Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Dowd N'@

You may have noticed a Tribune Review story about Pat Dowd that included a quote from me. The quote they didn’t print from me is that I am very confused by Dr Dowd recently. I’m confused because although I understand (but don’t necessarily agree with) each of his individual positions, I am having trouble conceptualizing them as a coherent whole.

Our story so far ... Dr Dowd was not happy with the way zoning/permitting process was “streamlined” so that the Lamar LED sign downtown would receive no (pesky) public hearing, in fact was not even run by the boards of the Zoning Board or Parking Authority. Dr Dowd asked for an opinion from the Law Department and six weeks later they say it isn’t kosher and essentially “so what”. So Dr Dowd decides someone needs to file an appeal with the Zoning Board, but can’t find a private citizen who lives downtown (in, say, the Pennsylvanian) who will do it, so he files the appeal himself, as a private citizen, who works downtown on Grant street. Now, in that position its possible, maybe probable, that the Zoning Board would have said he lacked standing. Dr Dowd was prepared to go, from there, to the Court of Common Pleas to argue his case. I halfway suspect he wanted to do exactly that.

But four other Councilmen also stepped forward and jointly filed an appeal with the ZBA, as COuncilmen on City business. And the five won and Lamar has to refile, and presumably will go through the hearing process. And since then Dr Dowd and Jim Motznik separately but unfortunately at the same time asked for a legal opinion on the City paying the four Councilmen’s legal bill, and Dr Dowd has argued that it is improper for the City to pay the bill. And (to the Trib) I tried to say that Dr Dowd had “dug” himself a small hole (instead as I was thinking ahead I apparently said “cut” himself a small hole). It’s a small hole because if Dr Dowd drops the confrontational attitude, it could all be forgotten in six weeks (the time it takes to render an opinion … heh).

It seems to me that Pat Dowd is treating Council like it is the US Senate. It is easy to imagine Ted Kennedy and Orin Hatch arguing and fighting tooth and nail over policy and procedure, saying positively nasty things about each other. But the next week they could “reach across the aisle” and co-sponsor an education or anti-poverty bill, standing next to each other and beaming, going on about “bi-partisanship” and so on.

But a City Council is not the floor of the US Senate. Here your constituents are closer, and they have the capacity (if not the desire) to hear every word you say. Here your fellow Council persons are more ordinary citizens themselves, people who ran for Council because they had reached the limit of what they could do as party ward chairpersons, and so went the next logical step to be able to get things done. They are much more interested in the ends than the means. You can convince ordinary Council persons that they need to worry about transparency and the division of power in city government, but it is not something they come by naturally.

It seems like Dr Dowd is going a more formal route, but in so doing he seems to be turning Council into more of a courtroom setting, obeying more complicated rules. But that is a dangerous path. All the parties in a courtroom agree to the rules, even while they try to use them to their advantage. Courtrooms are highly stylized places where people agree with the outcomes (at least to some degree) because they do have this formal process that everyone agrees to, including the ability to appeal to ever higher authorities if you can demonstrate the process was violated.

But Council is not a courtroom, and the other Council persons are going to get tired of Dr Dowd trying to inject this formal process notion into the proceedings. Meanwhile, the three new Council persons and Doug Shields and Bill Peduto had (in January) a promising political block, at least enough people to get things passed. Now the “Lamar Four” will need to find a different fifth member. Maybe Darlene Harris, who has demonstrated that at least she appears to care about her constituents (including the four legged variety). But whatever hopes Dr Dowd had for legislation, whether greater transparency, addressing Pittsburgh's debt or creatng more bikes lanes, are endangered by the grudges he is creating with his postions and style of articualting them. And we are not going to have the technocrat Council that some people were hoping for (and an even more interesting what-if, if DeSantis had been elected and had worked with the Technocrat Council – maybe we would all have solar powered Segways by now).

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