Monthly Archives: November 2010

Restuarant Review: Sonoma Grille

(See Gift Card Sweepstakes details at bottom!)

Pittsburgh City Council member Bill Peduto has suggested that one reason to continue significantly subsidizing the cost of parking, despite the city’s $800 million pensions deficit, is that cheaper parking can entice people to come Downtown and enjoy a restaurant they might not otherwise visit.

Another way this can be accomplished is to write a monstrously powerful political blog, and thereby have the folks at Näkturnal marketing suddenly start arranging for you complimentary tastings at Pittsburgh restaurants, along with giveaways for your readers — all for the privilege of having that experience written up online. One of these days I look forward to universally panning one of these eateries, but that most definitely will not be occurring in regards to the Sonoma Grille.

I’d passed the facade of 947 Penn Ave. on many occasions, and always thought to myself, “Man, look at that ritzy restaurant, with all the fancy people inside!” Turns out that impression is more a function of the three-martini lunchtime crowd and the nearby Federal Building. On this Monday evening, families were dressed rather casually, several with babies, and the radio was tuned to whatever is the satellite equivalent of rhythm & bluesy WDVE. Two flat screens above the bar were set to ESPN in advance of Monday Night Football.

Dinner entrees at Sonoma run about $26, with the filet mignon topping out at $34. Salad courses will put you back an extra $8 or $9 — that’s how they get you — but I grabbed a lunch menu and discovered you can get a sandwich or an omelet for just ten bucks.

Sonoma’s wine list is somewhere in the vicinity of 400 varieties deep, a major feature of this “wine bistro”. I was also shocked to learn that they serve regionally grown and organic ingredients mainly, which is to say most of the time — though my server James was quickly able to rattle off a few instances where that was not possible, and it’s not treated quite like an emergency. The cuisine is described as “West Coast” or “California”, with occasional French notes owing to the owner’s background.

This is what I ordered, and what I thought about it:

  • Avocado and Crabmeet Tian: This appetizer had the appearance of green cat food with a cucumber garnish on the side, yet was, well, a tangy and exciting mix of avocado, crabmeat and chili oil. I yearned for a second can.
  • Beet Salad: This was the sleeper highlight of the meal, of a deliciousness entirely out-of-proportion for something called “beet salad”. I expected a mixed greens salad with some beets in it, but no, the salad was made entirely of honey-glazed beets. And pecans. And feta cheese. That’s pretty much it, but somehow the combination of these flavors produced a savory alchemy I am intent on reproducing in my own kitchen, for the reaping of massive dividends. Oh yes.
  • Lamb Ravioli: These were just plain fun-tasting. It was somehow pleasantly greasy yet unmistakably healthful at the same time, what with the cucumber-yogurt sauce. James informed me for example that this dish had its origins in Jamison Lamb Farm and the Allegheny Creamery.
  • Char Su Duck: If fancy-pants food is not for you, enjoy these barbecue chicken wings served on a bed of stir fry. Or if you dig duck, enjoy gnawing away on the perfectly prepared and crispy duck skins.
  • Carmel Creme Brulee: Oh, geez. Served with individually and delicately caramelized thin slices of apple, and a modest cookie for dipping. It’s just lasciviously indulgent, but somehow packed into a dishware dainty enough that it appears you’re being dignified and reserved.

There is so much to try and it all tastes so varied and fun, I actually recommend ordering the “tasting” yourself, enabling you to sample smaller portions of 3, 4 or 5 dishes at $35, $45 and $55 respectively. I have a prodigious appetite and the 5 dish sampler filled me up entirely; ordinary diners if they are friendly and stack up on entree selections will probably be able to split a fiver contentedly.

The ambiance, though elegant, is wide-open and roomy, and the dining room stayed well-lit even after nine o’clock. I’d classify the Sonoma Grille not as much a first-date place as a double-date place or a bring-your-out-of-town-friends-over-Thanksgiving place. There are only so many times you can go back to that one Shadyside bar which used to serve you and your cronies alcohol with your bad fake IDs. This year, show those diasporans how Pittsburgh is passing them by.

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And now, THE GIVEAWAY. Sonoma Grille has furnished us with a $25 gift card. To win it, leave a comment under this post with a unique handle, or an e-mail address in the body or the URL field; something enabling me to say, “Schploopjuice017 won the contest!” so that person can at least e-mail me. If you are a notable public figure, well, use an alias and when we connect over e-mail I promise to protect the facade that you don’t read blogs. If you’re absolutely paranoid we can arrange a dead-drop.

One entry per person. To enter, leave a comment answering the question, “If I could ask any political, business or non-profit figure in the region any question, what would it be?” I will select the winner via random number generator. Monk, you may enter this contest, provided you can keep your entry clean and under a dozen total lines of text. Winner announced Monday at 5:00 PM.

Comet Money Desk: Life Settlement Securities


You know we have a wide array of interests:

After the mortgage business imploded last year, Wall Street investment banks began searching for another big idea to make money. They think they may have found one.

The bankers plan to buy “life settlements,” life insurance policies that ill and elderly people sell for cash — $400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person. Then they plan to “securitize” these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds. They will then resell those bonds to investors, like big pension funds, who will receive the payouts when people with the insurance die. (NYT, Jenny Anderson, 9/05/09)

Sounds like there are clear risks for the initial purchasers and for the investors in the bonds these policies ultimately become — and then in the long run, risks to the insurance market and to conventional purchasers of life insurance policies for whom this might make the whole business more expensive. And, at the end of the road, possibly more bubbles and crashes.

However to those who would initially sell these policies, it seems like the main risk is simply that it has yet to be attempted on any kind of major scale, so investors and bond ratings agencies alike would take very long and careful times in valuing and underwriting these investment vehicles. Maybe more so than it might sound like in a preliminary sales pitch.

Pensions / Parking: Digging In, Throwing Grenades.


In most alternate universes, this is news:

In an e-mail to council members today, LAZ Parking CEO Alan B. Lazowski said his consortium would pay the city $355 million up front for a 50-year lease, which it could cancel after 30 years in return for a partial refund. Unlike the original bid, the compromise offer would have the city get a share of parking revenue from 2022 through 2061 that would total $800 million to $1 billion. LAZ would also modernize meters and spend $93 million improving garages. The city would get all revenue from advertising in the garages.

Coming increases in neighborhood parking meter rates would be trimmed to levels proposed in a plan floated by City Controller Michael Lamb and some council members, Mr. Lazowski wrote. (P-G, Rich Lord)

And so is this, maybe even more so:

Mr. Lavelle’s plan would involve leasing Downtown garages to private interests for around $160 million, while selling Mellon Square Garage, five lots and all meters to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority for $170 million. Combined, those deals could pay off the authority’s debt and shore up the pension fund. (ibid)

Not here though.

Council Finance Chair William Peduto, though, said privatization was a dead issue. (ibid)

And:

He’ll keep tweeting it until it sinks in:

The Trash Heap has spoken! NYEEEAAAAH!

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If we could all talk a little less about which plans are “dead”, and talk a little more about which plans, twists on plans or combinations of plans might actually work, we’d be a lot better off.

Let’s face it: All of the plans are dead. Every single one of them.

Most of them are dead because we have exactly 44 days left to begin seriously analyzing them — with professionals — and somehow pull them off with the cooperation of whomever else these things require: bond buyers and insurers, state government officials, etc. Some of them are even more dead on top of that because they represent 100% total political victory for some politicians and 100% total political defeat for others, and that’s just never a practical option once things reach this point. Still others, even some brand new ones, are especially dead because as it says in the Torah, Thou Shalt Not Privatize. So we’re really talking about what dead plans we should try to breath a little life back into.

Besides which, if we keep pointing out that the old lease is dead — the only plan everyone knew with complete certainty would have worked as far as avoiding the takeover goes — it only makes sense for us to hold an inquest and an arraignment.

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And here come the special agents:

When city workers plowed her street first, it wasn’t hard to find some yelling favoritism.

And now a KD Investigation has found that was just one example of what some might call special treatment – something City Council President Darlene Harris denies. (KDKA, Andy Sheehan)

Watching this exposé, it doesn’t take an angel lady to figure out who might have tipped off the newsroom. With the exception of the plow jobs during Snowmaggedon, the work detailed looks like it was done two to three years back, back when Harris and the mayor’s office were getting along quite a bit better.

Then again, it was previous Public Works director Guy Costa who was at the helm during that period, and who is defending Harris today — and Costa, inherited from previous administrations, had a rocky relationship with this mayor even before he was ousted. And it’s present Public Works director Rob Kaczorowski who now volunteers to a reporter that “undue influence” has been at play. So if my theory of where the news came from checks out, it’s not as though the administration is much implicating itself.

I know that Darlene Harris and her staff consider honesty and ethics to be her bailiwick — they take any allusions to the contrary very seriously. Indeed, she doesn’t deny lobbying for any of the work in the report, she only denies the “unduly” part. It takes a special kind of political confidence to confront these sets of facts and assert calmly into camera, “I work to help the people, not to help myself … I’ve never taken anything for myself.”

But can you imagine running against Harris, and being able to door knock houses and say, “According to KDKA, in the years since Harris was last elected she has had all three streets around her house repaved, had a retaining wall built to protect her property, had the house next door to her demolished so she could use it as a side yard, and had her own street very well plowed during the historic snowstorm that buried most of the city. How is life on your block? And here is what the fire fighters are saying about her leadership…”

Confronted with an attack, Harris again brings up her 35-year history of public service and asserts that her constituents know her work. It’s conceivable she knows more than a majority of likely voters in her district personally, and has done each and every one of them a solid. Still, 35-year histories in government are not so much in vogue these days, particularly when they acquire the whiff of entitlement.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens, here and everywhere.

Our Municipal Drilling Ban: You Don’t Has One?


The people of Pittsburgh have decided to grandstand on the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling, the theory being that it is still so intractably foul and dangerous that we are endowed by our Creator with a certain unalienable right to keep it as far away from us as we can manage to police.

Not the politicians, mind you, but the people have insisted upon throwing this party, by their direct action or their amiable assent — and a good many of them with their eyes wide open as to the legal, um, difficulties? Is that the right word? Point being, this is an educated crowd, and they know roughly what they’re getting into.

Well, I’ll tell you what: there are worse issues to grandstand over, and ones with less practical upside. This could parlay into some extended, modest, slow-burn G20 type of action for Pittsburgh — activists, artists, scholars, scientists, policymakers and lawyers from all over the U.S. convening here to strategize, network, behold our fair city, eat at our restaurants, attempt to mate and what have you. It’s very conceivable that all that activity will result in some genuine locally-grown advances for the cause of safe and sustainable energy development, or else some other things entirely unexpected. The ban is a respectable decision.

In terms of dreary bookkeeping, let the record show there are two (2) dangers in this course of action. One is that if the ban on drilling is challenged in Court, and fails, and then we attempt to pursue zoning restrictions as a fallback, then a new challenger who finds our restrictions too restrictive might claim it was our clear intent to covertly ban drilling, as evidenced by our prior overt attempt. So that could leave us with closer to nothing. A second danger is that we might end up paying the legal costs of these Marcellus drillers out of our own pocket, as that tends to occur when a party violates what other folks thickly insist on treating as constitutional rights.

It will be diverting to learn whether this legislation prompts a veto from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. The veto would be easily overridden, but who cares, he has vetoed unanimously passed legislation before on sheer principle. The city’s Law Department cannot be imagined to be particularly enthusiastic about this, and one would hope a mayor of four or five years experience would be trained to listen to his or her law department. So a veto would also be respectable — but, it might be more profitable and a lot more fun to join the party.

Mind you, the Marcellus Shale Coalition and at least one driller say they have no plans to challenge our ordinance, as there are no serious drilling leases within the city due to geology and science and a little politics. Yet that could change if the technology, the economics, or our consideration of the geology changes, or if municipalities more comfortably situated on the shale bed take a look at us and think, why not us?

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Friday: Core Temperature Rising…


Councilman Bill Peduto just fired off a doozy to the ICA (which is meeting on Monday) and to the Act 47 team, and to the rest of city government and to the press. After raising some technical issues with Mayor’s latest, somewhat rhetorical 2011 budget submission, Peduto objects:

But what is worse is the harmful and destructive tactics being utilized by the Mayor to cover up shortfalls within his Administration and penalize those who are opposed to his parking scheme. (Letter)

Also Peduto complains of “blatant lies” and “sophomoric retaliatory actions.” And then:

This Council has resoundingly rejected ANY plan to lease our parking assets. Let me be very clear on this issue, City Council will not support ANY plan that would lease out our parking assets to a private firm. There is an alternative plan supported by the Controller and seven Members of City Council that has passed and is now law. The only person blocking it is the Mayor. (ibid)

This is all in the event that the ICA has been living in a cave, which is indeed possible.

Council President Darlene Harris is also on record at a recent high-profile meeting of Council declaring that “A lease is a lease is a lease, and privatization is privatization is privatization — is privatization.” So it would seem City Council is in an uncompromising mood.

What seems to be far less widely understood is that Mayor Ravenstahl, for his part, is apparently every bit as dead set against being any part of a “revenue bond”, at least not in the $300 million ballpark necessary to elude a state takeover on its own.

There seems to be a widespread perception that once the Mayor spiritually or emotionally comes to terms with the fact that his lease has been rejected, he will acquiesce to doing his part to issue this debt — and to either commanding or liberating the Parking Authority to do the same — out of fear of getting blamed for the resultant takeover. Contrariwise, every indication so far seems to indicate that the Mayor would rather fight a large revenue bond with his last eyeteeth, on his own conviction that it is impossible in the remaining time-frame, or unworkable as written, or ill-advised, or maybe most importantly worse over the long term than even the takeover.

Now, there are several reasons the Mayor might feel politically comfortable with this position. For instance, somewhat vulnerable Council members Harris, Kraus, and Dowd, as well as Controller Michael Lamb, are all up for reelection just this coming May — whereas Ravenstahl gets two whole years to repair any damage. Yet what would truly chill the Harris Council to their core (if they would credit it) is the possibility that the Mayor actually adopted his position because he feels it is the responsible choice for the city.

At any rate, what is news today is that The Fund that is Something in the Nature of an Irrevocable Trust for Debt Service Reduction — remember, that which was to be locked down most responsibly to pay down debt and debt alone, formally even under a defeasement agreement, so that we couldn’t do something else with it like prop up the pension fund — is now being tapped to pay down debt whereas others might desire it to help with the pension problem.

NO, WAIT! What is news today is that Council would now rather have the City itself retain its own parking assets, and use raised rates and penalties to create “dedicated funding” for the pension fund — cutting out the middleman (and obstacle) that is the Parking Authority. It does not appear from today’s news that the Council intends to take out a bond leveraged against that revenue and deposit cash into the fund, but rather “infuse the fund with value”; so too is it unclear how much this differs from the original Council-Controller plan. I suppose it is also unknown at this time whether the state would acknowledge a “value infusion” in its calculations, since hypothetically the city could change its mind in February and do something else with the money (sort of like it may do with the Irrevocable $45 million) *-UPDATE: Nah, it’s sounding like they intend it to be drawn up and notarized, possibly.

At any rate…

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Who’s up for some oversight NOW, y’all?

If this furious last-minute financial and political jujitsu goes on very much longer, there is a real possibility that it will cloud this blogger’s faculty for parsing truth from nonsense. Evidently it has shattered the capacities of our newspaper of record some time ago, which plainly threw up its hands. We realize that our oversight boards under Act 47 for Financially Distressed Municipalities are not “authorities” in the sense that they are our lords and masters — but the establishment of a few common sets of facts, and some insight as to which assertions floating around are credible, would be extremely helpful.

Finally, in a somewhat roundabout but a very real way, our tax dollars are paying your salary. And it’s a high salary. Get overseeing, oversight boards!

Holiday Feature Film: “FINAL CUT”


Battlestar Galactica: S2 EP 8
“The support the troops episode”

LINK.

And among others, see: KDKA’s Mary Robb Jackson covering Pittsburgh’s 91st Veterans Day Parade, interviewing Donna Euhause (sp?), from Sharpsburg; and Harry Killey (sp?).

Unless you’re a true veteran n’at, it’s hard to explain.”

Actual Open Thread.


Councilman Shields’s municipal drilling ban passed preliminarily and resoundingly, with even Councilman Dowd acquiescing with great trepidation and concern; and Mayor Ravenstahl’s approach to the pension problem took another seeming body blow when a measure to renegotiate his lease deal morphed into a measure to further along a transfer of assets to the Parking Authority necessary to Council’s competing retention-and-borrowing plan. I posted some impressions on that down here but am opening it up because I feel less certain than usual over what is afoot.

The Daily Dance of Death, AKA Pittsburgh


The Mayor’s budget address can be listened to HERE (c/o WDUQ).

The Council President’s response statement can be read HERE.

Words I feel like offering:

1) We haven’t heard much from Council members Dowd or Kraus since before Thursday. Nor has Shields lately drawn any particularly deep lines in the sand.

2) Council’s majority didn’t find the lease to be at all acceptable. The Mayor and the Parking Authority didn’t find borrowing through the Authority to be at all acceptable. I’m not sure why to some, one of those equates to “ridiculous” insistence on a “dead plan”, while the other equates to “a workable plan that’s before us on the table.”

3) I guess Pittsburgh is never going to do any business with Wall Street as long as Sheriff Harris and Deputy Peduto are wearing their stars. (There’s that categorical imperative again.)

4) Remember in the future, people, never outright sell a thing capable of generating revenue, because then you will literally forfeit an infinity amount of money forever. Nobody can afford that!

5) Although the messy rhetorical door again swings open with the President’s assertion that the lease on the shelf would allow “investment bankers” to “drain the life out of our city” — expect a more empirical, numerical fight to be waged over whose course of action actually drains what out of where faster. This is not something your average newspaper article is capable of conveying with sensitivity but I have some faith. Of course some might say as long as it’s not Wall Street that is wounding either ourselves or our egos, whatever drainage we experience will somehow be more tolerable.

6) How about we lease the Downtown and Oakland lots and meters to Lazowski Morgan Draper Pryce, while retaining the rest of the city’s community assets and taking out a revenue bond leveraged against those? First of all, Downtown and Oakland comprise the juiciest part of the deal for investors, so the dowry we negotiate should still be pretty good. Subsidizing parking makes far less economic development sense in well-established Downtown / Oakland than in gently percolating areas like Bloomfield / Garfield / Lawrenceville, for example, or the South Side with its myriad issues. Besides, space age parking meters might actually look impressive to visitors in Downtown and Oakland, whereas in Beechview and Larimer it’s like, don’t make things complicated. By the way there are valid city planning reasons to keep control of our fringe neighborhood meters, so we can alter their layout as needed in an unfettered way. But there are clearly a lot of good fiscal reasons to maximize and fully ensure capitalization on as much as we can obviously. And you know, you can really add Squirrel Hill and Shadyside to the lease pool as far as I’m concerned; they can afford it, are already well-established and thrive more on foot traffic than most — but I’m trying to be nice here. Meanwhile tighten up the language and envelope on “compensation events” and attempt but don’t expect terribly much on shortening the duration.

The only problem I foresee is the concern, “Oh, if you deviate from the bid proposal too much, people will sue!” People won’t sue. These infrastructure world dingbats all know each other and work together, and don’t want to get litigious amongst each other for years, and for what? To whine over spilled milk in a crumbum town? Let’s split the baby as outlined above and compromise within reason, within our ability to collect at least $250 $300 million, and within our capacities to walk away with something to show people.

Ethics, Gifts and Travel Abroad


No, don’t get excited. I’m not throwing any flags on Mayor Ravenstahl and his chief of staff’s recent trip to Shanghai, China and Seoul, S. Korea. Very legitimate and laudable business in my own opinion and in those of most others. But thinking about it does lead one down some interesting paths.

The first question everybody asked is, “Who’s paying for this?” Although it was a business venture the air travel, accommodations, dining and incidentals would not pay for themselves, and over 10 days it is not as though there would be zero opportunity for business-class leisure and refreshment. Heck, even if the official schedule was jam packed solid, I’m still jealous. Travel broadens one.

Shortly we discovered that Shanghai was paying for the officials’ trip to Shanghai, and that the Allegheny Conference and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (which is also the Allegheny Conference) for the trip to Seoul. And everyone said, “Oh.”

Now, if we had learned UPMC for example was paying for the leg to Seoul, of course that would have been uproarious. Similarly had it been Duquesne Light, Target, K & L Gates, or any other discreet outfit with business presently or frequently enough before the city, there would have been some concerns: does the city now owe somebody a favor, or at least a much more generous hearing?

Yet join most every major prominent regional corporate interest together and viola, we instinctively view it as just fine. Almost as though the Conference is some kind of government, now. I don’t argue that the Conference, in its many facets and functions, does not do a lot of good and sincere work for the city and the region — but that does not automatically mean that their interests can not compete or conflict with the interests and desires of other interested Pittsburghers. Indeed it exists, in large part, to advocate policy and engage in the political process.

In fact, let’s imagine William’s Widgets desired itself to whisk the Mayor off to the Korean peninsula, and to Singapore. Realizing how that would look, how difficult would it be to filter the money and handle the logistics through the Conference, if it is an active member?

So then. Understanding that the Conference is a player and represents an identifiable hue of players, if anyone were to feel concerned that “these” interests were appropriating and unduly ingratiating themselves with Mr. Ravenstahl, we actually have vehicles to sort that out! It’s called the City Ethics Code and the City Ethics Board, and it was recently reformed and refurbished.

The rules state, if a public official receives a “gift” worth over $100 it requires electronic disclosure, and if $500 or more, a more fulsome explanation and a review by two members of the Ethics Board. Now, looking at other language in the Code, it is clearly somewhat debatable whether the side-trip to Korea for example should even count as a “gift”, and to what extent does it matter that it’s in anybody’s “official capacity” and conceivably even accorded by a “sponsoring organization.” Maybe there is, or should be, something special about the Conference or a chamber of commerce.

What engaging in the City Ethics process would do, however, is begin building a body of thoughtful precedent for ethical behavior. We can begin applying categorical imperatives to real-life situations — which can absolve proper behavior when it’s being questioned for questionable purposes, and clarify gray-toned behavior which might actually deviate from norms we would all like to see established.

And the danger of not using these ethics tools at all is, of course, that eventually, some official actually will accept a sizable gift for “Win a City Contract Day,” and we will attempt to remedy this under our ethics laws, enabling this malefactor to turn around and say, “We have never used our ethics laws, the Board is atrophied as an institution, we can’t possibly begin applying these dated rules so selectively!”

Which brings us to the penalty flag I actually am throwing. We see that since the new ethics legislation passed last summer, requiring the electronic disclosure of all gifts valued at over $100 to any city officials, exactly two gifts have been declared — by the same guy.

Bravo, Mr. Molinaro! And bravo to the scores, perhaps hundreds of remaining city officials, who have all scrupulously refrained from accepting a single item of three-digit value from any conceivably interested party this entire last year!

It appears Pittsburgh is well on the road to another cycle of bitter scandal, constitutional crisis and unsatisfying resolution. Let’s start flexing our ethics muscles not because we must, but because we can. Because it’s healthy. Because it’s helpful.