bad deal. Every taxpayer will pay for it,” Mr. Wagner said. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Wagner’s review of the sale of the State Office Building will take 60 to 90 days, and is intended to generate “public outcry” in order to “pressure” Gov. Rendell and his department chief.

Let’s Get Real, with Darlene Harris

Months ago, Councilwoman Darlene Harris and I had a wide-ranging conversation about city ethics and campaign finance reform. My desire to see strict legislative limits on political contributions along with full transparency did not impress her.

“You don’t think people take cash?” she asked.

She shot me a look like maybe I was from another planet. Then she looked around as though to check to see that she herself was still on the right planet. Then she resumed looking at me like I had just fallen off the turnip truck.

(Photo cap h/t Pgh Hoagie)

##

So we have an issue. Campaign finance reform is not perfect.

Point conceded. However, let’s start with simple things first. Today our politicians accord themselves a fair amount in the way of so called pay-to-play because it is so fairly ingrained in the system, and because it is so easy.

It makes sense to take action to demonstrate that selling out is not acceptable.

If the ship leaks, we can look to where it’s leaking. I’m sure there will still be lobbyists and financiers, not to mention rogues, who will continue to excel at circumventing the system and enriching the coffers of politicians. Yet by turning down this road, we would be establishing some mutual standards, and encouraging those middlemen to disappear into the hinterland.

##

Harris offered another jewel to the Comet, this one regarding all the excitement the pay-to-play angle tends to stir in the media. This must have been just a short time before the Superbowl, because sports event tickets and trips were very much in the news.

“Do you know what would make a really fascinating expose?” she began, caustically.

She then wondered aloud how many trips sports journalists and all other print and broadcast journalists and personalities accept to attend professional sporting events and sports-related events throughout the country. Home games. Road games. Playoff games. All-Star games. Drafts. Exhibitions. Planes. Hotels. Restaurants. Et cetera.

“Do you know the food they have at those things?” she asked.

“Now, see here,” I thought for a moment. The media doesn’t get to vote on public contracts. The media doesn’t get to hand out taxpayer dollars. The media doesn’t….

But then I thought about every new stadium we’ve ever built.

Regulating Selves = Hard. Selling Property = Easy.

City Council’s efforts to regulate campaign contributions are shaping up to be a ghastly twisted shipwreck, which may not get sorted out for months.

“I will support a plan for campaign finance reform, because I do think we need one, but I don’t want it to begin and end with the city of Pittsburgh,” said city Councilwoman Theresa Smith, a potential swing vote on any amendments. City-level campaign limits are just “a Band-Aid on the situation.” (P-G, Rich Lord)

If reform begins in the City of Pittsburgh, why should it end there? One government at a time, guys!

If Theresa Smith, for example, were to vote differently on this issue than did her predecessor, Dan Deasy, then campaign finance reform would become a veto-proof, signed sealed and delivered historic reality.

However, Smith and others describe City-wide reform as a “Band-Aid” — whereas County-wide reform is somehow completely beneficial and desirable. Meanwhile, the county, we will be told, is not amenable to sensible caps on political donations. So our only recourse will be a watered down bill that accomplishes little towards the purposes of reform — and not until much further down the road.

Let me try to present a different reality. Campaign finance reform is good in and of itself. Campaign finance reform is healthy for Pittsburgh.

Why should we be forever burdened with the influences and the suspicions surrounding such huge gobs of money, distributed in so pedestrian a fashion?

City officials shouldn’t worry so much about taking on some kind of “disadvantage” compared to county officials. They should be proud to do so!

This is about reestablishing some trust and some proportion between city residents and city leadership. It is about eliminating a lot of needless waste and many real, unhealthy pressures. Please reconsider.

##

Meanwhile, the state has sold our State Office Building for $4.6 million, to River Vue Associates / Millcraft Industries, who plan to turn it into appartments or a hotel or maybe a giant lazer tag arena.

State Auditor General Jack Wagner has questioned the savings. He has argued that the state may end up losing money by having to lease space elsewhere Downtown. He urged the state to ditch the idea of a sale until the economy improved, describing a $4.5 million price as a fire sale. (P-G, Mark Belko)

Can anyone really vouch for this argument, i.e. does anyone know what he’s talking about? This sure sounds like a tasty issue, but it all sounds so surprisingly legit and above-board right now.