Monthly Archives: July 2012

City Schools: Not an Encouraging Portrait at the Present Moment

As 280 School District employees are laid off on the exclusive basis of seniority even acknowledging some pretty fierce achievement gaps and challenges, and it is confirmed that the District’s push to close a diverse and successful high school was built largely on false pretenses, residents in at least one predominantly African-American neighborhood are tearing their hair out.

Judges Tear Up Gov. Corbett’s “One Size Fits All” Drilling Law

Score another one for local zoning codes and for the Judicial branch:

The majority opinion states that requiring municipalities to change their zoning rules in a way that would conflict with their development plans “violates substantive due process because it does not protect the interests of neighboring property owners from harm, alters the character of neighborhoods and makes irrational classifications – irrational because it requires municipalities to allow all zones, drilling operations and impoundments, gas compressor stations, storage and use of explosives in all zoning districts, and applies industrial criteria to restrictions on height of structures, screening and fencing, lighting and noise.” (P-G Pipeline, Laura Olson)

Current Facebook status of Briget and Doug Shields: “One small step in the right direction for the people of PA.”

One Party: “No Vote for You!”

This is the real kicker…

The state is promising to issue an alternative ID card, for voting purposes only, that would require lesser documentation: a Social Security number and two proofs of residency, such as utility bills or an apartment lease. But that card won’t be available until August, and so far, state officials have done little to notify voters about it. Secretary Aichele’s letter to voters, for example, could say only that her office was “working … to develop an alternative” ID. (PGH City Paper, Lauren Daley)

If our self-described budget hawks have so readily admitted to a need to quickly mass-produce a whole new State ID card — which they haven’t really thought about yet, how glossy, the bureaucracy, what it should mean or say on it — it should be enough to suggest that any collateral disenfranchisement was “besides the point,” or even at that a cue for rugged individualism and social Darwinism to shine.

For his part, O’Hanlon is trying to inform voters in personal-care and rehabilitation facilities. Still, he says, the campaign is “a massive undertaking”; the grassroots campaigns, he says, “seem like tiny pretend efforts” by comparison. (ibid)

Ah, yes. Well, hopefully the new Voting Class will act and vote charitably towards the non-voters — the differently aged, abled, educated, raised, and tempered, as well as the frightened.

MORE: 2PJ’s reminds us that there still hasn’t been any evidence of voter fraud, Capitol Ideas has the GOP arguing in court that their reforms were “rational,” Early Returns recounts Gov. Tom Corbett accusing President Obama of wielding the Dept. of Justice to play politics over the issue, and Kelly Cernetich from PolticsPA indicates yup, there really probably are more than three quarter million voters or 9% of the electorate whom this impacts.

For the present-version Two-page Flier for Sorting this Voting Obstruction (pdf) and for other resources go to the ACLU of PA’s VoterID page or contact the folks with Pa Voter ID Collective Action and its attendant barbecues.

You’ve Got to Know When to Hold ‘Em – Tiff Edition

Couple of items worthy of note this morning:

Councilman Dowd’s letter (pdf) to commemorate his 8th week of legislatively holding Allegheny Riverfront legislation is a doozie:

Mayor Ravenstahl,

Your continued silence regarding the creation of a Lower Strip TIF District is stunning and revealing.

The legislation you want me to introduce would create a $35-$40 million slush fund. (Pdf)

Dowd also the asserts that “The Strip is Pittsburgh’s grocery store,” and recalls “the continuation of hazardous truck traffic in Lawrenceville” and other details. (Background)

Relatedly, there is a flash point of controversy regarding redevelopment in Homewood and East Liberty.

Councilman Bill Peduto, upon hearing the objections of five or six speakers during public comment period before Council’s legislative session yesterday, and alleging that still more residents from Councilman Ricky Burgess’s district have been calling his own office, motioned to hold back a bill that would convey properties relating to the culmination of Transit-Oriented development and Bridging the Busway.

This maneuver failed 7-2, though it provoked a torrent of criticism from the main bill’s sponsor, Burgess, who accused Peduto of all manner of political machinations and hypocrisies while defending an allegedly years-long and inclusive community process undertaken to vet the East End redevelopment vision.

Corbett Office’s posture towards PSU said to have been Uncomfortably Nonconfrontational

Casablanca PA is racking up four score and more comments for its explorations on daily news concerning the former Attorney General’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky rape spree:

Wow. Specifically asking a witness before the grand jury to withhold details? No follow up to key parts of the witness’ story? In fact, in December of 2010, Eshbach turned down interview requests from the York Daily Record, saying it would be inappropriate at that time, yet she conducted a Facebook survey about Paterno and made supportive comments about Paterno while the investigation presumably was still in progress? (Casablanca PA)

See also here, here, here and further back, tying it in (as the blog does) to the then-candidate’s political aspirations. We hope the Signor doesn’t receive another summons for this.

Capitol Ideas meanwhile delves deeply into the Governor’s recent moves to wheel back against concerns over the pace of the state investigation:

Gov. Tom Corbett said this afternoon that he was “very disappointed” that former senior Penn State officials failed to turn over e-mails and other documents that appeared in a sweeping report on the university’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.

Corbett, the former two-term attorney general who initiated the grand jury investigation that led to Sandusky’s conviction last month on 45 of 48 abuse counts, declined to say whether former Penn State President Graham B. Spanier – should be held criminally responsible for withholding documents that prosecutors sought through subpoenas.

But, he said, “I think that is probably the subject of an investigation in the Attorney General’s Office right now. (Capitol Ideas, John L. Micek)


So Much Growth Potential in Bunchertown

The 16th St. Bridge comes south from the North Side over the Allegheny River and then keeps on going. At the foot of the bridge, Downtown is close to your right and the heart of the Strip District immediately left, but back behind you for a couple of hundred yards is land. And all the way up the river behind the Strip, on the other side of the tracks, to Lawrenceville, land.

If residential development aspiring towards middle-class professionals, millennials and transplants springs up east of 16th St., it might actually work!!

You can’t beat grocery shopping in the Strip, for cheap or for fancy.

You can’t beat the access to Downtown, if you happen to work there.

It’s flat and wide for biking. No huge problem getting up Penn Avenue to Oakland.

It’s near the river, with trails and parks galore.

And as a resource to support what’s going on Downtown and in the Strip, such a feed back-loop of people shopping and recreating would be intense. Heck, even the Valley across the river on the North Side might see some boost.

The real question is, why hasn’t such a thing sprung up years ago?

It’s probably risky. Expensive. Not a sure thing like a casino or a hockey arena. It takes deep pockets, a high tolerance for for risk, and a certain amount of trust.


In terms of this development, some public officials are demanding at the outset a large enough buffer zone placed from the river, exacting historic preservation, scrupulous adherence to new storm water management regulations, a minimization of the concessions and incentives necessary to make a deal tempting, a community input process bordering on a co-management arrangement with an Occupy-style General Assembly, and the cessation of moving plans forward until a particular zoning matter involving a railroad easement is fully negotiated.

Governor Tom Corbett — on the other hand — wanted the Cracker plant here. And he got it. And the masses are thrilled to be able to take economic advantage of a geographic blessing.

This is the kind of thing that will haunt me, if we ever don’t have Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to kick around anymore.

Will jobs be created while we’re panicked about gentrification, about winners and losers, about ideology and about politics? Will we grow? Will we bloom?


Pittsburgh remains from its heritage a liberal town. Concurrently in the modern age, it has also been a stagnant town. Over the past six or seven years, is word really starting to leak out that Pittsburgh has figured it out? Solved the puzzle or overcome certain obstacles? That something is cajoling our warm, fearful arms wide open to universal energies of macroeconomics and investment?

In the future, class-conscious Pittsburgh might pat itself on the back for organizing many of these new workers and residents. For encouraging their workplace and civil rights, their tenant rights, their rights and needs as urban-dwellers.

But before that gets to happen, it’s possible we may need a steely gatekeeper — fending off slings and arrows, wedging the door wide open with his shoulders and enthusiastically waving the world in as it is. Not as we wish it might be some day.

Making the most of it. Making it work.


“Biggest Scandal in the World Right Now” may reach ‘Burgh in Revenge of the Swaptions *-UPDATED with Daily Show segment

Remember that nasty business involving allegations over the “swaptions” that are bought and sold between the Water and Sewer Authority and its bankers?

Thanks to the LIBOR scandal (which comes capitalized for your edification and pleasure) it’s back in the frying pan.

The biggest scandal in the world right now has nothing to do with sex or celebrities. It’s about an interest rate called LIBOR, or the London Interbank Offered Rate…

LIBOR, as it turns out, is the rate at which banks lend to each other. And more importantly, it has become the global benchmark for lending…

So literally hundreds of trillions of dollars around the world, all these deals, are based on this number. Now we find out this number might be a lie. At least one bank was tampering with that number for their own profit. (NPR Planet Money, July 6 ‘012)

It sounds as though we as bond option swaptionistas were a candidate to have gotten damaged by either side of the LIBOR chicanery coin, i.e. before, during and after the financial crisis:

If Barclays traders managed to get the rates higher before the financial crisis, as they requested, then consumers suffered…

When the rate was going down during the crisis, consumers might have gotten better deals on their loans. But that doesn’t mean we should celebrate. A lot of cities and pension funds and transportation systems had money in LIBOR based investments. They would have made a lot less money if LIBOR was manipulated down. The City of Baltimore, for instance, is suing and claims to have lost millions of dollars in the manipulation. (NPRPM, July 9, ’12)

So here is the exchange locally:

In an email to Jim Good, the authority’s new executive director, city Controller Michael Lamb said the authority’s variable-rate bond transactions in 2007 and 2008 generated “significant exposure” to market manipulation by Libor [sic] participants. He said Mr. Good should “immediately seek board approval to retain counsel to pursue all possible recoveries against those involved.”

That email drew a testy reply from Scott Kunka [KOON-ka], city finance director and authority treasurer, who said the authority had no exposure to Libor, which is shorthand for London Interbank Offered Rate. He said the authority’s variable rates are based on another index, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, and he accused Mr. Lamb of raising undue alarm about authority finances.

Mr. Lamb fired back with another email in which he said the authority’s variable interest-rate payments are based on overall market conditions. If manipulation of the Libor artificially inflated rates of the other association, he said, the authority paid too much.

“Your hesitance to pursue any recovery on behalf of the rate-payers you represent is disturbing to say the least,” Mr. Lamb said. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

EDITORIAL COMMENT: If we are truly lucky, Mike Lamb will turn out to be right and PWSA will get to claw back some of its cash and debt — and it needs all the money it can get right now. As a bonus if he’s right, the story might evolve into a great lens through which to determine if any politicians seem anxious to protect local crony financial industry middlemen. But first we would need to see more dots connected on one side, and continued entrenchment on the other. If “transparency” starts to pop up as a keyword, bet on excitement.

SPECIAL TO TREASURER DIRECTOR KUNKA: What about yield compression? Surely, that’s enough to salvage the connection between LIBOR and SIFMA-based swaptions? Maybe? Herm…

Judge: Jurors Must Imagine “Ideal, Objective Police Officer” to Weigh Charges of Misconduct

US District Judge Gary L. Lancaster promised eight sitting jurors, “You will understand the rule of law that will govern your decision,” and began instructing them at a trial that will determine whether three City police officers were guilty of false arrest, excessive force or malicious prosecution in a 30-month old incident in the city’s Homewood Brushton neighborhood.

Later, attorneys both for plaintiff Jordan Miles and for each of the three defendant officers utilized their opening statements to ape and embellish the judge’s lesson, even as they began spinning conflicting tales about the night in question.

MORE: P-G, CP, Trib, HuffPo, J4J

Judge Lancaster told the eight jurors that in order to determine the merits of the False Arrest charge, they will first have to decide whether the officers acted with “Reasonable Suspicion” in stopping and searching Mr. Miles, and then whether they had “Probable Cause” for making an arrest.

The judge also stressed that the jurors must weigh all the “objective evidence”, not “subjective” evidence based on what may have been in the three officers’ minds. They were instructed to “conjure an image of an ideal, objective police officer” in determining whether the defendants had Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause.

Finally, Judge Lancaster told the jury they are to weigh which side’s story is buttressed by the “Preponderance of evidence” — objective evidence is what matters over all else, he repeated — such that it “tips the scales.”


Mr. Miles’ attorney emphasized the unmarked, undercover, tinted-window nature of the “99 Car” officers used to patrol the neighborhood, their alleged abruptness in stopping in front of Mr. Miles in the street and pouring out of the vehicle, the size and ferocity of the officers, and their demands for drugs and money.

He presaged evidence of the plaintiff’s bruising and injuries, records of a telephone conversation taking place immediately before the interaction, and statements made during Miles criminal trial and during concurrent investigations as evidence.

Later, two attorneys for two of the three police defendants (court adjourned at 4:45) raised and emphasized the topic “credibility” on many occasions when speaking of the jury’s duty to identify weighty evidence.

These attorneys presaged evidence including details of the training which local and state police officers receive on the use of force, on the “continuum of control” and in responding to “levels of resistance.” They also recalled the high levels of crime and danger prevalent in the Homewood Brushton area, for which it is the officers’ mission to be “pro-active” in such areas.

On the subject of the Malicious Prosecution charge, one officer’s attorney told the jury that after a witness living at the home near which the encounter took place “changed her story,” the district magistrate “just threw the case [against Mr. Miles] out” of criminal court. After shrugging broadly and moving on to describe thrown elbows and donkey kicks at the incident in question, the implication by the attorney was clear that the jury ought to believe that the District Magistrate erred — and that Mr. Miles really ought to have been found guilty of resisting arrest as well as aggravated assault against the officers.

Downtown’s Jaunty Hat, and other Good Things About Zoning

Kudos to Rugby Realty, C&C Lighting Factory and the rest of the gang, which surprised all of Pittsburgh all of a sudden with an endearingly lovely piece of skyline artwork.

The standard colors are a modest, precocious spectrum of pastel; it distracts the eye pleasantly from the assertively gothic UPMC, Federated Investors and other corporate insignias surrounding it from many vantages, it expands upon a fundamentally interesting public service in forecasting weather; and we can experiment and play with it.

The Comet assumes that in the morass of City of Pittsburgh zoning classifications, the new display is classified or would be classified as “art” — and is simply an expansion and enhancement of a pre-existing and conforming art use, or a pre-existing legal nonconforming use that is art or arty enough. Maybe we shouldn’t assume, but it seems likely.

The tricky thing about these lighting projects is, there is a history of them being used by the electronic advertising and signage industries as legal and quasi-legal “precedent.” The City Zoning Code is a list of rules, but it’s not perfect and it has to be interpreted by a Zoning Board, if not actual judges. Mark my words — industry will one day soon point to that corner of Downtown and assert that it already is comfortable with digitally delivered excitement and a “Times Square” affect, and claim a right that might otherwise be forbidden or otherwise dependent.

If the industry get an edge because of this Gulf Tower project, good for them. Nice field goal. There continue to be enough distinctions between artwork, advertising signs, business identification signs and “electronic message signs” in the code to prevent mutually assured personal mental hygiene and good taste meltdown — and again, C&C’s vision turned out to be thoughtful and stylishly transcendent.

I still have my fingers crossed that the Gulf Tower’s Peregrine falcons will find a comfortable home elsewhere in the Golden Triangle. We are trying to retain a core of hip young families in the area! Perhaps Buncher Co. might be prevailed upon to install a cavernous perch, as it may have to rotate and pile its vision high up onto its side.