Monthly Archives: April 2023

Pittsburgh, We Can’t Be Wise Asses Constantly

It feels clever to be cynical, when talking about democratic government: to suggest that fixes are in, elected leaders are dominated by special interests wielding political machines, and their priority will always be delivering those backers’ core objectives and obligations on their terms, while deflecting from their resultant unsuitability to do much else. As a cynic, one never has to feel disappointed.

Pittsburgh in particular has had to contend with historically cynical examples of coercion and indifference. Local government never disappointed US Steel after the National Guard occupied Homestead on the company’s behalf; rather US Steel and other titans infested local governments and mega-philanthropies. The steel workers were dissuaded — often violently — from organizing until the run-up to World War 2, when the company brought John Lewis of the mine workers in to direct organizing efforts toward negotiating pay but little in the way of workplace power or democracy. The civil rights movement rocked Pittsburgh but didn’t rock Mayor David Lawrence’s generations-long ironclad grip nor his opera house where the Black people used to be, other than his creating our Commission on Human Relations where concerned community leaders can officiously pursue grievances toward more hopeful ends. Lawrence’s police’s relationships with illicit betting parlor operators rocked him only slightly more, especially as a friend of the sports and gaming-magnate Rooneys, but not enough to change anything.

Cynical paths were viable ones as long as enough money was pouring in from war, steel and the New Deal. That all ended around 1979, but there’s still a healthy trickle for a few, many more carry generational memories, and there are always new vultures looking for well-groomed suckers.

We deserve more from our obscure leaders than doling out important jobs and contracts with shameless opportunism of well-timed, state-financed commercials and roadshows for dog licensure.

We deserve more from our progressive leaders than trading away meaningful votes with blind eyes and bending backwards to prop up such dated regressive coalitions, in exchange mainly for symbolic or marginal victories.

And we deserve more from our historic leaders than their foremost political backer acting as their brain, right hand and mouth all at once, ensuring a tax dispute morphs into a gridlock of conflicted civic interests that could take a decade to unravel, while most everything outside its special interests drags along.

We don’t need to keep passing on the inheritance of Pittsburgh’s desensitization to crass power politics with its negligent costs and potentials for abuse. There are other stars even voters can follow; duties, disciplines, standards, which the pit of Pittsburgh pathologically rejects either as either naive, or some sort of trap. Yes, a trap: that “good government” is merely what “meritocrats” talk about to get good ol’ boys to ease off, as though they’re just a different sort of privileged. And to be sure, the last couple times “professionalism” was given room to grow around here, PPS Superintendent Roosevelt was given license to smash too much he didn’t understand, and Mayor Peduto wound up mesmerized by the 4th Industrial Revolution. It’s a real conversation, how to manage for independence. But just because fire burned us twice, we needn’t outlaw it. To grow, Pittsburgh needs to snap out of its incredulity over trying to do things right, and raise the bar just a little.

It makes sense to scrutinize who we hire to do public work and how, to erect guardrails for undue influence. It makes sense to address public matters on their own merits, rather than trade oversight or influence for political advantage. It makes sense for leaders to value and empower enough pubic service experience, that one’s politics don’t grow to suffocate themselves and everything else. And we need to do more that makes sense, because these old governments aren’t just enough to make you cynical, they’re expensive and difficult and we’re running out of lifelines.

MOSTLY TRUE: Gainey’s Reliance on Union Making Messes

A big service workers’ union helped elect a mayor to better support its own interests and those of its allies — instead of building trades unions, the “nonprofits” or private enterprise. Nice.

All the same, that service union is now defensively blundering through the whole Mayor’s administration inflicting real costs attempting regulatory capture.

City voters have made pretty clear they want their Mayor to challenge the “nonprofits” property tax exemptions as best appropriate. Meanwhile that Mayor also needs to negotiate developments, philanthropic initiatives, and investments that might be considered payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) in the event those taxing challenges are successful.

Dramatically preconditioning effective cooperation on unionization invites blurred objectives and missed opportunities. Delivering that precondition at the outset of negotiations with new leadership on both sides can seem like a shakedown. Seeing the whole spoonfeeding process from the interested political benefactor exposed must be embarrassing. And nominating that SEIU Heathcare’s VP / mayoral transition chair / negotiating czar to the City Planning Commission might raise enough red flags for City Council to pocket it pending a hard think.

When it comes to cozy deals on the building trades side, the harms of a Weinstein are as difficult to quantify: less competitive contracting here, less flexible management there, more neglect in the blind spots of the special interest, until we wind up with 10 years dithering and missed opportunity at ALCOSAN.

When it came to the public schools, we saw the pattern reflected with the teachers and administrators under Superintendent Hamlet, the flying over-promiser under-deliverer whp resigned under cloud of an ethics report.

Soon we may see it when UPMC countersues the City for impartiality either to retain its tax exemptions or grow its footprint on its own wholly legal terms or both — or else simply in terms of a “cold war” of spite more costly than it needs to be.

But even now we see it in an administration that moves slowly, haltingly and secretively on its commitments from public safety to bridges to shepherding development: one outfitted to guard ambitious but narrow interests, loath to fully empower other experts and overextended. The other, former SEIU VP is in charge of 10 City departments and all but formally outranks the chief of staff, but without prior government experience and little oversight. They’re emulating Alexander the Great in a quest to roll up an empire while the weather, luck and supply lines hold out, but they’re getting stretched thin.

MORE: Lamb says we’ve got to engage with our largest employer, even/especially as they’re our largest pain. He also calls the $8 million a year “left on the table” a “big number” though I’m not sure if that was a fungible $8 million or all tied up with strings.

MEANWHILE: The latest from Rick Earle on the incoming police chief with more on the process from Kail-Smith, who’s in accord with the Director of the Citizen’s Police Review board on this, which is wild.

Monday: Close Calls, Dead Heats, Unknowns and Preparation

Target 11’s Rick Earle has never steered me wrong, and KDKA’s Andy Sheehan doesn’t waste time reporting alarmed concerns over things that aren’t happening.

Yet the newspaper of record on Saturday reported Mayor Gainey merely has narrowed down his selection for Chief of Police to 3 finalists. Maybe he floated Ryan Lee’s name to gauge the reaction, had second thoughts, and is now turning to the audience for advice like on The Price is Right.

Meanwhile complaints against police seem meaningfully down in Gainey’s first year. So maybe he can still pull this out of the fire.

Weinstein is at 28, Lamb at 24, and Innamorato at 17 with 26% of Democrats undecided in the race for County Executive, according to a precious poll we hope is already being replicated for tracking. Adjust Weinstein downward a shade for the hits he’s taken on ethics issues since surveys were conducted, and increase Innamorato a shade since she has the means to make up the name recognition gap, and we’re in “anything can happen” country.

Weinstein is the only major candidate who said he doesn’t want to increase fines on pollution violations to actually disincentivize violations, and recently reaffirmed how he doesn’t want to limit campaign donations but doesn’t want to say so either. Lamb sounds on board alongside Innamorato in supporting funding the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council’s plan leaving an impression of little daylight between them, aside from Innamorato’s confidence in the County’s regulatory authority to bring other enterprises efficiently to heel.

Pittsburgh Public Schools is suing all the social media companies for knowingly addicting children to something which harms their mental health. Depending on who becomes County Executive, the Health Department might throw its weight behind that lawsuit next year — in hopes of earning more revenue to pay more social workers.

It’s hard to regulate some things though, even governments. Officials at the Allegheny County Jail sound irritated by the Jail Oversight Board and the voters of Allegheny County but not particularly obligated to them, and they may be in the right. After all, cops typically defend themselves from accusations of abuse with reference to their Constitutional rights, not local laws: “Your government hired me to perform this difficult task, and higher laws than your village regulations protect me in getting it done and the whole institution of getting it done.” Feels like the Jail’s waiting on the Oversight Board to test its authority more efficiently than it has been, without giving anything away.

As reformers take power, it could be they first have to grope around dark mazes of mistrusts and unknowns. How much that’s worth it depends how much is necessary.

Faith Should Rise Resurrected, Not Witch Trials (38 Days Out, Easter Sunday)

Jesus had every opportunity not to suffer and die on that cross. Instead he chose not to forsake his faith. That’s part of what made his “sacrifice” so redemptive and inspirational.

This post is brought to you by a shameless reactionary activist judge in Amarillo, TX who’s now trying to ban abortions, and a Supreme Court which wouldn’t mind.

Some Christian and likewise traditional moralizers want to drag anyone who has become pregnant (typically women) through the passion of childbirth or stillbirth in order to provide health care to another “person” inside them, only quite without regard to their own health and against their will and beliefs.

It’s too easy to blame that absurd cruelty on cultural resentments and economic competition, or right wing political agitators stoking them.

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G-d-on-Man Action, Tender Oaths and a Plan: Weekly Torah, Passover E3 (39 Days Out)

The scholars break down weekly Torah reading portions minutely over the Passover holiday. Day 3 aka Saturday this year brings the “intermediate” portion Exodus 33:12-34:26. A ton has just happened, and this is the first break our heroes are getting. They take advantage!

PREVIOUSLY ON THE BIBLE: Not two days ago the Jews were still enslaved by Egypt’s pharaohs. G-d tells Moses, “Remember to tell the story of what’s happening. Make a holiday out of it. I’m dropping my 10th and final plague: death of the firstborn. Meet me at Mt. Sinai.” So the Jews break out during the chaos and are like “Yeah!” and Moses goes up the mountain to rendezvous with G-d and bring down the first two tablets with the main laws of how to live… and comes back to see his Jews worshipping a golden calf, which is just completely contrary and ridiculous. Moses smashes G-d’s tablets in dumb rage.

TODAY’S EPISODE: After a crazy day, Moses wends his way back up the mountain ashamed and frustrated. He tells G-d “You singled me out to lead these people, but realistically you’d better come with and help because they’re ‘stiff-necked’ and need a lot of help.”

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Gainey Squares Away the Police, Provides Reassurance (40 Days Out)

Reported incoming Pittsburgh chief of police Ryan Lee spent most of his career in Portlandia developing a reputation for prudent crowd control, protest management and community policing. But given a chance to run a department in Boise he allegedly broke an officer’s neck during training (allegedly mocking them for their trouble) and later resigned amid a string of officer complaints about disrespectful management.

The hefty raises in Pittsburgh’s new police contract should help mollify apprehension of their new boss. And though the contract for the first time includes discipline for certain bad behaviors, officers can still appeal that discipline to state arbitrators, rendering the teeth of reform as yet untested. At only 3 years the contract could be considered “mercifully” short — almost a pilot project to see how the accountability mechanisms hold up — though renegotiating labor agreements so frequently can increase expense and uncertainty, and heaven knows what scheduling renegotiations for just after the next mayoral primary might bring.

“Defund the Police” must be truly dead if Gainey was able to shepherd such a hefty police contract to fruition with nary a mad tweet from the whole public. Left-wing activists either trust the Gainey team to fitfully haul them towards the promised land as best anyone can, or else power and opportunity turned out to be a little closer to their mark of desire than revolution and abolition.

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