Friday, January 08, 2010

Well, maybe...

After Pat Dowd was elected and took office two years ago, I was looking forward to watching him take steps to revolutionize city government. He had campaigned on working on resolving the City’s debt, on improving citizen’s access to government, and in general on making government smarter. After he took office, as I recall he started with a pledge signed by the City Council and the Mayor for good government. But not too long after that there was the business with the LED billboard. Strangely, that event started with him opposing the Mayor, but later put him at odds with the progressive members of City Council (I will go into some details below). Now apparently there have been continuing incidents, culminating in the events of New Years. That is when, after the Mayor’s last possible minute veto of the prevailing wage bill, Doug Shields called an emergency meeting of Council. I suspect any Pittsburgher who reads this blog knows Pat Dowd protested the calling of the meeting, refused to participate (to give the needed sixth vote to overturn the Mayor’s veto) and ended up complaining loudly. The historian with a doctorate ended up calling the other members of Council present “fascists”.

So what is Dr. Dowd’s motivation for this behavior? Is he just a contrarian or might there be some other reason. I don’t know the answer, but there have been some ideas nagging at the back of my mind for some time. The first time Dr. Dowd did something that seemed counter productive was after he filed suit involving the LED billboard. He had hired his own lawyer, but at the last possible moment Shields, Peduto, Kraus and I believe Burgess filed their own lawsuit (essentially trying to join Dowd, and also showing the Mayor that a majority of Council opposed his actions). But when they tried to use City funds to pay for the lawyer they hired, Dr Dowd objected. His point was that Council had not asked for a preliminary vote prior to hiring the lawyer to authorize the expense. Now, I don’t remember why those members of Council waited until the last possible moment to hire the lawyer and file the suit. One possibility is they were surprised by Dr Dowd’s move. They may not have had time to take a preliminary vote, but never the less there is one inescapable fact: Dr Dowd is actually right, at least in a technical sense. Should it matter that the Council might not have had time to take that preliminary vote?

Let’s look at a more clear cut example, the New Year’s Eve veto by the Mayor and the emergency meeting called by Doug Shields. Now these events occur about a year and a half since the LED billboard affair, and Dr Dowd has had conflicts with other Council members and ran against the Mayor in last year’s primary. When the Mayor vetoed the prevailing wage bill on New Year’s Eve, he achieved an interesting tactical victory. By vetoing it then, that particular bill could not have it’s veto over-ridden, since it was after business hours, and the Council that had previously passed the bill (unanimously) would not exist the next day.

However, before going on I want to point out that the Mayor’s was only tactical (small scale) and more importantly, temporary. The new Council is actually likely to be more inclined to pass a prevailing wage bill. But an angry Doug Shields decided to try to over ride the Mayor’s veto anyway, and called the emergency meeting. Except that actually he couldn’t legally call an emergency meeting without 24 hours notice. People like Bob Mayo, Chris Potter and Bram Reichbaum examined the issue, and I believe the consensus (at least between Mayo and Potter) was that the Council’s own rules and the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act were violated. Perhaps Council could have also voted to waive its own rules, but probably not a State law. Maybe the unusual nature of the situation would have been enough that the meeting and the over riding of the veto (had it been accomplished) would have survived a legal challenge. But once again Pat Dowd felt that what Council was doing wrong and refused to participate. This was the point where he tweeted that this was how the fascists had seized power. In fact I suspect he is somewhat wrong in that assessment, but he is correct that the emergency meeting was a technical violation of rules.

Now, I am of the opinion that there are rules and then there are rules. Personally I think the rules of a court of law are in some ways more important the procedures for a legislative body (I say that knowing I risk being accused of possibly allowing the fascists in). The procedures for an American court of law balance the need of allowing both sides to make their case with the needs of the system to protect future defendants’ rights. But legislative rules evolve to make the system as fair as possible, give the public access but also sometimes allow deliberation in secret, and generally promote orderly proceedings. Still, the Mayor has demonstrated that the system in Pittsburgh can be manipulated, that Council’s will can be thwarted. On at least two occasions, a fraction of Council decided to side step its own rules, but only in response to something the Mayor did. Was Council’s breaking its own rules justified on those occasions? I believe it was.

But I can see the other side of the argument. Perhaps when the Mayor does something that breaks rules is the time when Council needs to hold itself to a higher standard. Perhaps that’s the point Dr Dowd has been trying to make.

If so, if that was his intention, he has not been very successful, in my opinion. He has apparently gotten angry in Council sessions, and even heckled during the New Year’s Eve meeting. That is not behavior that demonstrates principle. It does indicate passion, but I am not sure our City Council needs more passion.

I still consider Dr Dowd to be a very intelligent man. He may or may not be the smartest person on City Council, but whether he is or not, he is certainly smart enough to be a tremendous asset to Council (he is, after all, the most educated). However, when he feels Council is breaking its own rules, he needs to find a way to say that and then I think he should quietly say he can’t participate in meetings he thinks are illegal and walk away. People might fault him for doing that, but at least he would be able to command some respect for exercising his principles in a dignified manner.

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