Friday, March 28, 2008

It ain't over .... till it's over ...

The younger step daughter is now asking me to convince her to vote for Obama. Maybe she has heard the pundit talk about how Hillary can't win. My wife is talking about it too. My wife (and maybe my step daughter) took the online quiz that is going round emails, that identifies which presidential candidate you most closely identify with. I did too. Both my wife and I turn out to identify more closely with Obama.

But I will tell you I am not convinced yet that Obama is the best candidate. I think he would make the better president, because of his speaking ability. That’s an important skill for a president who wants to convince people things are all right. It’s also an important skill if you want to set a nuanced agenda, if you want to start a dialogue about African American poverty that might end in legislation to help persuade factories to locate nearer to cities, and/or might help shore up inner city K-12 schools.

But I believe Hillary Clinton would want to follow through on those issues too, and would want to pursue universal healthcare and economic issues as well. In fact, on Washington Week her proposals for addressing the foreclosure crisis were described as more aggressive than Obama's, ie, more liberal. Obama, in this campaign, has held himself a bit above the fray. He has occasionally attacked Hillary directly, but mostly in debates where she has had an immediate opportunity to fire back. I don’t know if this is a natural role for him, I don’t know if he wouldn’t be more comfortable taking direct shots at her down and dirty (Chicago style?). I have read, on more than one occasion, that he is very ambitious. You have to say he has the talent to back that up, although he had some good luck in being a newcomer to national politics just when people wanted a sense of change, someone they could believe would be different because he hadn’t been around long. So I don’t know if things actually turn against Obama if his ambition won’t kick in and cause him to drop into mudslinging.

But what I think of is how Mark DeSantis decided to run a clean campaign and compete with Mayor Ravenstahl on the issues. I guess he did that, although I will take a shot and say that the most important issues had a way of disappearing from his website as new press releases came in, and you literally had to remember or have a cache of the article’s URL to retrieve it a week or two later (I won’t go into the inadequacy of Ravenstahl’s website, especially since it was adequate enough, he won). Still, you would have to say that DeSantis won in the neighborhoods where computer ownership and use is probably highest, in Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and Oakland, the university districts. So I guess DeSantis did compete on the issues, and won in the neighborhoods where the news isn’t just a sound bite. It wasn’t enough. If DeSantis had gotten mean, and continuously brought up the Mayor’s mini-scandals, which were no more and no less than the truth, maybe more working class Pittsburghers would have thought twice, if DeSantis had adequetely proven Ravenstahl a liar. Maybe Ravenstahl would have been giving the concession speech after the election.

That’s where I am worried Obama will be, either in a month or two or next November, conceding. Rising above is all very well. Giving a great speech on race is great. I don’t want Obama to be Dick Cheney, but sometimes you gotta be willing to throw an elbow, just to show it can happen. Is he willing?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A date fast approaching ...

So I have started to mention this April 8th hearing with the State’s Economic Development people, a hearing to see if the city can get out of Act 47 status. I have only seen mention of it in one or two places, and the only one I can remember is about the Firefighters trying to get contract negotiations going out ahead of it. I assume, but don’t know for sure, that Dennis Yablonsky will be at the April 8 hearing, like I assume that the Mayor and Council President will be there. Past that I know little, and can’t find mention of it on the State Economic Development website.

So what I hope would happen then and there is that the State’s people would note that the City has not addressed it’s debt and pension problems, and the Mayor’s own budget projections show us in deficit in a few years. The State would propose a new five year plan, with some State money for pensions and debts, and perhaps higher taxes in the city and also the county. Or one of the new Council persons would stand up and ask for that. Or something.

What I fear that what will happen is that, as a reward for the Mayor's pledging for Hillary Clinton, Dennis Yablonsky will find that the City has made sufficient progress and our Act 47 status should be rescinded. If so, we had better hope the next President is a Demoocrat, perhaps we had better hope it is Hillary Clinton. Maybe then the City will get some block grants, although who knows if it would be enough to keep up with the public safety union’s pillaging of the City’s coffers, not to mention the no bid sweetheart deals that will become the norm.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I believe that's pronounced "quiche"

Well, just a quick post. So City Council and the Mayor have made public their disagreements, more or less. Council is looking at implementing elements of the Act 47 five year plan now, even as the clock is running out. The new Council persons – Burgess, Kraus and Dowd – might be trying to fulfill some of their campaign promises. Jim Motznik seemingly makes no secret of his plan to punish his fellow council members (and himself), with a resolution that alternately praises past and current Mayors for exceeding the parameters of the Act 47 plan and then expresses puzzlement that Council is referencing Act 47 in some current legislation (and goes on to reduce the funding for Council staff, and transfer it to public safety equipment).

My sympathies are with the newer members of Council. It is hard to fault attempts to reduce expenses in the city’s budget. That said, it is true, as some blog commenters have noted that the Council is now distracted by this issue, away from crime or potholes or other issues. I’m not sure what daily Council attention to crime would achieve, unless they have some ideas to share with the police on how to prevent or solve crimes (talk about micromanaging the city’s operations).

There is a meeting of the State’s Economic Development people here on April 8th. It was called for by Council, to see if the city could exit distressed status. Personally I would like to see another five year plan, this one addressing the issues of the city’s under-funded pensions and the city’s long term debt, instead of an exit. Here’s hoping someone has the courage to stand up and say something.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Not that Obama speech again?

My wife exclaimed this morning “not that Obama speech again? Can’t they let it go?”, as we watched the Sunday morning talk-fest. But as I watched “Meet the Press”, something that had been rattling around the back of my brain was pulled to the front. Peggy Noonan, in New York City, was talking about how Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, or at least the snippet’s shown on youtube and news programs, are far outside “the mainstream”. The rest of the panel included the editor of Newsweek Jon Meechem, NBC’s chief political correspondent Chuck Todd and the columnist Eugene Robinson.

Now, I don’t know Peggy Noonan’s background, but given the fact that she is now a reporter of sorts, doesn’t she know the terrible poverty that many, I believe most, Afican Americans live in today? Or that that poverty is a direct result of the centuries of racism in the county? We may be to the point where white suburbanites claim not to be racist, where business people actually want to hire African Americans because it would demonstrate their company’s commitment to diversification, where Universities also want to admit minority students for the same reason. But the poverty that has been created in the inner cities and in poor rural communities has become self sustaining. Poor parents can’t get jobs because they aren’t qualified and don’t have needed experience. So the neighborhoods they live in have a lousy tax base and the schools suffer. The kids don’t get educated and see their parents not working, and so do not believe they will get hired anywhere. And they are right, no one will hire minority kids fresh out of school who can’t read well. And the cycle perpetuates itself. It surprised me that Eugene Robinson (the token African American) didn’t point this out, but maybe he knew no one would hear him.

Not to say things haven’t gotten better, there are now African American millionaires and an African American middle class (although there was some of that even in the heyday of segregation). But, as the line goes, the poor still can’t buy a job. Somewhere I heard a number that 30% of African Americans agree with Rev Wright, and believe there is a white conspiracy to keep them down. Listening to Peggy Noonan, I don’t blame them.

Of course, as Mr. Obama says, for African Americans to point at whites and say, ‘You deserve 9/11 for all the bad things you have done’, that is not productive. It is no more productive for whites to tell African Americans that all their problems are their own fault. But that doesn’t mean I know anything more about it than that. Peggy Noonan did say one somewhat intelligent thing; that in making his speech Mr. Obama had moved into uncharted territory. Indeed, if we do try to start a dialogue base on Mr. Obama’s speech, we will be also be in uncharted territory.

I also saw Heather Arnet and the Rev Ricky Burgess on the KP/PG thing, with Ken Rice (with a deep, worried looking furrow on his brow) and Dennis Roddy. They were speaking as Clinton and Obama supporters respectively. Arnet was first out of the gate (so to speak), she talked for quite a while, about healthcare and how good Hillary is. Ricky Burgess tried to get a word in edgewise a few times, and when he finally did get a chance to speak he also went on for a while. His focus was a bit more abstract, about how Obama could be the leader who could unite the country. Although I don’t remember him mentioning race specifically, that was certainly the subtext.

As surrogates for their candidates, Arnet and Burgess bore an eerie verbal resemblance to them. Arnet was somewhat more practical and specific, and Burgess more theoretical and global. Disappointingly, though, I didn’t feel any issues were resolved. Burgess did bring up the Obama campaign argument that if Obama has the lead in pledged delegates, he should be declared the winner. Arnet countered that Hillary had won “must-win” states for democrats, and the super delegates should take that into account. Dennis Roddy pointed out that the contests so far have been (largely) limited to democratic voters. So Obama’s lead is in democratic voters, and Clinton has won contests in important states only in voting with other democrats. Since all these contests have so far involved only democrat party voters, they really say nothing about the electibility of the candidates at all. Again, I don’t know what should happen, but it is possible (if dangerous) that the only fair thing is to let this go to the convention with two candidates.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Philadelphia speech

Barack Obama gave a speech today in Philadelphia, a specch about race relations, in an effort to address the problems that had been raised by the video clips of his pastor that have circled the internet and every news program. His speech did more than just confirm his condemnation of Rev Wright (although in fact he also embraced the anger of Reverend Wright), it also used that as a jumping off point to confront race directly. Obama says that he has heard things from Rev Wright that he (Obama) disagreed with, and I believe Obama would disagree that angry rhetoric would help a particular racial issue (as a tactical matter). But I also believe Obama would understand the rage, since he has surely encountered prejudice against himself while in school in the US. Even as he was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, that very fact in and of itself indicates how blacks are viewed even in the most elite segments of society.

But Obama seems to want us to understand he does see the same world we do. He talked about how bad things are in black neighborhoods, how the under-funded and thus understaffed and under-equipped schools can not provide black kids with the education needed to compete, and thus they can not get jobs to provide for families (and both kids and adults may turn to crime). We, as a nation, have made strides, but clearly not enough. He even mentioned blacks own complicity in some of their problems, and the possible negative effects of welfare. But he also talked about how lower and middle class whites have suffered recently too, seeing their wage stagnate, their credit card and home equity debt go up, and just recently seeing their home values start to tumble in many places. He talked about how we are not confronting the issues of race, not even during tense times of clear differences like during the OJ trial or Katrina. We know there are problems but no one wants to talk about them for fear of saying the wrong thing. But Obama did talk some about them, positioning them as mutual problems, things we need to take responsibility for so that we can turn to other quality of life issues like education, health care and jobs.

So I thought it was a good speech and I urge everyone to read it. I might reprint it as a post. The other interesting thing is that this speech provided Obama with an opportunity to make a pitch to Pennsylvanians. He gave this speech now, in this state. He gave working class white males something to think about for the next four weeks. Hillary might find that some of her support here fades. The goofy way the democrats allocate delegates, proportionally, guarantees that neither candidate will have enough delegates by the convention to clinch the nomination, but it appears Obama will have more than Clinton. I sortta hope now that Clinton doesn’t get the nomination. She is beginning to remind me of John Kerry, and I am getting a bad feeling about that.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Adult supervision?

I have only been really following local politics since last January, the start of the primary season. I got that Dowd flyer and then a visit from Dowd and I started reading blogs that focus on local politics yada yada yada. But I am aware that past City Councils and past Mayors have had conflicts, perhaps even epic conflicts. We’ve had character Mayors and character Councilpersons, and Tom Murphy well and truly overstayed his welcome, after having been the darling of the progressives initially. All of which is to say that I won’t say what the current Council is doing is amazing and unlike anything we have ever seen before! But it is different from last year, and kinda important. Right now City Council seems to be trying to teach the Ravenstahl administration how to fight like adults.

Anyone reading this blog knows about the Mayor’s misadventures in the last year or so (unless you’re here to crib on your pysch homework). I won’t go into detail about last year, but I will say that since the election the issues have changed in tone. The Pittsburgh Promise was probably not the Mayor’s choice in timing, but the way the sign has been handled, the Penguins community benefit agreement that isn’t and now the dust up over take home cars … all on the Mayor or his staff.

Commenters at the Burgh Report are complaining that fussing about the sign is a distraction from the city’s real problems. There’s a point there, but the thing is that if the decision making process is ignored in this case, where else will it be ignored when slight variations from the exact wording of city code can be found? Real money is made in development, in building and advertising. Trade unions and the developers have a big stake in this. Pittsburgh could become a very development friendly town, as long as you donate to the right campaign. Pat Ford and Our Mayor could become the “go-to” guys, spending time in sky-boxes and expensive restaurants galore. They could come to dominate the PG’s “Seen” section.

And if City Council loses this fight, if it comes to pass that development can be green lighted with just a signature or two instead of those pesky hearings and public comments, the people of this city will … what? Rise up in revolt? Sue the city? Run developers out of town on a rail? Naw, people won’t care. There be some whining from the People’s Republic of Squirrel Hill, and the Popular Front of Shadyside (not to mention the Grand Duchy of Highland Park), but that’s all. In fact, the micro-attention of the local press on the Presidential race has already sucked the public interest out of the local fight.

I’ve already commented a bit on the sign issues, but my own attention was caught by City Council's meeting on take home cars. Ricky Burgess is spearheading that effort, and has already compromised in his efforts to limit the number of take home cars. It was decided that the public safety departments could keep their take home cars, and Burgess was only looking at Parks and Recreation, Building Inspection and Public Works. Two points caught my attention in the coverage of the meeting. First, George Specter, who (as far as I know) still has not rendered an opinion on the LED sign or more particularly the city’s process in approving it, had immediate if vague opinions on Council ability to control the number of take home cars. Quote: “But Solicitor George Specter said it is his "very strong opinion that this bill violates the separation of powers doctrine between council and the mayor." He called it "an unlawful imposition on the mayor's executive powers."” The PG also reported “Mr. Specter said council's right to legislate policy doesn't mean it can manage departments. "It's kind of like obscenity -- where you call it like you see it -- when you cross the line into micromanagement of operations," he said.”

I don’t know if Specter said anything more specific, the PG may have just used the sound bites, but if he didn’t, then Specter has picked up a trick from Pat Ford. He can’t specify when Council has stepped over the line, he only knows it has. So Council better rein itself in, and not try to tell the Ravenstahl administration how to spend money on anything. A good tactic, since it leaves Council wondering if the city lawyer will defend them on anything, or whether the city lawyer will turn around and file suit against them.

The other thing that caught my attention was the report that Kevin Quigley’s take home car was reported as having just under twenty thousand miles put on it in the last year. Maybe the PG made a mistake, maybe that is Quigley’s work and home vehicle, but if not … Quigley must be using this Chevy Avalanche to take very expensive family road trip vacations in, maybe to Florida or at least some Atlantic coast beach. A few times. Scott Kunka (City Finance Director) said that eliminating the take home cars would worsen the city officials’ response times in emergencies (since personal vehicles move slower than city vehicles?), but I can’t see how your response time is improved if you are out of town. It was Kunka, by the way, who used the “Pirate of the Caribbean” defense for city. Agreeing the Act 47 five plan had itself mandated a reduction of the take home fleet down to 29 (from the 83 in 2003 and also still), Kunka called the Act 47 plan “"a global, sort-of, road map."” . Bruce Kraus noted it is a law.

Other bloggers and myself have noted Ravenstahl’s similarity to the current President, for example when Ravenstahl would lie to the press, get caught, then refuse to apologize for it. Well, now we can add Ravestahl’s attempt to create a Unitary Mayor, someone who can ignore process and act as he pleases. At least Bush has the excuse that there might be constitutional reasoning and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for his behavior. Mayor Ravenstahl should be belt tightening since the city is in Act 47 status. Instead he is pushing back against any legally required restrictions on his administration’s behavior. And everyone is distracted by the primary.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Please don't let me be misunderstood

Patrick Dowd revealed his strategy today for addressing the maneuver made by the Parking and Zoning Board Authorities to allow an LED sign to be placed on the Grant Street Transportation Center. Dr. Dowd has filed an appeal with the Zoning Board, triggering a hearing on April 10th.

This strategy has several interesting facets. First, there is a question of whether the non-binding resolution in Council a couple of weeks ago could have actually done anything. How much authority does the Mayor have over the Authorities? They have their own boards, they are quasi state related, it may be that this would be the time the Mayor would discover the limits to his own authority. Second, this move has triggered a hearing, so the questions about the Authorities’ process will be brought before the very people who have created and participate in that process. Third, the Authorities (first, at least) will have to consider the legality of the issue, the very thing requested from George Specter. Specter certainly still has an opportunity to render an opinion, but he may also find himself defending that opinion before a board or even a court. Fourth is that if the issue does ultimately end up in Commonwealth Court, the Court has the capacity to compel the Authorities to perform some action, such as to reopen the process.

On the down side, I think it is a shame that this issue has to be taken outside of council. The Mayor is not the only elected representative of the people, and I think it might be important for Council to say something about this situation, even if it is just a non-binding resolution expressing dismay that the process was bypassed. There’s danger too for Dr. Dowd, who has staked out a position; a position arguing that the city needs to follow its own rules. I hope that the Mayor will realize he let Pat Ford go too far I this case, but I fear that someone will whisper in the ear of the snow plow driver to ignore Dr. Dowd’s street.

The city needs a parliamentarian, someone who can express an opinion on the rules of the game. Mr. Specter, the city's lawyer, currently finds himself in a difficult position, where if he renders opinions that the city has done the wrong thing, he will have trouble then defending the city in court, if it comes to that. Mr. Specter needs to concentrate on finding defenses for the actions of city officials, and someone else, possibly in Mr. Specter’s office or outside, needs to be responsible for suggesting the truth of the matter. Otherwise I can only suggest that the state ethics board set up a permanent outpost on Grant Street, because we are going to need it.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Couldn't happen here ... could it?

Chris Briem posted about the potential bankruptcy of Vallejo, Ca and how it relates to a possible Pittsburgh bankruptcy. Like Chris, I myself wonder if the state would step in and prevent the city from declaring bankruptcy. And the question of how bond debt versus the pension obligations would be viewed is also quite interesting.

What also interests me is how Our Mayor does not admit that the city is vulnerable. He admits the city has financial issues, but talks about them as if they are a thing of the past. The city has no capital budget, instead having a $99 million savings account from which to spend for everything discretionary for the indefinite future. The Mayor states that he will not borrow for the next five years, to avoid taking on any new debt. Yet the Mayor see no problems worth discussing in this situation, much as the President see no problems, just something “interesting”, in the idea of $4 a gallon gasoline.

My memory is that while the Mayor has not talked extensively on this, he has stated that he is in favor of exiting Act 47 status. There is a hearing coming up on the city’s status in about a month, and I expect the Mayor will talk more about it then. I believe we are in the last year of the Act 47 five year plan.

The city’s current financial situation is stable but dangerous. If all the city had to do was make the minimum payments on debt indefinitely, we might be all right. But apparently there are health insurance concerns down the road, and probably a balloon (large) payment on debt. And the credit market is drying up, making borrowing to refinance or even just meet large payments much more difficult. And that is without talking about the issue of the under-funded pension.

If the city did go into bankruptcy, whatever federal administrator would examine what the city tried to do to avoid it. (S)He will see that the city tried to exit Act 47 status, which would eliminate a number of taxing powers granted to the city through Act 47. (S)He may see a firefighters contract negotiated early, ostensibly to help the city leave Act 47 status. The firefighters say they will not take advantage if the city returns to normal status, but I find that really hard to believe

For that matter, federal bankruptcy people would see a Mayor who has repeatedly made questionable ethical decisions and appears willing to spend fairly freely to appear to be responsive to the people (on paving software, new salt trucks and a Ford Explorer for himself, for example). The only time recently the Mayor has mention belt-tightening was in response to the question of whether the Housing Authority is overspending on itself. The Mayor does not give the impression of someone looking for ways for the city to save money, except perhaps in the sweetheart deals being made with campaign contributors (to quote Bill Murray “Well that’s what I heard, anyway”).