Monthly Archives: May 2008

The Precedent Before the Precedent

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is planning a 20-by-40-foot flashing electronic sign that it hopes will transform Pittsburgh into the “City of Light.”

The sign, which will be on the roof of Penn Avenue Place, the former Joseph Horne/Lazarus Building, would display a series of white triangles floating on a blue-gray background.

This plan is the first thrust in a series of architectural/light projects that the trust announced in 1996. (P-G, Donald Miller, 4/23/99)

Did anyone ever gaze up at that queer thing facing the North Shore and not feel a palpable sense of foreboding? Didn’t we all ask ourselves, Why?

In Curating the District, the Trust notes that “Light Panel” has a much higher profile. Built atop the old Horne’s department store, “It is positioned to be seen from … PNC Park and from the air, visually linking arts, sports, and tourism,” the Trust asserts. If that sounds ambitious, consider that the artists themselves claim to be linking not just elements of Pittsburgh’s latest revitalization, but the very fabric of the universe itself. The Trust’s promotional gloss quotes Wilson saying, “Everything begins with light,” and that “Without light, there’s no space. And space can’t exist without time: they are part of one thing.” (C-P, Chris Potter, 4/22/04)

What rube could dare protest such a thing?

Not only was this definitely art — but how dim and modest, how unobtrusive and slow-moving — almost soothing. You are getting sleepy, Pittsburgh…

What can be said, and happily so, is that this new project is emblematic of something far more important than just light and color for Pittsburgh. The new work would be a visible indication of a willingness by the community to innovate, to try something new and dramatic, to work at presenting a new face to the world. If it is controversial in the process, so be it.

Controversy is not necessarily a bad thing for a city. It shows energy — for heaven sakes, something is actually happening here that is noteworthy. It wakes people up, invigorates them and sparks public dialogue. Those are good things. (P-G, Edit Board, 5/08/99)

We are not saying it was wrong for some forces on or involved with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to take deliberate steps to jazz up the night skyline, or to attempt to acclimatize Pittsburghers to the the concept of glowy things — even to do so with some cleverness. Loosen the pickle jar a bit.

After all, this sign was what they said it was. They did not do or say anything false or misleading during the public vetting process, so far as we know. They played by the rules, and the public was willing to play along.

Maybe it’s the former art teacher in me, but I’m tempted to see the jumbo screen at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts as an electronic painting for the 21st century, one that could animate the city in a positive way.

But can Pittsburgh allow it without opening the door to a riverfront crowded with galloping Marlboro men and screaming Oven Mitts? (P-G, Patricia Lowry, 9/24/03)

CAPA sign, eh?

There is some precedent here for the screen, in the Robert Wilson/Richard Gluckman triangle of light that rotates on a rectangular screen facing the riverfront, initiated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Two years ago, when that LED screen was launched atop the former Horne’s building, the Trust was promoting Pittsburgh as the “city of light,” especially light that moves in space and time to define the Cultural District.

While the abstract Wilson/Gluckman screen carries no text, it could be argued that it promotes, in a broad way, the work of the Cultural Trust, which recently plugged in Austrian-born artist Erwin Redl’s red-hot, mesmerizing “FLOW” on the Liberty Avenue side of its wedge-shaped Wood Street Galleries building.

If it could have been argued, most likely it was argued.

The point of this story is that interests that stand to gain enormously from the weakening of regulations are capable of being very subtle, very collaborative, very creative, and extremely patient.

All of which also is fine — but those who may have different policy perspectives have the right at all times to be able to see what is going on, and to sound off about it if it involves changing existing regulations. That’s what we call transparency and accountability, and those are more than the buzzwords which they have become.

O Danny Boy: Trying Times Ahead

[Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation] plans to roll out a full-fledged campaign called the “Whiskey Rebellion II,” with a kickoff party tomorrow at the Church Brew Works in Lawrenceville. (P-G, Karamagi Rujumba)

Are the goose people invited?

Mr. Onorato, who easily won a second term last year, has consistently said he has not yet determined whether he will seek the governor’s mansion in two years.

But if he does, Kevin Joyce, proprietor of The Carlton restaurant, said the local hospitality industry will make its case to voters in all parts of the state that Mr. Onorato has not only been “a bad chief executive,” but that he has “failed to lead on the tough issues.”

That is so the crux.

Mr. Onorato has presided over a period of fatalism and malaise in our county. “Holding the line” is not a huge resume enhancer, and that North Side charisma may not take him so far outside the region.

Having punted on the opportunity to shake things up on behalf of his former allies in the Hill Faith & Justice Alliance, his last opportunity to generate a little electricity will probably be this city/county merger. That strikes us as a hail mary pass thrown across a mine field.

At the conclusion of his term, the pertinent question might not be whether Onorato gets into the Governor’s Mansion, but whether he is viewed as culpable for the County Executive’s Pad slipping out of Democratic control. In 2011, which party will seem like the party of change to you?

Monday: The Haircuts Give ’em Away

To call attention to its “Stay & Play Fridays” promotion for Market Square merchants, PUMP wants as many people as possible — “you and everyone you know,” according to its publicist — to show up at the Market Square stage at 6 p.m. today for a dry run of a mass freeze-in-place stunt. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

Now you know. However, we’ve got to go to this:

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt on Monday is expected to recommend whether the district should permanently close Schenley High School or spend millions of dollars to renovate the historic building. (Trib, Bill Zlatos)

The suspense is just killing us, you see.


Emily Nordquist describes her work as “a found interest.” She didn’t start her internship at East Liberty Development Inc. burning to be a neighborhood organizer.

Dustin Stiver expected “to get a job in corporate America” after school, he said, but a series of internships turned his head, including one with Neighbors in the Strip.

The Strip District and East Liberty nonprofit groups are community development corporations, or CDCs, a genre that, traditionally, has not inspired people in their 20s. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

Just bear in mind that UPMC also calls itself a nonprofit, and it’s a good read. Rob Stephany, our Acting Executive Director of the URA, was on sort of the leading edge of this trend.


h/t A Bag Full of Health and Politics

The “Clean” Slate

HARRISBURG — Gov. Ed Rendell is sticking with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton as his choice for the Democratic presidential nomination. (P-G, Tom Barnes)


But if, as many Democrats expect, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama gets the nomination, Mr. Rendell thinks he should choose U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., as his vice presidential candidate.


Not only will Joe’s vast experience and foreign policy credentials shore up Barack’s perceived weaknesses, but his own horrible, horrible gaffes will make those of Sen. Obama look like mere child’s play!

Lamar 4 Requests Opinion from State Ethics Commission

The five page document contains a succinct history of the entire affair involving the controversial LED sign permit, with frequent references to press accounts, legal opinions, meeting transcripts and court transcripts, all included as appendices.

Although the letter sent this afternoon to the Ethics Commission is not the previously rumored letter to the State Attorney General requesting an investigation, the Ethics Commission has the power (and the obligation when warranted) to trigger investigations by the Attorney General.

Although today’s letter never mentions URA director and Parking Authority chair Patrick Ford by name, nor any gift-giving to public officials by Lamar Advertising, it should be noted that the same Ethics Commission is presumably already engaged in the preliminaries of an investigation of Ford and Lamar.

Here is a sampling of what seem to be some of the more notable selections. All of the emphases are our own.

Serious issues regarding process surfaced when the matter came to light in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story (02/12/08) reporting that Lamar had secured a no-bid contract from the Parking Authority to place this LED on its new building without the consent of the Authority’s Board. Under Chapter 161 of the Pittsburgh Code of Ordinances, contracts in excess of $30,000 must be bid prior to being let.

This is an argument against the permit that has not yet been raised with such precision.

Aside from the no-bid contract, there were other problems, specifically the fact that the permit was in direct violation of the city’s zoning code which limits billboards at this location to 500 sq. ft. It seems clear that the zoning code required a higher standard of review and that Lamar should not have been given an administrator’s exception.

There were a number of other procedural matters and questions which are illustrated in a legal opinion rendered by City Solicitor George Specter. It is notable that City Council had to wait for this opinion for almost two months. Accordingly, it was very difficult for Council to determine a clear, lawful course of action.

As a result of this controversy, the Council convened a Post Agenda session on February 27, 2008. Enclosed is a copy of the transcript of that 6-hour meeting. Notably, much of what we were told was later proven false.

The Comet will be excavating and analyzing key portions of that post-agenda session of Council, starring the one and only Pat Ford, over the coming week.

It is noteworthy to add that on March 26, 2008, Yarone Zober, Mayor Ravenstahl’s Chief-of-Staff, sent an e-mail to all Council Members and others that there could potentially be “abuse of power” and “undue influence” by the Council members who joined Mr. Dowd’s appeal. He further stated that the City’s Law Department should determine if there was actual undue influence or any irregularities on their part. These allegations are nearly identical to those included in Lamar’s complaint.

See how easy this is? That which is noteworthy is clearly identified as noteworthy.

We firmly believe that the law had been broken and as public officials, we had an obligation to intervene in the ZBA/Lamar matter. Without legal counsel, we could not act in the public’s interest.

We have grave concerns about the legal opinion rendered by the City Solicitor’s office. Owing to a variety of factors, we cannot have complete confidence in said opinion. Once the issue of a potential conflict of interest was raised, we chose to refrain from any further discussion or votes on Council Bill #2008-0308.

We believe that Lamar’s settlement of the ZBA appeal, the removal of their lawsuit against five Council members and Judge James’ rulings affirm that there was no conflict of interest on this matter. As such, we believe that our actions surrounding Council Bill #2008-0308 did not constitute a conflict of interest as defined by our City Code and/or our Home Rule Charter.

Gravity aside, this letter seems far more reserved than it easily could have been. Anyone hoping the request will instigate more vigorous actions than the issuance of a legal opinion will have to rely on the voluminous supporting materials contained in its appendices, and on the interest and initiative of the Ethics Commission and its attorneys.

We are advised than within two weeks of its receipt of the letter, the Commission must either announce its intention to issue an opinion based on existing precedent, or if none can be found, call for a public hearing to further explore the matter and set new precedent.

That would be one ballgame worth the price of admission.

Schenley Odds: Not Great

As a decision on the Pittsburgh Schenley High School building looms, Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt last night provided additional information showing the district’s financial condition is improving but remains a serious concern.

Mr. Roosevelt said the presentation, given at the school board’s agenda review meeting, was not intended to foreshadow his recommendation on the Schenley building. He will make his recommendation at a meeting Monday, and the board is expected to vote in June.


Board President Bill Isler said he’s concerned that the district would “not be able to take on much more debt.” After the meeting, Mr. Isler said that statement wasn’t a reference to the debate over Schenley’s future. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

So they aren’t willing to say definitively either way yet.

We’re getting a lot of that.

Raw Story: Top State Attorney May Enter Fray

“I’m not one to rush to judge,” Mr. Ravenstahl said. “I certainly take [the council members] at their word that they didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”

An ethics board hearing would help “to get this issue behind us,” he said… (P-G, Rich Lord)

Not likely.

The Pittsburgh Comet has learned that a member of council is making a formal request of Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett to undertake an investigation of all matters pertaining to the granting of a permit for an electronic advertising sign at the Grant Street Transportation Center without votes or public hearings, and to the subsequent legal aftermath.

Sources indicate that interest in the situation has been brewing in the AG’s office for some time, meaning the receipt of such a written request could trigger an official inquiry more expeditiously than usual.

Wednesday: Kicking Up Some Dirt

“The concept that they are being silenced almost offends me,” said Solicitor George Specter. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Well, it’s a challenging occupation. We are glad Specter has not yet been officially offended.

Mr. Burgess said he will ask the State Ethics Commission to decide whether the members did anything wrong in hiring Mr. McGough, and to advise them on how to proceed. He also will introduce, or support, legislation to have council hire its own lawyer — a concept that has been bandied about for years.

Again with the State Ethics Commission. Would it be appropriate to file for state oversight as an Ethically Distressed Municipality? Do we need an Ethics Recovery Plan?


“When we broke it down, there were obvious inequalities as to how the paving services were to be distributed,” Kraus said. “According to the numbers I have, I’m next to last and (Councilman Patrick) Dowd is first.” (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Apropos of nothing, of course.

Councilman Ricky Burgess said he is not sure politics played a role in the roughly four miles of streets his district in the northeastern corner of the city are due to have paved. Council District 9 is last in Kraus‘ analysis.

“I think the streets are bad all through the city, not just in my council district. We have potholes everywhere,” Burgess said.

Ever the peacemaker. Yet how might his constituents interpret this same data?


Citing his consolidation of six of 10 county row offices and the merging of five 911 suburban call centers into one central location in Point Breeze, [Onorato] said that many small communities should look to “functional consolidation of services” as a way of streamlining government. (P-G, Tom Barnes)

This is a good approach. It sounds like a full-time job (maybe for several dozen municipal diplomats), but it addresses the regional de-fragmentation that would be necessary to make any city-county consolidation a bit more equitable.


An attorney for former Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle agreed to increase the amount of restitution his client owes the city to cover two plane tickets she purchased to fly to Las Vegas with her mother. (Trib, Team Effort)

Good. Because that was weird.

Morning Music