Monthly Archives: January 2013

Lamb announces for Mayor, Jabs both Opponents

Oh, man. It begins. And we dive right in…

[City Controller Michael Lamb] contrasted [his own] record with those of “an absentee mayor and a councilman who talks a lot but hasn’t accomplished much.” (P-G, James O’Toole)

As you know, we live in a “strong mayor” form of government. If a mayor does not desire his perceived rivals to enact and implement any accomplishments, chances are excellent those rivals are going to show few concrete accomplishments.

Even still, “hasn’t accomplished much” may play directly into Bill Peduto’s strengths vis-a-vis Lamb. Peduto has a very long paper trail in the legislative branch. That is a potential vulnerability against Ravenstahl, as the much-maligned incumbent seeks to reverse criticism by picking out relatively obscure anecdotes suggesting hypocrisy. But against Lamb in terms of accomplishments, some of those bills Peduto wrote and sponsored actually passed!

The campaign finance reforms Lamb is presently laboring under with his colleagues, for example. Both stormwater regulations and prevailing wage regulations for public developments. Various developments in and of themselves within the thriving Council district he tends.

*-UPDATE: In fact, just as Lamb was talking about lack of accomplishment, Peduto was moving forward a bill that could raise $2 million annually for the City without raising taxes or fees.

As Controller, Lamb’s fiscal and performance audits — several of which we will begin showcasing in the coming weeks, so watch for the gutsy Fire Bureau audit soon — are professional, thorough, easy to understand and very sound. Shame on the Mayor’s office for six weeks for not heeding that guidance often enough — but they are not “accomplishments”. When you read those audits out loud, it is suspiciously indistinguishable from “a lot of talk”.

Hey, man. Sorry. My hand has been forced. I’m not the one who violated the Yinzer Eleventh Commandment.

Louis “Hop” Kendrick’s assertion poses a difficult question. How are we to determine base size? The number of people attending campaign events? Social media likes and follows? Fund raising? 2005 elections results?

One thing is clear: Lamb is aggressively and as conspicuously-as-you-please courting the African-American vote. That is good. That is crucial, despite the inherent difficulties. I’ll be particularly interested to hear how Lamb (and Peduto both) respond to Councilman Ricky Burgess’s blunt assertion that if you’re a black Pittsburgher, “you would have to be insane” not to vote for Luke Ravenstahl.

Here is Michael Lamb’s campaign website, Facebook page and Twitter account. Read up. Share what you think. Stay tuned.

Dirigisme? Dirigis you! Making developments more exciting and competitive.

AFP Hong Kong

To be sure, I am just a silly blogger, and know little and less about the ways of business.

Yet a short wiki-walk through my own post about crony capitalism led me to an obscure term…

Dirigisme is an economy in which the government exerts strong directive influence. It designates a mainly capitalist economy with strong directive, as opposed to merely regulatory, economic participation by the state. (Wikipedia)

…which led me in turn to reflect more seriously upon a skepticism and a notion I’ve been harboring for years.

Major developments nowadays (at least around here?) are conducted with a very high degree of centralization, consolidation and dirigisme. We identify and cultivate huge tracts of undeveloped land (e.g. the North Shore, the South Side Works, the Lower Hill, the Allegheny Riverfront and the Bakeries Square) then we seek out a single Developer to assume all costs and risks (minus those which taxpayers shoulder through various incentives). That developer goes on to do the lion’s share of planning, to recruit all the business tenants, and to retain a continuing stake in the maintenance, management, and profit equity for the whole shebang.

The commercial and civic success of such development has been mixed, with room for debate.

The physical plant of these developments tend towards huge internal uniformity, cost-efficiency, modernism and stark contrasts with neighboring parcels. The commercial makeup tends toward inviting mainly affluent patrons and highly capitalized vendors, discouraging internal competition (no direct competitive rivalries), and tolerating vacancy for long stretches rather than allowing rents to fluctuate more naturally.

Leftists bemoan the “suburban blandness” of these dirigiste developments with its overtones of gentrification; that enervating atmosphere of a “business district” in a “neighborhood” is usually absent. It can feel like a “strip mall”.

Rightward thinkers meanwhile are aggravated by the lack of competition, the central planning and singular basket of venture eggs, and the interpersonal and political barriers to entry. Furthermore, supplemental public-sector investments tend to accumulate over time.

Athenium Publishing

Are there any viable alternatives?

Folks who have checked out my Blogger Profile may have noticed that one of my very favorite books is Tai-Pan by James Clavell, more famous as the author of Shōgun. This gripping historical novel about the origins of Hong Kong as a province of the British Empire centers around “Dirk Struan” (the Tai-Pan or unofficial Supreme Leader) who is a tea and opium trader, a pirate-turned-developer, a major political contributor to Parliament and an aggressive lobbyist for free trade and other human freedoms.

In the book it was Struan’s notion (though not presented as an unorthodox or unexpected one) for the Viceroy and Plenipotentiary to divide up the undeveloped island of Hong Kong into various lots of various sizes — large and small, premium and back-alley — while making allowances for necessary public amenities like streets, the harbor and the Church, and then to hold a land auction. The auction would ensure optimal profit for the Crown while fostering a hustling, bustling trading hub with vast opportunity for traders and other business owners to jockey ruthlessly and, for those skilled enough, profitably. And it comported with the English sense of fair play, injecting confidence on all sides.

Never mind that Dirk finagled the appointment of his own son Culum as chief auctioneer. Culum resented his dad and gifted the high knoll lot to the Church, thereby saving Noble House from a ruinous bidding war against Brock & Sons. The state can always head a few predictable bad arrangements off at the pass, even as the business community can lend its expertise in drawing the boundaries.

Is such a wide open model viable nowadays for urban redevelopment? To foster wild and woolly commercial competition by drawing out a skeletal map of public amenities as well as commercial parcels of various sizes and zoning classifications, by offering incentives such as subsidies and tax breaks piecemeal and disinterestedly, and by hosting something unpredictable like a public auction — letting each winning bidder build to their own tastes and preferences within parameters? Placing the eggs in a multitude of baskets and letting them all sink or swim as autonomous agents?

The auction / open playing field model would certainly rob the “developer” sub-community of several accustomed opportunities, and in so doing hand a lot of crucial creative responsibility for wide-angle city planning over to, well, City Planning. Some would say those responsibilities would merely be restored.

I’m not sure. Hong Kong has certainly enjoyed an impressive record of success and investment. That white devil cutthroat Dirk Struan certainly didn’t have any use for dirigisme in his own plans to become a merchant prince.

Monday 1/14 Bullet Points

KSL5- Ben Murray’s blog

Complying with state anti-windfall law, Mayor Ravenstahl begins the necessary process of lowering the city millage rate to offset ten years worth of delayed increases in property reassessments. (P-G, Trib) P-G scribe Tim McNulty seems to be hinting around that that still doesn’t seem like enough of an offset.

A dangerous car chase barreled through Carson Street last night as bars were closing, ending in shots fired from five officers including some off-duty. (P-G, Trib)  The Mayor warns it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment while investigations are underway and comments that well-trained officers acted to keep people safe. (P-G, Trib)

Recently improved County air-quality guidelines have been weakened in a swift and little-discussed process by a strenuously leaned-on board of health. (P-G Editorial) It is very important for the sake of my dignity, street cred and testosterone levels that I highlight things like this and so I now affix the Eye of Blogdor on County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and say, “Bad politician! Nontransparent! Regressive!” In all seriousness, this will continue as warranted (but only as warranted).

We are only a little over two weeks away from ALCOSAN and company’s day in court over its Wet Weather Plan for required sewer infrastructure upgrades, but no news on whether the plan has been rewritten a greener shade of gray.

Gov. Tom Corbett agrees the state can’t just cut its way out of its budget deficit and does in fact require increased revenue — but that revenue won’t come from you, it will come from losers. (PA Politics)

Ravenstahl philosophy one of “Crony Capitalism.” We have citations.

Resourceful Earth

An evolving clash over development policy foreshadows what will surely be among the clearest visible contrasts among Pittsburgh mayoral candidates this spring.

In response to possible concerns about a $90 million tax-increment financing (TIF) plan for a new Hazelwood development, and in reaction to furor over special zoning changes and shelved notions of a $50 million TIF in the Strip District, URA board member and State Sen. Jim Ferlo caricatured the standard bearer of some of the opposition:

“This is the beginning of a very long process,” said URA board member Jim Ferlo, a Democratic state senator from Highland Park. “There are going to be a lot of hurdles, if not some significant roadblocks.”

Buncher on Tuesday announced that it no longer would seek the financing, which was being held up by councilman Patrick Dowd, who Mr. Ferlo called “Doctor No.”

“As far as I’m concerned, this is going nowhere fast,” he said. (P-G, Mark Belko!)

It is a politically interesting exchange in that Dowd and Ferlo’s respective districts of representation overlap. But more immediately and importantly, it highlights exactly what has long been Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s signature mission and most pernicious stumbling block as city leader: finessing deals with the private sector to get shovels in the ground and cranes in the sky.

In June, Councilman Dowd attempted a characterization of his own:

Your “laissez-faire” policy for development and lack of regard for local flavor is reminiscent of the era of so-called urban renewal – the results of which include the devastating East Liberty and Allegheny Center development projects — and could have similarly detrimental results in the Strip District. (Letter PDF; see also P-G)

However Dowd’s analysis is woefully imprecise. Although “laissez-faire” policies would obviously include granting the private sector wide latitude from planning regulations, labor regulations and taxation — all of which Ravenstahl is famous for as part of his avowed “pro-growth” agenda — true free market conservatives would never cotton to such aggressive seeking of public subsidies, public financing, sub-market rates on public land and the non-competitive consolidation of broad parcels to single bidders, all of which Ravenstahl touts as “public-private partnerships.”

Although they earn the wrath of economic liberals, what we see in this administration is not conservatism, much less laissez-faire free market capitalism. But rather…

Crony capitalism is a term describing an economy in which success in business depends on close relationships between business people and government officials. It may be exhibited by favoritism in the distribution of legal permits, government grants, special tax breaks, or other forms of dirigisme. (Wikipedia)

It gives me no great joy to employ jargon that has been recently appropriated by Sarah Palin and her brain trust, though its usage seems to predate all that. And I acknowledge the word “crony” bears negative connotations which are not strictly speaking necessary to the development model — it should be possible to both bestow concessions upon, and lift regulations for, total strangers.

But the model just fits too perfectly, far better than anything else. And we must have a grammar for talking about the differing “development policies” up for debate.

Besides, Buncher Co. of Riverfront Landing has been bragging of its 60-year history as a major developer working with the city and region. And the genesis of Almono LP’s project in Hazelwood figured prominently in the e-mails which reveald close ties between the Ravenstahl administration and business figures.

It is less clear what development models are going to emerge as alternatives to Ravenstahl’s crony capitalism during the coming election. City Councilman Bill Peduto speaks and writes frequently about consensus and community based development, but I’m not sure if we can engrave that as a comprehensive philosophy. Neither Michael Lamb nor Jack Wagner, as City Controller and State Auditor General, respectively, have had much cause in the course of their day-to-day activities to outline a development strategy.

Tuesday 1/08: “Awkward Moments” in the News

This was the big deal: Katherine Webb

A female resident calls 911, identifies herself by name, and calmly requests that police to come to her home apparently without much further elaboration. The police arrive and consent to being dismissed by a male from a window without speaking to the female resident who made the call. Law enforcement officials and experts are drawing distinctions between police needs to establish “reasonable suspicion” rather than “probable cause.” The officers’ cognizance of the prevalence of domestic violence and the seriousness with which they may have attempted to thwart that possibility have yet to be established. (P-G, Silver & Navratil)

Meanwhile, through the portal of a sideshow concerning news gathering, public relations and accusations of “unprecedented” unprofessionalism, we notice several as-yet unanswered questions arousing the interest of P-G reporters, such as, “What shift were the officers working (that is, when were they due to end their shfits)?” (P-G Early Returns, Tim McNulty)

The seriousness with which the police department and city administrators approach the issue of domestic violence was an explosive issue back in 2007.

Oxford Development is still mulling over building a skyscraper. At least the drilling ban is not cited as the big hold-up in this iteration. (P-G, Mark Belko)

The Allegheny Institute, showing what may be uncommon circumspection, raises a possible connection between County practices establishing property tax exemptions for nonprofits and the business of issuing them bonds. Brilliant inference — not a smoking gun, but part of the broad mosaic of how nonprofits come to their place on their high pedestal.

Yinzercation, a website launched to advocate against Gov. Corbett’s public education cuts, has taken up the cause against teacher evaluations or “Value Added Measures”. Mostly wrong-headed in my opinion but admirably thorough of the voguish argument. Why not just say, “Don’t vilify politicians. Politicians are not the problem! Let’s get rid of all these reporters, auditors, and high-stakes elections, the results of all of which have known imperfections. Let’s just hire more politicians, pay them more, and let public officials focus on officiating!”

Peduto Claims Early Fundraising Record

Details are at P-G Early Returns. Recent news from the Peduto campaign has included a call for presenters at the PCRG Community Development Summit and an invitation to CeaseFirePA’s “Too Many Victims Lost to Gun Violence” Vigil tomorrow. Tweets have included updates on neighborhood water main breaks and several hockeygasms. A recent interview is available at WPTS radio.

Monday 1/07: “The Absence of Policies”

Harper Paperbacks

The City task force demanded by state financial overseers for examining the age old conundrum of extracting tribute from nonprofits has been assembled.

Rich Stanizzo, business manager for the Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council, who confirmed he is a member of the task force, said he believes contributions will come only through forceful means. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

I’m right with him on that.

[ICA Director Yearly] believes [nonprofits] would rather cooperate than have government challenge their tax-exempt status. If they don‘t cooperate, he said, the city can “let the enforcement people get more aggressive and go that way.” (ibid)

Which begs a huge question of why we don’t start off that way — but I suppose they’ve decided this needs to be a three-act play. (Hopefully not written as farce.)

Ka’Sandra Wade was murdered at her home in Pittsburgh on New Years Eve, after police responded to a 911 call and took minimal action. The police department, the Citizen’s Police Review Board and the District Attorney have all declared their own concerns and investigations already, which seems uncommonly attentive of everybody and perhaps signals a foul-up.

“If it‘s a policy or procedure deficiency, if that‘s exposed, it‘ll have to be tightened up. If it‘s a performance issue, negligence, that will have to be dealt with, too,” [CPRB Director Pittinger] said.
“They left after (a man) said everything was OK and wouldn‘t let (the police) in. How does that happen?”(Trib, Bobby Kerlik)
I hope it was a procedural deficiency, that we remedy it and actually can improve. If the operational flow-chart is fine as it is but it was simply disregarded, sad to say I can think of nothing in the annals of police discipline that would suggest a satisfactory resolution.
Yet people do seem to be admirably alert. Maybe the system can handle the policing aspect for now, while the rest of us reflect on how to provide support for women who may be at risk way before situations come to a head.
The Allegheny County Office of Property Assessments is a wreck, according to Controller Chelsa Wagner; a completely understandable state of affairs seeing as how it has been Allegheny County policy for more than a decade to refuse to assess property even if it means breaking out cyanide capsules.
“A number of us on our team were visibly taken aback when [OPA] made that argument that other taxing bodies need to challenge the exemptions,” Ms. Wagner said, “when I believe Allegheny County is a taxing body.” (P-G, Sean D. Hamill)
Two takeaways: 1) Isn’t it starting to seem like our beloved County has for some time been held together with winks, optical illusions and slime? I don’t envy any new office holders trying to dredge the swamp and rectify matters.
And 2) the relationship between Controller Wagner and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald just seems to be getting ridiculously, embarrassingly, absurdly chilly. Especially considering our county has real life Republicans with which two elected Democrats might someday need to jointly contend, and also considering the dreadful scope of our perpetual financial emergencies. Is it just nervous politics? One might speculate whether Fitzgerald’s previous role as tractable county Council President during the iron-fisted reign of Dan Onorato is making things awkward. But whatever it is, it’s not a good look for County leadership.

Buncher Co. Entitlted to “Special” Zoning without Public Officials Complaining

Sprocket Ink

Like a guy who had to wait at the DMV:

“I did not enjoy one minute of what we’ve been through the last six months, for a company that has built a reputation over the last 60 years in Western Pennsylvania and six counties. We have a lot of good projects to point to.” (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

News is they’re willing to go it alone without public tax increment financing — a tangential victory? — although slipping beneath mention here is any leverage the City might still enjoy in requiring approvals to demolish the part of the Produce Terminal housing the public market.

Previous mayors, including Tom Murphy, whom Dowd invited last month to City Council to speak against the plan, were unwilling to help. (ibid)

Why were the previous mayors unwilling to help Buncher with this vision? Did they also have a bitter political problem with Luke Ravenstahl when he was back in grade school? When did this degree of developer entitlement kick in?

BONUS: Does the accompanying chart do anything for anybody?


Governor Corbett and the Sandusky Affair: Friday case file #1


In regards to the People vs. Common Sense:

P.U., what‘s that smell? If you answered the bizarre, counterintuitive and politically buffoonish federal antitrust lawsuit filed against the NCAA for its sanctions against Penn State University by Gov. Tom Corbett, go to the head of the critical thinking class.

That was the editorial desk of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. They’re not just good for gay marriage and pot legalization anymore!

Corbett’s suit blames the NCAA sanctions for a drop-off in business at State College hotels, restaurants and bars. But isn’t it just possible that the drop-off resulted from people who are simply appalled by what happened at Penn State, and wanted to distance themselves from a program, and a football-cult mentality, that may have allowed Sandusky’s abuses to go unchecked in the first place?

That was Chris Potter at the Pittsburgh City Paper Blogh, stating the obvious so we don’t have to.

Because he orchestrated his announcement in State College before a Penn State backdrop of alumni, students, former athletes and politicians, it was clear that the governor was putting on a show for Penn State fans.

That was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with its world-weary editorial gaze.

And those two keen reporters’-eye tweets were from Bob Mayo, WTAE reporter and elusive blogger.

Wikipedia would have us believe that the NCAA is “an association of 1,281 institutions, conferences, organizations and individuals” originally convened by President Teddy Roosevelt to encourage reforms to prevent football injuries. In 1981 it was challenged by two of its universities for “price fixing, output restraints, boycott, and monopolizing” in an anti-trust suit and lost certain provisions of its media rights contracts.

So in that instance of sales and marketing the NCAA did resemble a “trust” — although that probably does not mean one can just go pumping that well every time one has a grievance of some sort. The marketing scheme did not involve any fines issued for a “loss of institutional control” or for “alleged despicable institutional behavior,” which would fit in much more clearly with the NCAA’s charter purposes and intent.

Risk Management Monitor

For what it’s worth, I am certain Mr. Corbett believes he is in the right here. When the politics seem to suggest advantage in a course of action, a man can discover vast inner capacities for vainglorious self-delusion. It only gets easier each time you slip the shroud over your own eyes. One can only imagine what happens to somebody by the time they reach Gubernatorial heights — the air must be so thin up there.

Tom Corbett Appeals NCAA Sanctions on Penn State for Enabling Known Pedophile

Hemi, Tripwire Interactive

He does not like this anymore. He would not like it with a boar!

Gov. Tom Corbett asked that a federal judge throw out the sanctions, which include an unprecedented $60 million fine and a four-year ban on bowl games, arguing that the measures have harmed students, business owners and others who had nothing to do with Sandusky’s crimes. (Mark Scolfro, AP via HuffPo)

Okay, we get that.

What law is being broken here? Which article? “Anti-trust”? Please.

The NCAA — its leadership and its membership — was disturbed and horrified to learn of institutional behavior which endangered children. It wanted to make a memorable punitive statement to distance itself and discourage such behaviors in the future. And it did. Maybe the NCAA sanctions were clumsy or excessive, maybe not. Penn State University was happy enough being a part of the NCAA before, when it was all ad revenue and merchandise!

In a statement, the NCAA said the lawsuit has no merit and called it an “affront” to Sandusky’s victims. (Scolforo)

It sounds as though the Governor has recently determined to angle for a settlement. Make enough noise, throw some mud at the NCAA and some of its members, and try to motivate them to settle on a smaller sanction. Community service. Probation.

While also scoring the political point that, yes, Tom Corbett feels the pain of innocents.

It also says something about Tom Corbett’s priorities on spending taxpayer dollars, and assigning taxpayer personnel, in a government. Lots of bad guys out there that need investigated and prosecuted.

BONUS QUESTION: Will this in any way conflict new Attorney General Kathleen Kane as she fulfills her campaign promise to pursue the review AG Corbett’s Sandusky investigation?