Category Archives: ravenstahl

Yesterday’s Meeting on the Student Tax

So here’s what happened yesterday:

Council member Theresa Kail-Smith led a televised special session of Council on the proposed Tuition Tax and on the City of Pittsburgh’s desperate financial straits. It included four or five university heads and leaders — including Pitt’s Mark Nordenberg — and of course the rest of the fairly evenly divided-over-the-tax Council members, and also the Mayor.

Mayor Ravenstahl sat sort of squeezed in to the left of Chair Smith, nudged into a corner, but was given generous leave to have a turn at speaking whenever necessary or appropriate. The whole format was uncommonly free-wheeling but fundamentally organized.

The one rule most frequently enforced by the Chair was that everybody should “focus on solutions”. Of course that did not always happen — there were recriminations on both sides sprinkled around fairly liberally — but the discussion proceeded adroitly.


Especially once Tonya Payne got to it.

“Let’s say, hypothetically,” she said, and this is not an exact quote but it is very, very close, “and I hate to even say ‘hypothetically’, but let’s say hypothetically we table this on Wednesday. What’s your move?”

There was a low chuckle or two and then a silence. Motznik was looking suitably shocked and impressed.

“No really, what’s your move?”

The University presidents said some stuff about being productive, figuring out a better way to solve these problems, working together, early in the year, not waiting until November and another year’s budget deadline to get on it. Acknowledgments all around that trust is a huge issue and we need to start actively, seriously and urgently soon.

Motznik said he hates the tax but he hated having to raise property taxes or slash city services worse. “That’s who I represent.” He also asserted that the meeting didn’t seem to be very productive and that nothing had changed.


Reverend Burgess talked about certain legislation he has authored, something that has earned the unanimous support of all City of Pittsburgh elected officials (what was it going to be? Zoning, maybe?) –legislation having to do with the formal acceptance of PILOTs. First of all, it would make non-profit contributions no longer anonymous under the umbrella of the Public Service Fund. Second, it sets up the formal legislative authorization to accept them and I suppose to stipulate certain assurances in return. He challenged the university presidents to take advantage of that and hand over the money.

In the event that offer is not seized upon, Burgess also said he’s going to try to amend the bill so that the Tuition Tax won’t kick in until July 1. In any event he’ll vote for it.

Burgess also talked about the two sides as two warring armies or rival gangs. He wants to be a negotiator, but both sides want to have a “shooting war”. We shouldn’t have one, and this tuition tax will start one, so don’t make us go through with it and start shooting.

This “shooting war” is a lengthy legal battle, which will necessarily precipitate an even fiercer and wider media battle. Politicians complaining about Pittsburgh’s own rip-off universities. Universities talking about how awful the politics have gotten in Pittsburgh. Everybody in the world made increasingly aware that the City is in state oversight and a financial basket case. Real scorched-earth material.

So Burgess is willing to enact the tax, but wants to hold off on “collection” until July. It seems like what the Rev wants to do is fire a warning shot — in a room where everyone has guns, and everyone has someone from the other side locked between his or her cross hairs, and many have itchy trigger fingers. But he wants to avoid a fight.


Dowd started talking, and everyone got up and left. No not everyone — but Ravenstahl and Payne and Motznik and maybe some other people at least, not to mention most of the reporters.

Dowd said, “Well, it’s clear something’s changed”, and talked about how “in 2011, I’ll have to vote for something,” meaning most likely some kind of tax, somewhere, on something. “I can’t be against everything.”

Darlene Harris said some things, mostly supportive of the tuition tax idea in comparison to other alternatives. Kraus meanwhile was opposed. Ditto Peduto, who called it “taxing debt”, and potentially “the most regressive tax in the state”. Ditto Shields, who called the old Act 47 plan a “pack of lies and garbage”. Kail-Smith seemed genuinely solutions-oriented throughout, and just a little sharp toward Burgess regarding his extremely frank and passionate negotiations, and the many allusions to warfare.

ANALYSIS: If I know one thing about Tonya Payne, it’s that she’s all about the community first. And at this point I think she’s legislator enough to admit that her constituents educated her, brought many valid concerns to her attention — and that’s a good thing — and besides which the tax will not be taken “off the table” like the universities demanded. There will be a vote to table the tax, not to shelve it or defeat it. Future Councils can always decide to enact it when future Councils feel that it is appropriate.

For this Council to now authorize a tuition tax “ambush” sometime out into the future would set a foul precedent — I think everybody can see that.

Pat Ford: Gaining Credibility

One year after terminating his lingering five-month suspension under an ethics cloud by way of resigning in a fury, calling himself a “scapegoat” for a “failed administration” — and in so doing securing for himself a generous severance package from that administration — Pat Ford is now at the helm of a coalescing regional development juggernaut just 25 miles from Pittsburgh.

“My first two charges as the Executive Director of the BDC was to organize the board, and do a strategic plan” Ford said at a workshop meeting of Weirton City Council. “By the end of the year, we’re on our way to making things happen.” (Vid4, 2:00)

Ford presented to the Council a set of radically revised governing bylaws for the Business Development Corporation (BDC) of the Northern Panhandle of WV– an organization which had long dissatisfied many of its stakeholders for being listless and politically unwieldy. Weirton officials were anxious to carefully vet and tweak the proposed new bylaws prior to contributing a potential $25,000, which would entitle the city to two seats on its new Board of Directors.

At the end of the meeting, Ford was cajoled by one Council member into making an announcement — he had “just got off the phone with Congressman [Alan] Mollohan’s office” and had received an informal commitment “for the money to do a strategic plan” in the northern panhandle.

“It’s not official official, official — but they say they’ve … received confirmation from the Secretary of Commerce.”

(Days later, the $200,000 grant would indeed become official.)

Weirton lawmakers, who had shown more enthusiasm for certain bylaws than others, brightened audibly and congratulated Ford on the good news for the region.

“Well you see, that’s why we want you to be a paying member of the BDC,” Ford pointed out with characteristic panache. “So that we can help you make things happen.”


Two months ago, the BDC prepared for these negotiations with local officials from all over the region by putting out a full color magazine-style brochure, replete with advertising. The cover of the literature (above right) prominently features Mr. Ford’s image.

Page 3 (left) features a smaller photograph of Ford along with a personal letter entitled Welcome to Brooke and Hancock Counties, detailing the area’s existing industrial parks, retail development sites, major road, river and rail access, Bethany College, golf courses, country clubs, and Brooke Hills and Tomlinson Run parks.

Summarily, there are plenty of other reasons to “grow” in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, with our low cost of doing business, skilled work force, safe communities, excellent schools, competitive housing prices and low real estate taxes.

Page 4 is more politically telling. There is a rather officious declaration of support from the Brooke County Commission, with a formal pledge of $30,000. Then there is a ringing endorsement from the three commissioners of Hancock County, who are also contributing $30,000. They write, “It is important that the BDC receive regional support from the local cities and counties in order to have a budget adequate to perform the tasks necessary to be successful in these economic times.”

Finally, starting on Page 4 (right) there is a news-style article spanning two pages entitled, Communities across region supportive of BDC. It describes some of the relationships forged by that time with specific local governments. “I think Pat Ford is on the right track with what he wants to do,” offers the president of the Brooke County Economic Development Authority. “I think the future of Brooke County is brighter with Pat at the helm.”

The promotional piece was published by the Herald-Star and the Weirton Daily Times. Layout, editing and writing was performed by Business Editor Paul Giannamore. It set the tone for discussions such as this one:

See also videos 2, 3 and 4 from the workshop in Weirton council chambers. The sound isn’t great and it’s not always very compelling, but many parts of it will evoke memories for those familiar with Ford’s work in Pittsburgh.

Issues of deliberation concerning the proposed bylaws centered around the practical difference in powers divided among the organization’s general membership, its Board of Directors, the Executive Director and the Chairperson:

Article II – Membership

Section 1 – Eligibility

Any person, association, corporation, partnership or entity having an interest in the objectives of the organization shall be eligible for membership.

Section 3 – Investments

The annual investment (dues) in the corporation shall be fixed by the Board of Directors and shall be payable annually in advance, or in such other installments as the Board may from time to time determine.

This first mention of the Board is found on page 2. Here we also find that “candidates of ex-officio membership shall be nominated by the Board of Directors and elected at any regular meeting of the Corporation” by a 3/4 vote of approval.

The Board of Directors is not explained until page 4:

Article IV – Board of Directors

Section 1: Authority

The governance of the corporation, the direction of its work, and the control of its property shall be vested in the Board of Directors. The Directors shall have power to fill vacancies … they may adopt rules for conducting the business of the corporation.

Section 2: Composition

The Board of Directors shall be composed of no less than twelve (12) and no more than twenty (20) dues paying members who are current (not in arrears) in their regularly scheduled investments (dues); a majority of whom shall be bona fide residents of West Virginia. They shall be either members or representatives of members of the Corporation. Provided, however, that some members of the Corporation shall be qualified to serve by virtue of being nominated by governmental units (defined as a municipality or county) and shall be classified as “Government Directors” in the following manner: two (2) nominees per government entity containing populations over 10,000 persons … one (1) nominee per government entity containing populations of 10,000 persons or less …

At least four (4) of the members of the Board of Directors shall be elected by the members of the Corporation on an at-large basis. Those elected must be members of the Corporation. In addition, the Chairperson, with the advice and consent of the Board of Directors shall appoint two (2) persons, among the Corporation membership to serve as Directors.

There also appears a mechanism for designating ex-officio Board members.

As you can see, Ford is not designing a boilerplate 501(c)3 — he is writing something as innovative and complex as the United States Constitution. Only instead of having the all the necessary delegates gathered in a tavern in Philadelphia, he is required to run shuttle diplomacy among many governments, businesses and other interested parties over a matter of months. The workshop in Weirton was just one among many.

Active VIII – Amendments

The Board of Directors shall have the power to make, amend, and repeal the Bylaws of the corporation, by vote of majority of all the Directors, at any regular or special meeting of the Board, provided that notice of the intention to make, amend, or repeal the Bylaws in whole or in part shall have been given at the next preceding meeting; or without any such notice, by a vote of two-thirds (2/3) of all the Directors.

Some Weirton city officials voiced skepticism over the need and advisability of including non-voting “ex officio” officials of any kind, on the twin premises that appointing the president of a major bank for example would allow that person to wield determinative power anyway — and that meetings of the BDC are said to be open to the public (though this does not appear in the proposed bylaws). Ford clarified upon being asked:

“There’s no official notification requirement, no advertisement, but if someone just wanted to just show up they could.”

Some Council members were concerned that allowing government officials to sit on or appoint members to the Board would overly politicize the organization — a problem with the previous BDC which this new organization seeks explicitly to avoid. One however noted dryly that “you can’t take politics out of politics.”

At various times it was suggested that either the Chairperson or the Executive Director looked to wield too much individual power. “One person can stack that thing,” came one objection. “Let’s face it, he’d better stack that thing!” came a response, to much laughter.

Some wondered why any interested party should want to become a dues-paying member of the BDC if they didn’t get a vote on the more-powerful Board of Directors.

“The idea is, we want them to have skin the game,” Ford explained. By having a financial stake in the organization, they should have a better expectation of making it work for them.

At length, Ford was asked the degree of buy-in established so far from other governments.

“Brooke, Hancock: checks in the bank” he answered. “Wellsburg, Follansbee voted to pay, checks not in the bank. I haven’t worked with the other [inaudible].” (Vid4, 1:00)

Weirton City Hall would go on to send Ford back on the road with several proposed alterations to his bylaws, lots of encouragement, and praise for having secured the $200,000 state grant for strategic planning — but no financial support from City of Weirton taxpayers as yet. Ford answered in response to inquiries that he expected to meet his goal of enacting new bylaws, transitioning from the present board to the new one, and securing sufficient monetary buy-in by the beginning of the new year.

In a way, Pat Ford was more transparent, more in proportion than I had ever seen him. Here was a guy trying to squirrel together some money, some authority and some opportunity. He was just being his natural rainmaker self — a hustler, an agent, even a vendor if you will for governments — but not a government unto himself. And he seems to be thriving despite everything.

He is no longer running a redevelopment authority while running a city planning department while running a housing authority while running a parking authority while running the enforcement arm of a campaign anymore, all for the same person. He no longer has whatever “role” that was.

Speaking of that role, less is known about former mayoral press secretary Alecia Sirk, wife to Pat Ford, who left city government along with him.

Too bad. She was born to tweet.

Agent Ska & the Sundance Film Festival

Local new media ingenue Agent Ska is trying to connect some dots at her blog, The Ideas Bucket.

She is straight-facedly reporting that Mayor Ravenstahl’s geographic whereabouts once again are suspiciously unknown for an evening in late January.

Furthermore, it is alleged that the Mayor was quite likely in Utah, enjoying the Sundance Film Festival with the likes of Ron Burkle, Sienna Miller, and Sean “Diddy” Combs.

Worst of all, instead of taking pics and video of his experience, and assembling an awesome scrapbook to share with us, he decided to tell more fibs.

This is usually the point at which The Comet warns of gaping story holes and rampant speculation; we are unilaterally raising the Fact Checking Alert index to the color of the surface of the sun.

But it seems a pack of studs from the MSM are already sniffing around, so we should have this or not by next week.