Monday, July 14, 2008

City For Sale

FOR SALE: Wonderful northeastern city conveniently located within a few hours flying distance of 80% of the country’s major metropolitan areas. Many updates but still needs a little TLC. Sold in whole for the right price, but strong preference is for parcel-by-parcel conveyance.

OPPORTUNITIES INCLUDED: Land at a fraction of its market value, no-bid government contracts, permits issued anywhere for anything, preferential allocation of city services, job placement for felons and wife-beaters, tax breaks for qualified businesses (*), appointments to boards and authorities whereby you can create your own excellent business opportunities and much, much more.

TERMS: Cash contributions from 3rd parties preferred, but all other means of payment including in-kind, trade and barter will be seriously considered.

The Mayor’s Hot Line: 412-255-CITY

(*) Businesses must show a strong balance sheet, a healthy operating margin, and otherwise be in a financial position whereby a tax break is not needed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

In My Opinion: Dowd And That Damn Sign

Process and following the letter of the law are very important things. And ironically enough, they are at the very core of the maddening Lamar sign fiasco.

Respect for process and abiding our laws are pretty much the basis of keeping our civilization civilized. Process and laws do exist to maintain a semblance of order, but not just for a semblance of order. They also exist for the pursuit and attainment of justice.

Since life is often a complicated, messy affair, following the letter of the law does not always mean justice will be served. Lawyers and judges come upon this conundrum in their daily work because our world is not a computer program. It is complex and messy and human. If it were a computer program, we would have no need for the judgment our human judges, juries and legislators bring to the equation. And hence, we would have no need for them either. We would just feed the particular situation/infraction into the computer and the proper course of action would be spit out for us to implement.

What do human lawyers and judges do when they come upon such a conundrum? A situation whereby following the strict letter of the law allows for something unlawful to persist? Or worse, when an obvious injustice would be dealt? Do they break the law hoping to achieve a just end? Well, maybe they do so some of the time, and that is unfortunate. Because the end rarely, if ever, does justify the means.

But mostly these human beings get creative by referencing other laws which might serve as a modifying force to steer the end result closer to what everyone recognizes as rightful and just. Sometimes they even pass new laws so that a similar miscarriage of justice does not happen in the future.

And so this is exactly the juncture where I fault Dowd. Yes, he is and has been technically correct on all of his positions. Every computer would verify that. He is obviously bright and therefore must obviously know that exactly following correct process and the letter of the law in the Lamar sign case would lead to obvious injustice. First, the will of council was clear …… a majority of council wanted to hire McGough and file an appeal. Second, had Dowd’s technically correct method been followed, Lamar would have prevailed in their illegal activities.

Dowd needs to acknowledge that his role as a councilman and public servant should be something greater than a well-written computer program. He needs to interject some human judgment when he sees that A x B = Injustice. He needs to work with council to find a legal way whereby the clear will of council can be implemented and see the light of day. This is something that can be done, but something Dowd, for a variety of technical and esoteric reasons, refuses to do.

Dowd the “straw man” for Lamar? Dowd the “straw man” for the mayor? I’m not sure either is the case and I’m also not sure it matters. What does matter is Dowd has demonstrated he will stand on the letter of the law to the detriment of justice. He will choose recognition of his own technical correctness over stopping a clear, obvious, glaring, 1200 sq ft LED illegality. And worse yet, he will not lift a finger to help or collaborate with those who are trying to find a solution which is both legal and just and implements the clear will of the majority of council.

THAT is what troubles me with Councilman Dowd in this situation.

Friday, June 27, 2008

For The Love Of Chair

The above council chair belongs to the Reverend Ricky Burgess. It remained empty through much of last Wednesday’s council session because Councilman Burgess was threatened with forfeiture of office if he spoke or participated in any way regarding the business at hand on that day. The same threat was leveled at three other councilmen, but only Ricky took it seriously enough to forego his legislative obligations and abandon his chair. The other three, Council President Doug Shields, Councilmen Bill Peduto and Bruce Kraus, decided they would not be bullied. They thought too much of their elected office, their own council chairs and the institutions those chairs represented. You might call this a very deep-seated Love of Chair.

Who threatened the good reverend? Was it the Mob? Did an angry group of atheists finally take umbrage to the pastor’s penchant for prayer during televised council sessions? Did one of the five known city Republicans attempt to wrest a single council seat for their near-extinct party? A party which has not held one elected city office in almost 100 years?

Nope, oddly enough the intimidation came from the city’s own law department!

You see, council got wind of a blatantly corrupt but kinda standard scheme involving the mayor, a few of the mayor’s top administrators, illegal signage permits for Lamar Advertising who regularly gave the mayor hefty “in-kind” campaign contributions, additional illegal sign permits to another advertising company who gave substantial cash contributions to the mayor, gifts of undisclosed amounts between various parties, awarding of no-bid contracts that turned out to be sweetheart deals at taxpayer expense, diversion of city decision-making powers to non-city officials who would help the scheme progress unimpeded. You know …. The normal kind of second-class corruption that regularly occurs in cities of the second class in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Well, council at first foolishly sought legal advice from City Solicitor George Specter on how best to null and void the latest illegal sign permit. This is the same George Specter who on March 20, 2008 told the legislative body that it was in fact illegal for them to legislate. But even after receiving and enduring that bizarre piece of legal advice along with scores of others equally as wacked out, many on council still felt obliged to involve their solicitor, impotent as he was. In the end, Specter would not or could not and ultimately did not provide council with any viable legal advice in this pressing matter. And with a time-sensitive clock running out, four councilmen including the Reverend Burgess, filed a last-minute appeal with the Zoning Board of Adjustments to try to stop Lamar Advertising in their tracks. The Four hired outside legal counsel Hugh McGough to represent them as Specter was useless. The Four then delivered McGough’s bill to the full council body for payment.

Dum-ta-dum-tum-taaaa! (Drum roll ‘cause the shit’s about to hit the fan)

For a legal department who took nine weeks to render an opinion as to whether or not a sign was in fact a sign, Specter and his minions blasted out an ominous and threatening opinion to The Four in a matter of days. The opinion stated that since four out of nine did not constitute a majority of council, their zoning appeal and accompanying attorney fees were of a private (not public) nature. Never mind that a fifth councilman, Patrick Dowd, did also file. Unfortunatly for The Four, Patrick filed as a private citizen, not as a councilman. And never mind that a sixth councilwoman, Darlene Harris, was advised of and gave her consent for the hiring of McGough even though she could not be physically present at the zoning counter to join in on the appeal. This situation provides an interesting glimpse into the world of governmental arithmetic where four plus one plus another one still only equals four.

Specter reasoned since the zoning appeal action was of a private nature, the accompanying legal bill would also be private. And since payment by the city of a private bill would constitute a personal gain, this personal gain would signal a conflict of interest. Specter warned that if any of The Four so much as spoke of the attorney bill, much less voted on its payment, they would be knee-deep in conflict of interest complicity. The penalty for such an illegal act? They all “SHALL immediately forfeit their office.”

Wow. Could this be true? Well …… not quite. Not quite that cut-and-dry. Specter immediately started his back-peddling upon grilling by Council President Doug Shields.

Shields: “Mr Specter, in your opinion it was alluded to or construed as generally by the members of the council and the public that somehow or another there was a self-executing removal and forfeiture of office at issue here. Is that so? Would you like to clarify that please?"

Specter: “Yes I would. We did note in our opinion that [forfeiture of office is] not self-executing and we did refer to the fact that additional processes would have been necessary. And that there is a constitutionally mandated impeachment process which would come into play and we did say that in our opinion. So it’s not as though you automatically are removed.”

Shields: “Where in your opinion did you address that?”

Specter: “On page 12 …. It reads 'not withstanding the clear mandate of the charter and the statute, it may be that the Pennsylvania constitution may require some process other than the self-executing nature of this penalty.'”

Shields: “May require. It is ‘may’ or ‘does’ it require?”

Specter: “It ‘does’ require.”

Shields: “Well, I think the [incorrect] inference, George, has caused a considerable amount of consternation. I don’t know of anything where there is a self-executing forfeiture provision anywhere, so why was that brought up? Why doesn’t the drafter of this [opinion], Ms. DeSimone, explain exactly what goes on in a forfeiture of office or removal of office?”

Specter: “I take full responsibility for this opinion. It’s not unusual for an opinion to be co-drafted by more than one member of the solicitor’s staff. But in the final analysis, I signed it, and I take full responsibility for it. To the extent that the word ‘may’ caused confusion or worse yet, consternation and fear, I apologize for that.”

Shields: “I’ve got an empty seat here. And the reason why I have an empty seat is Councilman Burgess’ interpretation of [your] opinion is that he can’t sit here but to risk his office. I’ll risk mine. That’s my choice. But what I’m really concerned about is the fact that the opinion is unclear and ambiguous on one of the most essential parts of the opinion. And the message to the council was ‘you vote or discuss this, the interpretation is that you’ll lose your seat. Automatically.’”

“So this is a very serious matter to me as president of this council. I find it very very troubling that we have a document here that is so ambiguous and so unclear. The state ‘may’ do something. The state ‘has to do something’. The state ‘shall’ do something. All would mean a whole different kettle of fish. I have an empty chair as a result of that. And you have, by the rendering of this opinion, caused a bit of a crisis here.”

Specter: ‘To the extent that that word ‘may’, and I now see that it could cause confusion, consternation, and at least in one case fear of removal of office …..To that extent I apologize for the use of that word."

Specter renders a legal opinion that says impeachment ‘may’ take the entire state legislature when in fact he knows it ‘does’?? Instead he alludes and threatens that the moment they open their mouth, if they open their mouths, they’ll be bounced from their council seat?? Right then and there?? And this is just a little, itty-bitty misspeak to which he apologizes??

No ….. This is the whole damn crux of this ugly ordeal. It is just the latest in a chilling pattern by the present administration to threaten, browbeat, silence and/or eliminate another branch of government which has proved to be too much of an inconvenient check-and-balance for them.

Kraus: “I just want to reiterate that the picture of this empty chair at this table and the precedent that we are sending here today. We had a conversation in your office, Mr Specter, and I told you this is not about the money [for the legal fees]. This can be paid. This is about the message that we set. We were the minority, having gone out to fight something that was blatantly illegal. It was found to be blatantly illegal. We did do the right thing. Bodies piled up in that hallway, people were fired and permits were pulled because we stood up and we did what was in the best interest of the people of the City of Pittsburgh. And because we did that, and because we are now voting to have our legal bills paid, Reverend Burgess is not in this seat because of the fear that was set. The message of fear that…. If you DO stand up and you DO try to do the right thing, not only will we hang the legal bills around YOUR NECK for having done it, but we may very well remove you from office for having stood up for the right thing. (Bolded caps mean raised voice) For what was PROVEN to be BLATANTLY AND GROSSLY ILLEGAL BEHAVIOR that WE FOUGHT. If you want to send a message to the people of the City of Pittsburgh that their elected officials are actually ETHICAL and STAND UP for what is right, that we will not only work toward but FIGHT to HANG THOSE LEGAL BILLS AROUND YOUR NECK and remove you from office. YOU send that message today. I challenge this body to send that message today.”

Peduto: “We saw something that was wrong. Something that was illegal activity that was going on and we blew the whistle on it. Throughout the entire process of doing so, we have been attacked, threatened and silenced: Questionable legal memos threatening removal of office just for speaking. Denial of expert legal advice in offering alternative viewpoints. Silencing of minority opinion."

"It’s not about this [legal] bill. It’s not even about the four members of council that decided to stand up. It’s about what effect it will have anytime in the future that a councilmember decides to try and stop something that is illegal and has a conflict that is perceived or real with the solicitor’s department."

"I think if there is any visual symbol of today that should be remembered for all of council it should be that empty seat for Reverend Burgess. And being threatened enough to not be able to carry out your job. I think that empty seat represents an injustice to democracy, to due process, and to the ability of those who believe that they should be able to fight the powerful. And to be able to do so with the tools that make them equal.”

Well, back on March 20th, Specter tried to tell council that they had no business trying to do all of that high-falutin’ legislation stuff. He tried to warn them back then but they just wouldn’t listen.

Ricky Burgess finally paid attention, vacated his seat and shut his mouth. One loudmouth, troublemaker downed by Specter and only three maybe four more to go. Amazing.

Peduto closed with some stern words about a lawsuit. I say it’s about time. Top of the list of discovery items? Pat Ford’s super-duper, super-secret, triple-locked briefcase. All of this done, of course, because of a very deep-seated Love of Chair.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Boy’s Got Balls

Trouble Is…..........They’re Not Really His

The mayor vetoed campaign finance reform in the City of Pittsburgh yesterday. He delivered a lengthy letter to City Council, making an impassioned case that his veto was the one true instrument of reform. And Council? Well, they were just hypocritical hucksters trying to pull a fast one on the good citizens of the Burgh.

Ravenstahl’s overall assessment was that council’s campaign finance reform bill was "fraught with problems" and he needed to stop it in its tracks. By contrast, a council majority thought it was the mayor himself who was fraught with problems … all sorts of problems. But the majority did not number six and so the mayor’s veto stood.

So who’s right and who’s wrong? Well, let’s take a look at Luke’s concerns and council’s rebuttals.

We’ll hear why large contributions to Councilman Bill Peduto are bad things but large contributions to the mayor are good. We’ll hear Tonya Payne lament that she’s unable to attract big buck donors, so limiting her opponent’s fundraising capabilities would just be another handicap she doesn’t want to bear. (Yes, I’m aware this makes no sense. But not much of what Tonya says ever does.)

We’ll hear Shields contradict Ravenstahl. We’ll hear Ravenstahl contradict Peduto. We’ll even hear Ravenstahl contradict himself! (Is that a surprise?)

Fraughtful Problem #1: Council’s bill provides an unfair advantage for the wealthy.

Luke: “Last year the bill’s sponsor (Peduto) received $50,000 contribution from a wealthy private citizen whose business specializes in outsourcing work to Asia. Assume for the moment the contributor instead decided to seek higher office, running on an anti-labor platform and self-financing the entire campaign. Under the current bill, the labor community, whose funds are raised at the small dollar level from working men and women and distributed through PACs, would be forced to find fifty PACs to contribute to the maximum levels prescribed by this bill to match the wealthy anti-labor candidate.”

Doug: “Simply balderdash. We’ve had wealthy run and lose. And we’ve had uneven playing fields. It really gets down to the content of the character of the candidate rather than how much is in your purse.”

Ms Pist Commentary: Well, here’s another fraughtful hypothetical to ponder. Let’s assume for the moment that two sign guys blow into town from Oregon and they give a candidate $25,000. The candidate then gives them permits for two Downtown signs even though signs are not permitted Downtown. But the Oregon sign guys turn around and sell the sign space to another sign company for $750,000, making a huge quick profit. Let’s further assume that the Oregon guys decide to move to Pittsburgh because the pickings are so good here. They could cut out the candidate middle-man and just run for office themselves. They could use the $750,000 profit to self-finance their own campaign, and then plaster signs everywhere all over Pittsburgh. Even a big one that says “UPMC” on top of the highest skyscraper Downtown. Just think of this hypothetical. It would be really horrible, wouldn’t it?

Fraughtful Problem #1A: Wealthy people could just buy the election with their own money.

Luke: “The most obvious problem is wealthy individuals could have the ability to circumvent the proposed rules by contributing unlimited amounts from their own coffers.

Doug: “That matter was dealt with 10 years ago in the Supreme Court of the United States. It’s the law of the land in this nation that if you want to donate as much of your money that is available to you personally…you can.

Kraus: “As you stated, that is the Supreme Court ruling. That is the law of the land, not just the City of Pittsburgh, but of the United States of America.”

Ms. Pist Commentary: Can you say ‘Hillary Clinton’?

Fraughtful Problem #2: It would have a chilling effect on the labor movement.

Luke: “A cap on the ability of labor organizations to promote candidates who share their vision is an incredible disadvantage for the labor movement and harmful to what Pittsburgh has worked so hard to achieve in an increasingly outsourced world.”

Doug: “The AFL-CIO, one of the largest labor organizations in the United States, has sponsored and promoted and fought for campaign finance reform in a shape very similar to the bill that has been presented to this council.”

Kraus: “The AFL-CIO web site says ‘Nothing is more important to our democracy than the integrity of our election system, that it be preserved, and that all Americans have full confidence that their vote and voice will be heard. These goals are threatened by a system of financing political campaigns that is widely believed to be corrupt and which unfairly rewards large contributors by amplifying their voice at the expense of ordinary citizens.’”

Fraughtful Problem #3: Challengers will be unable to mount successful campaigns against incumbents.

Luke: Went on a long diatribe about how three of the new councilmen who unseated incumbents were only able to do so because of the many “large” contributions they received. He said “One councilman got $5000, $5000 and $15,000. Another got $2500, $2500, $2500, $2600, $3000, $3200, $3500, $4375, $5000 and $5000. The third got $5500 and $12,500.”

Doug: “There is a pay-to-play world out there. To suggest that there is not is simply wrong. It goes on. It happens. It’s used to intimidate. It’s also used to keep people from running, period. And that happened last year when there was no money available for any other candidate to get in the race at all. So let’s not kid ourselves about that.

Ms. Pist Commentary: Maybe Doug was speaking of the mayor’s own race whereby he, as the incumbent, received these “large” contributions, which may have made it difficult for the challenger: $25,000, $12,500, $12,500, $10,000, $10,000, $10,000, $10,000, $10,000, $10,000, $10,000, $7000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $5000, $3950, $2750, $2500, $2500, $2500, $2500, $2500.

Fraughtful Problem #4: It’s unfair to have certain rules for city offices and other rules for state offices.

Luke: “Worthwhile campaign finance reform can only be achieved by creating a state-wide standard focused on leveling the playing field for all Pennsylvanians. [This bill] does not provide a level playing field between city, county and state office holders.” Luke went on to complain about the disadvantages of a city office-holder who might aspire to county or state office someday. While holding city office, that person would only be able to amass a puny “war chest” because of the proposed city campaign limits. His county or state incumbent opponent would be able to unfairly out-raise him.

Luke Contradicting Himself: “Quality legislation would treat each office differently. [City Council] is elected by citizens in districts 1/9th the size of the city. As such, it would follow that (good) campaign finance legislation would create contribution limitations that reflect this inherent difference between the offices of city council and those of the mayor and city controller. True reform would cap city council races at 1/9th of what may be contributed in races for citywide offices. This concept is not just logical it is also practical. Historically the victor in a city council race raises and spends no more than $100,000. Legitimate contenders in a race for citywide office often need to raise and spend 10 times that amount. The failure of this bill to address the inherent differences between candidates for city council and citywide offices hints that this bill is not about good government or even the sponsors stated intent to end a so-called pay-to-play system. Rather, this failure creates the appearance that this is simply designed to impact the rules for the race for mayor.”

Ms. Pist Commentary: The boy is just freakin’ paranoid, plain and simple.

Kraus: “This confuses me. It seems we sort of go back and forth between a level playing field and the fact that council and the two city-wide offices should be funded differently and at different amounts. Also, [this legislation was not] designed to impact the rules for the race for mayor. We dealt with that SPECIFICALLY early on so that this would not be enacted until 2010 to SPECIFICALLY take that misinformation off the table. This was not going to affect this next round of campaigns at all.”

Doug: “Candidates who are in the city who wish to run in the county or state can simply maintain two fundraising PACs. One for use statewide where they have an unlimited ability and get unlimited amounts of dollars out there.”

Tonya Contradicting Both Herself And Luke: “We just want to make sure [reform] is applied evenly across the board, across the Commonwealth, across all elected offices so that no one is basically left at a disadvantage. I didn’t feel comfortable with creating yet another handicap. It’s a different story when you’re a female in this business. And it’s a different story when you’re an African-American in this business. Those are two handicaps so why would I create another handicap? My biggest contribution ever was $2500. My contributions are never bigger than $1000. I can imagine that every man in this body here can out-raise me two-to-one or more. So why should I create anything that’s gonna handicap me. I already got enough handicaps.”

So did Luke have any helpful ideas for council as to what “quality” campaign finance reform legislation might look like? Yes, Luke said he would like to see 1) An open and transparent process. 2) Which donors are doing business with the city to end an “unfounded suspicion” of a pay-to-play culture. 3) Advocate for true reform on a statewide level with uniformity throughout both the county and the commonwealth. 4) Full disclosure of who is giving what to whom without a dollar amount attached must be at its core. (!!??!!)

Kraus: “Without a dollar amount attached? I do not understand. I thought that was the whole purpose of campaign finance law. Full disclosure of the amounts given, from whom, by whom, to whom was supposed to be a matter of public record.”

Things didn’t end as bleak as one might think. Tonya let everyone know she was voting ‘no’ because the Democratic Machine was not operating at its worst. Or something akin to that:

“This Saturday at the Democratic State Committee meeting a revolution (sic) was passed for campaign finance reform, asking that the state legislature take this issue up and that campaign finance reform become a matter of law throughout the Commonwealth. So I don’t see us saying ‘no’ to this as just the Democratic Party Machine at its worst. Because the Machine actually said to the legislature ‘move forward on this issue.’”

Doug Shields was easier on the ear: “For us to lose this opportunity is indeed unfortunate. But … we’ve had bills vetoed before. I’ve had legislation go down in flames. The great thing about politics and baseball is that there’s always tomorrow. We’ll keep working on this."

Monday, May 26, 2008

Patrick Dowd On The “Politics Of The Middle”

By Bram and Char

We recently sat down with Councilman Patrick Dowd at a café in Point Breeze. The meeting was definitely something we (and possibly even Dowd) had looked forward to with anticipation.

Bloggers are normally a loud and opinionated group, very confident that they know what it is they think they know. After all the scrutiny and attention paid to freshman councilman Patrick Dowd, Pittsburgh’s blogosphere has been a bit unnerved at not being able to successfully label the guy. Who and what is Patrick Dowd and why does he do the things he does? Patrick seemed very eager to try to answer these and other questions.

Most of our conversation did center around the Not-A-Sign fiasco and all of its various incarnations. In fact, before we could get this interview “to press”, another chapter in the sign saga reared its ugly head. A spat over Penguin Stanley Cup banners erupted and Councilman Dowd was left holding the bag. (See “Bannergate” at end of post)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves …..

BRAM starts the interview: “Someone reminded me of the question Barbara Walters always asks in her interviews, so …What’s the number one misperception people have about you?”

DOWD: “Hmmm. I’m not really sure how people perceive me, so I don’t know. I mean that’s an honest answer. I think there are a lot of people who think of me as an elitist and that I somehow thought that I was smarter than people. Which is really not true. I had a lot of trouble in school. I wasn’t the brightest kid. And, you know, I had trouble even reading aloud. My classmates would always be really excited when it was my turn to be reading because it was always very funny to see what I would read because it was never what was on the page. So, I got a lot of crap for that when I was a kid.”

“On the other hand, people apparently think that I’m tied up with the mayor. Which I find very funny. So I’m an elitist and I’m tied up with the mayor. I’m too tight with Peduto and Shields. But I’m too tight with Luke.”

“I’m the guy who’s just standing in the middle. And I’m standing in the middle on certain points that I think are really important.”

The chat continued about how the whole country is so very polarized, from the national level all the way down to the very local-yokel level.

DOWD: “Our strategy, and I think Obama’s strategy, really is the strategy to find a way to open up and find the space so we can bring in people. Not to see things always as one [way] or the other. To see them as for or against Luke. For or against Bill Peduto. For or against Patrick Dowd. We could go down the list. It’s not right. Because I’m not there for Luke, I’m not there for Doug, I’m not there for Bill, I’m not there for anybody. I’m there for the folks that elected me and for the constituents.”

As much as everyone in the blogosphere (including The Burgher) is sick to death of beating sign and banner horses to death, the whole tawdry situation does go to the heart of who Patrick Dowd is. So we asked Patrick why he was against an investigation into the Lamar permitting fiasco.

DOWD: “The Home Rule Charter says that we can do certain things. And it’s true, we can do an investigation. It’s true, we have that power. But we certainly do not have that capacity. We have no professional investigatory staff or arm that’s able to do that work. There’s a difference ... There’s a power and there’s a capability. And council doesn’t have the capability.”

“Second of all, and I think this is probably in some ways more important … If we were to conduct an investigation, because of the polarity in council and the politics involved with that question ….. I don’t think you could actually come to a real resolution. When this was first brought up I said, ‘Look, fellas, the way that that question is gonna be resolved is in a court of law.’”

According to Dowd, some of his colleagues were not too pleased with that position.

DOWD: “Some of my colleagues were furious with me. They thought that I was a wimp. They said, ‘Grow some balls. Take action.’ One of my colleagues told me that. I mean it was offensive to me and I was just completely shocked. I don’t think that we should be out investigating. We’re the legislative branch. Practically speaking, I could never see [council] coming to a resolution [on this matter] that was not somehow politically driven.”

“Another thing to think about …..I don’t want to be part of a body that’s conducting witch hunts. And I’m not saying that this would be a witch hunt. But you know what? Take the situation and mix it up a little bit and imagine it in a reverse scenario. Would I still want to be doing this? Say five members of council want to investigate another member of council. What are the criteria that we’re gonna establish for an investigation? In my opinion, they should be very serious. I’m not saying that [the Lamar sign], by the way, doesn’t rise to that level.”

“I haven’t voted against the [bill to investigate] yet. I voted to table it and I think that it’s important that it’s tabled. Some people might say, ‘Well that’s bullshit.’ But I think that it’s really important. I really believe that.”

Why did Dowd file the appeal alone, as a private citizen? Dowd explained he thought an appeal was the only way to get the issue before the courts. And since council as a body had not voted to file the appeal as a body, Patrick remained convinced the appeal had to be filed by a private citizen.

DOWD: “[By filing the zoning appeal], I put it in the courts. I got it there. I got it there. I mean that was essentially what I did.”

“All the time that I was saying [council shouldn’t investigate], I was out looking for folks that might be willing to file an appeal. But there were lots of people with lots of reasons not to get involved. And so thinking about it at the time, I really didn’t feel like I had a whole lot of choice. This thing had to get into the court and somebody had to take a stand first to get that thing over there. So that is partly why I filed the appeal but not as a councilmember.”

Others on council describe the chain of events a little differently. They claim the reason they did not move forward as an official body was because Dowd assured them he had a private citizen lined up to start the appeal process and council could stay out of it. When the private citizen who filed turned out to be Dowd, at least four on council worried that private citizen Dowd would not have legal standing in the case since he was not a Downtown resident. They say this is why they joined his appeal at the last minute as councilmen.

DOWD: “Now this is important. Let’s be clear. Those fellas (The Four) explicitly did not like the idea of an appeal. I was going down a path that was not a path of interest to them. So somehow things changed. I’m still not clear how suddenly my action became the action that everybody wanted to take. When I got to the point where I had to make a decision, I said to my attorneys ‘Look, I don’t want to use public funds. I don’t think it’s the right use of public funds.’”

CHAR: “So you met with your attorneys before you filed your appeal? Was the question of your standing as a private citizen discussed with your attorneys? And they felt that you would have had standing?”

DOWD: “Oh yes, absolutely. I told them what my problem was. I told them what I anticipated a good remedy to be. In my mind the remedy was revocation for the permit and a resubmission of the plan to go back to the beginning. A [council] investigation wouldn’t necessarily get us to that point. [My standing as a private citizen] wasn’t something we were worried about for a lot of different reasons.”

When asked if he was supportive of the letter The Four on council sent to the State Ethics Commission, Dowd said they were free to do that.

CHAR: “I know they’re free to do that. But in your opinion, was it a warranted and advisable thing to do in this circumstance?”

DOWD: “I’m not a party to the opinion although I did ask the question. So now Motznik gets triggered with asking the question and I find that very funny. But anyway, I asked the question. So if they want to get an opinion from the [State] Ethics Commission, that’s fine with me. In fact I’ll be looking forward to seeing what it says.”

BRAM: “[Regarding] concerns about The Four’s conflict of interest and the position that maybe they shouldn’t be voting … But you were allowed to vote. You did. You voted ‘no’. Blogosphere wants to know. Why vote ‘no’? Given that you’re vetting this, given that you have a choice … You can either say ‘Yea I think that was a good use’ or not. Why vote ‘no’?

DOWD: “I have bills. I have bills but I don’t bring them to the public to pay. I have an attorney’s bill. And we’ll see. Maybe it will be ruled that [The Four] were in fact officials, and that they were doing this in their official capacity. And that they have a right to ask for public money.”

CHAR: “Motznik keeps saying The Four should just pay it out of their own council budgets because that’s what he always does. If that’s the case, whether it gets paid from the general fund or out of their departmental budget, it’s still city money. It’s still not a personal bill and therefore it’s not a personal gain and therefore it has nothing to do with conflict of interest.”

DOWD: “I’m not sure that would be right either. So the question is ultimately … Did they have authority to file as council members and call this an official action of council and therefore ask for city money to pay for the action? The question ultimately rests … Is this a bill the council is obligated to pay because it’s a public city bill.”

Patrick pointed out that it takes more than just calling himself ‘Councilman Dowd’ to make a private act something more than a private act. If he invoked his title of ‘Councilman’ while mowing the lawn, for instance, it wouldn’t make it an action of council. Official acts of council only come about when there is a quorum of that body, when the quorum says ‘Present’, and then proceeds with a majority vote on a particular issue.

BRAM: “Do you doubt they were doing it in good faith? Seeing themselves as doing it in their official capacity?”

DOWD: “There’s no question that they were doing it in good faith. I have no doubt about that.”

Dowd went on to say he knew he was right to file as a private citizen. He didn’t want to be accused of using public funds in the wrong way. In his gut, he felt it was not right to use taxpayer money to litigate something against the city where he was a public official. So keeping a clear divide between public and private was paramount.

BRAM: “So the investigation didn’t happen. Which you view as a good thing. But are you glad that we had the post-agenda? Was that a good thing to do?”

DOWD: “Oh yea, sure. Post agendas are different from an investigation. But I mean it did feel a little prosecutorial.”

BRAM: “There was a polarity before you came to council. And you sorta got sucked into it, like you may now be one of the poles all of a sudden …”

DOWD: “No, I’m not a pole. I’m in the middle. Last week the people on this side saw me as a problem. This week it’s the people on that side. And that’s okay. Because that’s called being in the middle. That’s called the politics of the middle.”

BRAM: “[At the post-agenda], you delivered a little preamble in which you said ‘It feels like some of us have been acting like we’re television lawyers.’ Was that necessary? Was that appropriate?”

DOWD: “This is where I think this issue of my being an elitist comes in. My frustration with that meeting was that we weren’t on task. Doug Shields went into that meeting trying to establish a transcript, a record. So that, as he told me, when we get to the investigation and we have the prosecutors here, we have the record. That’s actually not how I saw the function of the meeting. We weren’t on any target other than ranting and raving about what we all thought was right or wrong. Myself included.”

BRAM: “I didn’t read it that way. I thought there were some digressions, I’ll grant you that.”

DOWD: “But when one of my colleagues throws a definition of a sign to someone across the table and says, ‘Point. Tell me what a sign is.’ That’s not how this works. That’s not how it should work.”

CHAR: “But it’s certainly not how it should work when city employees come in with a very unbelievable, hairsplitting [definition that] a sign is not a sign. At that point I wanted someone to throw something back at a lawyer who was not even remotely trying to provide a service to the councilmen he was supposed to represent.”

DOWD: “I don’t think that my job as a councilman is to adjudicate the definition of a sign. In fact I’m pretty darned sure that that’s not in the powers of council. I also don’t think it’s in the powers of council to adjudicate what is and is not permitted. It is our responsibility to write the laws, to hold the administration accountable. And you can argue this is a point of accountability …. I don’t deny that. But it was so obvious and clear that council thought, and I think that it still thinks, that what happened was wrong.”

“Quite honestly, I also worried about the image of the government to the public. Order is just as important in this case. If we’re going to be good leaders, we need to know how to resolve problems. Standing in a meeting, in a community meeting, or any kind of meeting, screaming and yelling is not how you resolve something. You take it to the right place, get it resolved. I think our responsibility is to take questions, to dispose of them as efficiently and effectively as possible and move on to the next one.”

CHAR: “Without emotion. Is that what you’re saying?”

DOWD: “Well, without drama at least. There’s gonna be emotion. After the last legislative meeting I actually sort of made a promise to myself about how I’m going to behave. I’m going to behave differently in total, completely. Because here’s the thing …. If we spend my whole first year on council doing this sign thing, I’m gonna quit.”

Dowd pointed to a host of critical issues facing the city: Shootings, school closings, crumbling infrastructure. These were all way more important than the sign.

CHAR: “But this not just about the sign. It may seem like a little pimple. But underneath is a huge iceberg of ugliness. It’s part of how and why development does get done in this town. Part of how and why we’re in debt. Part of why nothing ever goes the way it’s supposed to. Part of the reason Pat Ford told you ‘My money your money, what’s the difference?’”

DOWD: “I love that story. There’s a lot to say here. On the [Pat Ford URA] UDAG question, my bigger issue was it is city money. And there’s an unwritten behavior pattern that’s been going on for years that it just sits in the URA and they’ve been using the spin-off money and I think that’s a good thing. It’s sorta like a little trust fund and they’ve been using it for development in the city. I wouldn’t say that it’s been illegal … the way they use the money. But to transfer it over like it was about to be…. It was a problem. Although I think that when they looked at it, they found a different answer.”

“My concern is that we think about what we’re doing with our resources. Why would we take money that we’re using for economic development and use it to pave potholes?”

CHAR: “And why are we in essence bankrupt? We’re bankrupt because year after year, decade after decade, those with the juice and the grease get the big hunks of money. Like Lot 6 that’s gonna get sold to the Steelers for nothing. It’s part of the whole. Local government is not abiding by its own laws. Not just in one section, but rampantly. I think that is why the sign issue has elicited such extreme emotions in people.”

DOWD: “Let me be clear. I knew from the very beginning when I filed the appeal that something would come out of this. There certainly was some issue with the permit. I understood that. But again, my colleagues at the beginning, at least as far as I understood it, didn’t want anything to do with that process. And the only way these things can be adjudicated in the right way is when they end up in court. Because that’s where the people with the juice … the judge … makes a decision. And nobody, nobody crosses that line.”

Patrick was then asked his opinion of George Specter and if he thought council needed its own lawyer.

DOWD: “I think council should have a solicitor to the extent that the selection of that solicitor is clear and the rules of engagement for the use of that solicitor are clear. But it really should be on a need basis. To have no attorney is a problem, I agree with that.”

“When you have five bad pitchers, do you hire a sixth pitcher or do you fire one and put in another? Ultimately, the problems that you have with a solicitor that works for both the mayor and the council …Those same exact problems will emerge between the majority and minority of council. You have the same exact issues.”

We argued that there still seemed to be an inherent conflict of interest to have just one attorney representing two different branches of the government. Especially since they were supposed to act as a check and balance to each other.

DOWD: “I don’t think [sharing a lawyer] is a bad idea. There’s a tension there and I actually think that tension is good. The tension is generally good if it’s at a certain point. It can become too much and then you’ll have problems. And I think that’s where we are.”

You now have a solicitor who serves the mayor and the council and there are problems. People basically feel that the solicitor is too close to the mayor’s side of the line. Okay, great. Can you imagine if we had a contracted solicitor who worked only for the council? Nine members. And there was no clarity about who got in line first and how business was dealt with? And then in addition we all called the solicitor? Can you imagine the bill?

“Now you have the solicitor in the middle and you have the majority and the minority. Do you see a different ball game [than the one now with the mayor]? No. by hiring [a council] solicitor, you’re just recreating the same problem only for the council. And you’re pitting council against council now. We’ve not solved the problem.”

Dowd said he had a couple of ideas on how to solve that problem, and further elaborated that if he were mayor, he’d whittle down the law department. He’d have a strong, solid group of “generalists”. When the need arose for legal advice on specifics (labor contracts, zoning, etc) he would outsource to specialists.

DOWD: “The real issue is the solicitor’s office. That’s where the issue is. Everybody has an issue with the solicitor … then let’s deal with that. Don’t create a whole new office.”

BRAM: “You have opened my eyes that there are other problems with a council solicitor. At the same time, the body of council needs to be able to assert its own …”

DOWD: “I’m clear. I’m with you. Got it. Totally agree with you. And I think we need legal advice.”

BRAM: “On a case by case basis? Does it need to be debated anew each time?

DOWD: “At least at this point. For the moment. I think that we need some professional advice perhaps. I’m willing to go down that road. But not until it’s exactly laid out how this is going to work. And not until we’re all comfortable with the rules of engagement.”

“In the meeting where we were discussing [McGough’s fees], I was very upset. I saw things in a way that was different from my colleagues. First of all, I wasn’t prepared. I was told that we were not going to be debating it …that it was not going to be discussed. I was very upset and I think that my tone was absolutely wrong. I wouldn’t use that tone in a classroom and I shouldn’t use that tone at the table. So I’m gonna change that.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m not going to hit hard. I am gonna hit hard. But there are different ways of doing that. You have a different tone and a different approach. But it was my deep frustration …my colleagues knew that I was opposed to [paying the bill]. Nobody had worked to try to find resolution, and I’ve said before, I have ideas about how we can lay out these different pieces. They want me to be an ally but they’re refusing to say, ‘You know what, we’re gonna try to work with you.’”

“The polarity is not disappearing. And I know that. But I’m not gonna be part of the polarity. That’s the point. I’m just going to continue to stand and take my stands. But I’m also going to change my tone.”

BRAM: “Had they brought it to you beforehand, would you have voted [to pay the bill]?

DOWD: “That’s an interesting question. I don’t know the answer to that. Because I still don’t know whether I should have filed the appeal. I know that somebody should have. And I know that it should have been a citizen. And I would have preferred it would have been a citizen, not me. But, what am I gonna do?”

BRAM: “Before we run out of time…The second act of the post agenda, after you said that people [were acting] like attorneys on television, you basically started asking Pat Ford where he was on the night of January 22nd. I tried to follow [where you were going with that] …Would you be willing to share?

DOWD: “Pat Ford sat at the table with a set of binder-clipped pieces of paper and briefcases behind him. These were his datebooks. And he handed out to us samples of what were in some of his datebooks. So it comes around to Darlene and she says, ‘Could you tell us what’s in these conversations?’ Ford says, ‘Before you do that, you might want to consult with your legal council.’ As if there were something in there that was damning. And it reminded me of Joe McCarthy.”

“And so I said [to myself], well if it’s that juicy and if he has names ..... When someone says to me I’ve got the names but you might want to talk to your attorney first…. Well of course, what am I gonna do? Like what the hell do I care? I’m gonna go teach if I get fired. So sure. Tell me. Let’s go down that road. That sounds like fun to me.”

“It also seemed to me that Pat Ford thought that there might be some issues. When somebody carries around a binder-clipped set of [records] …I mean you look like you’re ready to be indicted and in case you are, you’ve got defense.”

BRAM: “The URA. What’s the status report on how they’re behaving over the past month, 6 weeks or so? Did you get your budget? Do you understand it? Are you getting things from them?”

DOWD: “Yea, certainly Don Kortland and Connie Eades have been extremely, exceedingly forthright with me. They’ve given me all sorts of information that I’ve asked for. And we’re working on this question of the UDAG money. We are finding a way to deal with that question. And I think when things settle down we’ll bring it forward and deal with it. But I feel like they’re focused on doing the right thing.”

“Bigger question is about the URA and what’s its role in the city. I think that we need to do an analysis of the URA. Lets look at all the money that they’ve provided for businesses in the city and look at the return. What’s the rate of return per dollar invested and let’s see where they’re doing the good work and let’s see where they can do better. And I’m confident if we did a real analysis of that … hired somebody to do that … That it would be a good thing.”

CHAR: “The rumor, the urban legend if you will, is that there are certain people in the know, who have connections, and they’re gonna get the URA money, they’re gonna get the choice interest-free loans, they’re gonna get the TIFFs, they’re gonna get everything. So how do you ever get to the bottom of all that?”

DOWD: “I think maybe if you did a study …”

CHAR: “But doesn’t that have to be part of the equation? I believe that’s part of the problem here. It’s not just that we’re making unwise, foolish, financial decisions because we’re not financially astute enough to figure out which is the better development opportunity. It may unfortunately be that we’re just corrupt enough to where the answer is always … He gets the money, they get the money, they get the opportunity.”

DOWD: “There’s a way to get at this analysis. I think there is a lot of what you’re suggesting … I haven’t denied that. Part of my platform was very simple … We’re gonna move from patronage to performance. And I think that’s sort of what this is about. And the way that you do that is you very coldly analyze. You very coldly look at the data. Qualitative and quantitative data. You look at it as coldly and calculatedly as possible. And you make that analysis.”

“I don’t think … I’ll be honest …I don’t think that you have to look that hard.”

CHAR: “No you don’t. But how do you pass that point? It’s gonna be very easy for you to point and say we did wrong here, we did wrong there, we need to do better. And then the next year comes round and we still didn’t learn to do better because the real reason is they’re still in somebody’s pocket. The people who are making the decisions have to understand that the old days are over. And there has to be some kind of repercussions for them if they keep handing out the money to the same people.”

DOWD: “Well there it is. There’s an election coming up. People can make choices.”

CHAR: “I know but … People in this town don’t care about anything unless it’s sports related.”

DOWD: “I disagree. I totally disagree. I ran a campaign where people cared. And Obama did too. Lots of people have. And it matters. I think that people care. I actually think … I believe actually… that we’re at a tipping point.”

And so our time was up. Councilman Patrick Dowd, the man in the middle, got up from his middle seat at our table and rushed off to pick up his kids from school. Bram and Char privately speculated as to how long they thought Patrick would be able to retain his middle ground. As it turned out, Dowd’s resolve would be tested sooner than either of us anticipated.

In the next few days, Bannergate would break out. The mayor would first infer that dastardly councilmen Peduto and Shields were to blame for preventing the seven-story Stanley Cup banners from flying high and proud Downtown. Then blame shifted to Dowd as an email from the mayor’s chief-of-staff surfaced, hinting Patrick was the spoiler because he had “issues” with the banners.

So did a lone Councilman Dowd actually kill our Stanley Cup banners? Patrick says no.

According to Dowd, mayoral Chief-of-Staff Yarone Zober called him at home about 8 PM on Friday, May 16th. Yarone explained the whole last-minute effort to legalize temporary Reebok Penguins banners Downtown and asked for Dowd’s support. Dowd says this was the first he had heard anything at all about this “issue”.

Zober stated that the Administration would be introducing legislation for council’s approval on Tuesday morning. Dowd asked and was told that the city law department proclaimed the whole thing to be quite kosher. In fact, Zober assured him the law department’s legal opinion would be accompanying Tuesday’s legislation.

“Good,” said Dowd. If all was as Zober portrayed, Dowd would have no problem and told Zober as much. But not having anything in writing before him, Patrick let Zober know his only “issue” (there’s that word again) was to make sure this would not set an unintended precedent. Could Zober make sure the law department’s opinion addressed the “issue” of precedent? Zober said yes and all was well with the world.

Until Tuesday morning, that is. That’s when Zober shot off a surprising email informing everyone the Administration was pulling the plug on the banners. The mayor held a press conference the next day blaming council. Fingers started furiously pointing in every direction possible. The latest political hot-potato got bounced all over town, ironically and erroneously (according to Patrick) landing in the last place anyone suspected ….The middle ground of Councilman Patrick Dowd’s lap.

Well. So much for tipping points. At least as they pertain to the Ravenstahl administration in the near (and probably not-so-near) future. We therefore wish Councilman Dowd all the best and godspeed as he treads his middle ground. He's gonna need it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

How-To Tips From A Lying Dirt Bag

Tip #2: Never lose an opportunity to fabricate a lie out of thin air.
Tip #3: Never ever answer any question with a direct answer.

Pittsburgh Penguins’ stellar season has earned them a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. The team and Reebok float a plan to hang 40 x 85 ft temporary banners on Downtown skyscrapers to celebrate the championship event. But alas, while the idea is a spectacular one … There’s not enough time to have the banners produced. The team therefore decides to abandon the idea.

The Accusation:
Since the temporary banners are not to code, ask City Council to rescind a sign moratorium they passed to stop construction of the last Downtown (Lamar) sign you illegally approved. Not that these things are remotely related .... They are not. But it is a great opportunity to pull something you want out of thin air. Something you were previously denied.

When Council instead suggests alternative legislation which solves the Penguin banner problem, agree to draft the legislation yourself, knowing you will never do so. When the team cancels the idea because of lack of production time, neglect to tell council. Also neglect to send them the previously agreed-upon resolution that you were never going to send them anyway. You can then lie to the media, blaming council for failure to pass legislation they never received. But most importantly, you can neglect to mention the whole thing was moot since the team had abandoned the idea BEFORE council even got a chance to vote on the legislation you never sent them.

The Proper Dirt-Bag Replies (Listen to audio interview here):
The city solicitor said you couldn’t [hang the signs] because of the Reebok logo. Is that true? Is it against the law to do it because of the Reebok logo?
Luke: "There were concerns surrounding the Reebok logo."
(Note: Luke knows existing code makes the banners illegal because his own solicitor told him so. Yet he fails to say so. He also fails to tell interviewer Fred Honsberger that the whole issue was moot because the Penguins cancelled the idea BEFORE council’s session.)

Media: Would this have just taken a council resolution, just for these temporary signs?
Luke: "I will only tell you that based on the actions council took a couple of weeks ago by passing a (Lamar sign) moratorium, I was not comfortable as the mayor, unilaterally saying this is something that needs to be done …… We gave council the opportunity to lift the (Lamar sign) moratorium, to build unanimous consensus, which I believe by the way could have been done on Tuesday if all nine council members were on board. But unfortunately while some members are very supportive, and perhaps even the majority of the nine-member body, we couldn’t get all nine to sign on and say this is something they want to do."
(Note: Luke was asked about a draft resolution for the Penguin banners, but he instead answers by referring to a Lamar-inspired sign moratorium, tricking Honsberger into thinking these are one and the same pieces of legislation. He also fails to tell Honsberger that even if all nine members had voted unanimously TUESDAY, approving anything and everything the mayor wanted, the banners would still not fly because the Penguins had cancelled the plan on the previous SATURDAY)

Media: So you’re saying a simple resolution would have resolved this problem very expeditiously?
Luke: "I think it would have been very helpful."
(Note: Helpful to whom and for what? The Penguins and their banners which had already been cancelled by the team? No, helpful to lift the Lamar sign moratorium, which was the impetus for this whole embarrassment in the first place.)

Bonus Points Awarded:
Too many to count. As long as the media takes this kid on his word …. which he as proven time and again is worth absolutely nothing …. Luke will continue to easily rack up the bonus points.

Homework Assignment:
Successfully draft a legal opinion which will allow Luke to receive free Stanley Cup tickets for his entire family and 20 of his closest friends. Free hotel, air fare and meals should also be included. Additionally find some way to prohibit at least four members of council from appealing this opinion, citing conflicts of interest and forfeiture of office as the only sanction.

** Completed homework assignments should be sent to Pittsburgh City Solicitor George Specter c/o the Mayor’s Office.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What Hillary REALLY Meant To Say ....

"Okay ….. You wanna know the bottom line here? I'm better than Barack because I'm white and he's black. Can't you people see this? It's so obvious! True, no Democrat has ever won the presidency without carrying the key state of West Virginia. But the most important historical trend here is that no person from any party has ever landed in the White House without being WHITE! Don't you people get it?"

A spokesperson from Hillary's campaign later explained that Mrs. Clinton misspoke due to extreme fatigue and the shock of losing to an unknown, skinny black guy with big ears.

A spokesperson for the spokesperson from Hillary's campaign later explained that the spokesperson misspoke due to extreme fatigue and the shock of losing to a black guy with a terrorist-sounding name and a wife so cold and pissy even Bill hasn't hit on her yet.