Monthly Archives: December 2010

More … Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays!

The Artists: Hall and Oates

The origin: Bobby Helms (1957)

Thursday: Anatomy of a Clusterfrack

Yesterday’s Post-Gazette article did a pretty good job summing up the gist of Tuesday’s marathon 7-hour City Council meeting, marking-up the city’s 2011 annual budget.

But the one critically important feature left unwritten was:

Voting for the amendments were Mrs. Harris, Bruce Kraus, Bill Peduto, Ms. Rudiak and Mr. Shields. Voting against them were… (P-G, Joe Smydo)

Those five members were the five consistently least compromising in terms of entertaining any permutation of Mayor Ravenstahl’s parking deal as a solution to the city’s pension problem. They were also the same five who voted at the beginning of the year to elect Councilwoman Darlene Harris as the body’s president over Councilwoman Theresa Smith. The no-votes were in the opposite camp on both scores.

So at least 2010 has a lovely matching pair of bookends.

What occurred in those several dozen budget amendments can be accurately described as providing neighborhood groups and initiatives (in those five members’ districts) with the critical funding necessary to do important work that had been deferred for years and years, often despite repeated assurances: community and recreation centers, senior centers, youth programs, business district improvements, neighborhood master plans, and blight removal.

All of that can also be just as accurately described as pet projects comprising “reelection insurance” to those five Council members who are likely to be challenged by the assembled forces of mayoral allies, the city and county Democratic party, and any labor groups and other constituencies outraged over the city’s failure to stave off a state takeover. Of course, along with reelection insurance comes the camaraderie of victors divvying up hard-earned spoils.

During deliberations, viewers literally heard “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” tearfully employed on multiple occasions. And the story of each individual amendment, taken in isolation, was 100% legitimate on that very basis; in some cases these groups had been promised very humble forms of civic support since the Caliguiri administration, and had simply fallen on the wrong side of Act 47 cuts or mayoral political whims past and present. Yet taken together and in context, the many amendments were just as much a textbook example of pet projects being allocated in those districts whose political representatives are holding a slim but surprisingly firm majority on the Council opposing this mayor.

Flip sides of the same coin.


The next stage of this particular mini-drama involves the mayor’s line-item veto — one drawback of Council having passed all the mark-ups by only that 5-4 margin.

Now, budget hawks of Pittsburgh take heart: none of the items in those amendments would actually swell the size of the city’s gross annual expenditures. It was all paid for with matching cuts elsewhere in the budget.

In several cases, the trade-offs made common sense — the cost of a specific named demolition project was taken out of the city’s yearly allocation for building demolitions, for example. But in what seemed like a whole lot of cases — particularly the community development projects — the allocation came out of one of several accounts in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Even “personnel” in at least one case.

This mayor, as all Pittsburgh mayors, is fond of his URA.

So Mayor Ravenstahl could veto all the amendments, which might bring with it the collateral PR advantage of being able to say he “acted on principle” — but in addition to throwing gasoline on our present civic inferno, these vetoes would not necessarily restore funds to his own submitted line-items. It might just take the money out of the spending budget on both ends and in entirety, if Council doesn’t eventually allocate it towards something — and government oughtn’t quite be allowed to grind to a standstill.

Or he could choose to not veto any of them — perhaps cooling intergovernmental relations a titch — and then he could hand over the keys to the mayor’s office while he’s at it. So we’re pretty likely to see a Solomonic splitting of the vetoes somewhere around 50% of the group, although with only a modest reduction in outrage and further drama.


All of which is to put off discussion of the fact that we’re 9 days from the state pensions takeover deadline and despite the furious work and alarmed advocacy of various civic parties, we don’t seem to be any closer to a break.

Council’s majority bloc has most recently demonstrated its solidarity against any form of business deal involving the LAZ and JPMorgan ownership group (which is the only one we can deal with if we’re even going to pretend to honor the proper process for these things before the deadline). So in tennis terms you might say it’s ad-Harris.

In any consideration of what the mayor’s next move ought to be, one needs to keep a few facts in mind:

1) The “Council-Controller plan” was kept a state secret for the better part of a year, under a fairly flimsy pretense of its advocates being “cooperative”, while the Mayor’s plan marinated in in full public scrutiny as one plan that would definitely raise parking rates sky-high.

2) The very day the Council-Controller plan was unveiled to the public, six (6) members of Council unloaded fire on the mayor’s parking plan and on Mayor Ravenstahl himself in the loudest, most alarming, most vicious, least walkable-back way possible, while the mayor was off the continent, and demanded his plan be erased from consideration prior to discussion of their own.

3) Upon returning to Pittsburgh, the mayor did what anyone in that situation would be expected to do, and vilified the stuffing out of the Council-Controller plan right back in return.

4) Other than the Council-Controller plan, all of the other ideas floated by the Council majority are pretty goofy. *-CLARIFICATION / UPDATE: Or sound pretty goofy. You know.

5) In the ensuing months, the mayor’s plan was modified in several ways, bringing the rates way down to Earth (at the cost of reducing the payoff) and even, in one modification, actually taking many of the “public assets” off the table so Council could do its Council-Controller thing. So as I see it, although neither faction deserves to win the Nobel Prize in Compromise, the mayor’s side at least merits a table at the reception ceremony more so than the Harris majority.

Now, what can I say. Very little.

In 20-20 hindsight, the smart play for the Mayor might have been to fight for the lease deal through Thanksgiving, and then find some pretense for giving in, gaining a say in Council’s vision, and declaring a victory. I for one never anticipated that five Council members would actually, at the end of all things, prefer the state takeover to a less-preferable but cleanly viable solution.

In 40-40 hindsight, the optimal play for the Mayor might have been to even more assertively explain his case for his parking deal to the public over all those long and dreary summer months, to begin with an RFP prescribing lower rates at the outset instead of having to be bargained down later, and definitely to horse-trade some of those irritating Council members’ votes with the very kinds of initiatives they are now demanding via budget amendments, not to mention for political support or at least non-interference.

What the best play is now, I don’t know. I don’t fracking know. I just hope people are bargaining constructively and creatively is all.


Tuesday: Bring It On

First Night is going to be safe: LINK.

Also, the city is ready for winter storms: LINK.

Live your lives! Go on vacation. Buy that new car.

Also, at this time, City Council is in its 6th hour of a meeting in advance of a preliminary vote on the 2011 budget. It seems a few dozen budget amendments came in at the last minute, but in this instance it was less unfair to the groups in anybody’s districts than it was last time. Apparently there are accusations flying around as to whether CDBG funding is being transferred improperly to areas and for projects for which they do not / should not qualify, but I’m not even going to pretend to understand the validity of the specific claims yet. Apparently some if it is being tabled for legal review, though its hard to imagine the progenitors of the amendments could have drawn quite that far outside the lines.


Celeste Taylor and the whole Regional Equity Monitoring Project (REMP) eat CDBG issues for breakfast.

Amendments just passed 5-4 along strict party lines.

Wow, and now it’s on to the hunger groups and Meals on Wheels again and where that money is to come from. I’ve got to say, I don’t envy these folks their jobs sometimes.



Council today formally rejected the latest framework for doing business with LAZ Parking, with no discussion except for one speech by Councilman Ricky Burgess. Selections…

Today, right here, right now, in Pittsburgh, we have Democrats who refuse to fix the City’s pension problems because they can’t be Mayor and because they envy the man who is Mayor. Democrats who refuse to fix the City pensions problems even though they ALL know that their actions will inflict needless pain and suffering on the City’s residents… (ibid)


But today the majority of Pittsburgh’s Democratic City Council will vote for the interest of wealthy business owners and suburban commuters in rejecting the revenue sharing plan rather than supporting the interests of our City’s workforce and our City’s homeowners. What kind of Democrats are we? (ibid)

I agree it’s hard to argue that releasing and partially opening to the market our government-run and government-subsidized car parking system — the brunt of which lies Downtown, in Oakland, and in Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Eastside — does not relatively advantage suburban commuters and our more affluent business owners and customers, while relatively disadvantaging less-than-affluent city residents upon whom a larger funding burden and / or austerity measures would more likely fall. Not without making reference to a trickle-down theory of economics.

It wasn’t framed in the most constructive or collegial manner, but I guess oh well. Maybe “long-term” constructive was the idea.

Clutch Moment for Darlene Harris?

Picture it: City Hall, January 4th, 2010.

Robert Daniel Lavelle and Natalia Rudiak have been sworn in as freshmen members of the Council, and then Darlene Harris elected its Council President. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl sits in the background, with something of the look of a UFC fan during the 3rd act of a ballet recital. Council President Harris mounts the dais to deliver her speech.

“I look forward to working with this mayor,” she says at one point, turning to look him in the eye. And, given the fact that she won her presidency in a surprise bid on the strength of four votes that had until moments ago been futilely pledged to Councilman Bill Peduto (Ravenstahl’s sharpest critic on the Council) she repeats it, switching up the emphasis. “I will work with this mayor.”

Notice she didn’t say she’d enjoy it, or get very much thanks for it, or that it’d be easy or pleasurable. But she said she’d do it.

$60 million per year worth of public assets are on the chopping block during the next two weeks, and there seems to be only one practicable avenue remaining for keeping them public — though several side streets along this avenue may still be open. I like to think she’s a bit like me; we don’t take sides, unless it’s the North Side. We’ll soon see if this compromise leader can deal, dance and bend effectively enough to engineer a minimally acceptable solution for all parties involved.


Thursday: Squaring the Circle

So this is also interesting:

“If they refuse, it is my understanding that the city could remove the partially constructed sign on their behalf and then charge the company and/or the Parking Authority for that expense. Either way, it is time this blight and sign of poor government administration be removed from such an important location,” Mr. Dowd said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

What happens if LAZ Parking and their Wall Street investment bankers add yet another sweetener to the deal — if they offer to cover the Parking Authority’s expenses in dismantling this troublesome sign on its headquarters, including any hypothetical lawsuit from Lamar Advertising?

On this issue, I’m finally going to have to play the self-interest card. I have a hard enough time impressing anybody with the idea that I’m a local political blogger. One of my best moves is to arrange a meeting somewhere near the corner of Grant and Liberty, and then casually mention, “Oh, funny story about that half-a-sign over there…”

When I first started this writing experiment, there was another blog — anonymously authored — which was the most entertaining and by far the most informative portal onto Grant Street at the time. Most of what I learned about the scene, I learned from it. These were the very early days of the Ravenstahl administration, so much of which was regrettably slapstick at its improvised outset. It is a matter of public record that this other blog dished the puck onto my stick in regards to that billboard story, and once I pulled the trigger — well, that was my brand. Viva la revolución.

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about “pragmatism”, and with some distance from those heady events I believe that’s where my core political convictions lie. It’s consistent then that in my ideal Pittsburgh, sure, I’d prescribe some technocratic outsider for a captain, bloodthirsty after government savings but with a bleeding heart for the poor — or maybe more of a mercurial, swashbuckling intellectual. Yet the Pittsburgh we all know and love, like any other mid-size metropolis, is going to produce leaders whose core strengths lie in human politics — a lifetime of coming up through the apparatus, forging alliances, working the community, making enemies and pandering earnestly to constituencies. Just like every one of the folks we happen to know.

The mission is to remove impediments to getting that motley human concerto to perform well, which can be defined as being far-sighted, innovative and compassionate. “Mission impossible”, one might quip — but most public servants sincerely desire nothing more than to perform well. It only helps to provide them with a safe and inviting space for working out that which is most “well”, and to expose and remove those impediments.

I don’t happen to think that a $60 million annual aggregate penalty for a lack of negotiating skills, or a billion dollar surcharge for coming around to a compromising attitude a little too late, qualifies as doing particularly well. Some residents actually depend on city government services to a degree that such latitude is not an acceptable option.


All of which is to say it sticks in my craw that we were credulously instructed at the table yesterday that the most recent proposal to contract out our government-run parking system is “just like the deal in Chicago”, and that those who believe otherwise must be poorly read, dimwitted or much worse. The evidence presented for this was a few national news stories describing increasing interest in infrastructure partnerships across the country, the highlight being a potty-mouthed ideologue at Rolling Stone with his own branding concerns.

The Mayor of Chicago presented his parking deal a mere 24 hours before that city’s council was asked to vote on it — a procedural crime deserving of the boycotts and vandalism which followed. In Pittsburgh we were informed of the proposal almost 2 years in advance, had the complete contractual details in hand 2 months prior to a scheduled vote (during which time said proposal suffered in a vacuum of any discussion of our alternatives) and have all been substantively and successfully negotiating for an additional 2 months and counting. Very different.

In Chicago there was no competitive process for the concessionaire, or for the broker / transactional advisor. In Pittsburgh, both functions were subject to formal RFPs and long bidding processes to which no one can credibly raise any objection. Very different.

In Chicago no study was done to ascertain the value of the assets until after the fact, which made for a very unpleasant and clear demonstration of Chicago having gotten ripped off. In Pittsburgh the Council rightfully ordered a such an outside professional analysis beforehand, only to discover that the present value of the assets is about $50 million less than the dowry which was actually offered. Very different indeed.

Lumping in the Pittsburgh deal with that of Chicago, if you will excuse the muddled metaphorical time line, is like arguing that since the Iraq War was such a fiasco we should never have stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated Europe, because war is war is war. Then again, opposition to a serious monetization of our government-run parking system has rarely roused itself very much beyond a noun, a verb, “Wall Street investment bankers” and “Chicago”. It has been distinctly (and shockingly) hackneyed, political, non-empirical and anti-intellectual at almost every turn.

There have been better arguments against a professional services accord, and sounder considerations including some real popular opposition — and this blog will respectfully engage these while there is still time to forge a new compromise solution. But I thought it best to dispense with the crap first.