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.


Bram Reichbaum said...

I totally picked up on the fact that Kunka used the Pirates of the Carribean model. Good call.

Specter actually did fess up to the fact that Council *does* have the power to legislate administrative policy *when it is doing so* to bring the city into compliance with Act 47. He didn't say so in a way that was easy to excerpt, but he did so in a way that caused Kunka to take the lead the rest of the way and make his Pirate Code argument.

Kunka also made the argument that Act 47 does not *require* things of the city, but is actually there to *empower* the mayor to do this and that should he elect to use them. I thought this was a particularly senseless argument, as was pointed out by Shields who had to define what "Shall" means in legalese.

EdHeath said...

Yes, it's more of guideline, actually. I was nervous about making that analogy, but it had stuck in my head.

Do these guys know there is a hearing next month on taking the city out of Act 47 status? How do they think the state (either executive or legislative branch) will feel about being told that the agreements they made with the city were written on an etch-a-sketch? The Mayor was empowered (as was Council), but only to do exactly what the State Legislature wants.