Monday, May 28, 2007

Commentary: When Is A Ban Not A Ban?

Allegheny County’s smoking ban has been on-again, off-again so many times we’ve all lost count. I’m not surprised by this legal seesaw; I’m actually amazed it hasn’t happened before now. If we are to make any sense of this smoking conundrum, we’re going to have to get back to basics. “Basics” in this case would appear to be pretty darned basic: Should people be exposed to a harmful substance against their will?

Ah, such a seemingly simple, straight-forward question in reality fraught with all sorts of complications. These complications exist because we’ve allowed our legal definitions to become muddy and the application of our laws to become anything but consistent.

The plain and simple truth is that at this time tobacco is a legal substance. It is not contraband, it is not even regulated by physician prescription. Nope, it’s perfectly legal, and as such, it’s no wonder we’re having a hard time banning its use.

Since we are only human, the laws we enact will never be worded or crafted perfectly enough to mete out justice for all people all of the time. But since we can’t seem to accept these inevitable shortcomings, we erroneously reason that if we pepper our laws with enough exceptions, if we “loosen” our definitions and “broaden our perspective” we can limit the injustice of our system. We think if we compromise enough, we might even find a way to make most everyone happy. While this strategy might succeed up to a certain point, carrying it past that point just produces confusion and a battery of unenforceable laws. Ergo the tobacco conundrum.

Simply put, if occasional exposure to second-hand smoke is harmful enough to cause significant risk to a person’s health, then first-hand usage by the smoker must be deadly. Since the willful taking of one’s own life is not legal, why are cigarettes legal? Non-smokers, trying to “compromise”, argue that the smoker has a right to “harm himself if he wants”, but has no right to harm other people. Is that true? Do people in this country have the right to knowingly harm themselves to the point of causing their own death? Smokers, also jockeying for a compromise, promise they will only do so in “special places” where other like-minded persons are also harming/killing themselves. Or, if smoking becomes banned in public places, exceptions would be made for small neighborhood bars where not much food is served. Are we therefore saying since those people are already drinking themselves to death, adding smoke is not that big of a deal? How about the illogical exception made for casinos? Since those people are already throwing their money away should they also have the “right” to throw their lives away?

The inconsistent basic premise and accompanying battery of twisted logic “compromises” have come into being not out of respect for the greater liberty of the masses, but undoubtedly have persisted to protect the existence of the tobacco industry. And believe it or not, this decades-long grappling with the problem is warranted. Great care should always be exercised before killing off an entire industry.

But we have arrived at exactly that juncture in this legal challenge. Impartial testing can and must be done to find out, once and for all, how noxious this habit really is. The series of tests conducted on behalf of proponents and opponents alike are riddled with questionable methods and assumptions. If thorough, properly conducted testing concludes that tobacco kills as often as its detractors say it does, and if this country proceeds upon the legal path that an individual does not have the right to take his own life, then tobacco should be completely banned as with heroin or opium.

If it turns out tobacco is not the near-guaranteed death sentence its detractors profess it is, if the risk associated with second-hand smoke is no greater than breathing air while being stuck in the Ft Pitt Tunnel during rush hour or Steeler game back-ups, then individual liberty and the free market must prevail. The last time I checked, dining out without the annoyance of having to smell unpleasant odors is not one of our inalienable rights.

For the record, Ms. Pist is a life-long non-smoker who does not want her health to be assaulted. But short of that threshold, Ms. Pist is not interested in compelling others to adhere to her “lifestyle choices” or diminishing the liberty of others so that her dining experience can be maximized. We need to get to the scientific bottom of the smoking argument and then let the chips fall where they may.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

May We Suggest This Reply?

City Council President Doug Shields,

May we suggest this reply to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl......

-----Original Message-----
From: Shields, Doug
Sent: Tuesday, May 29, 2007 9:59 AM
To: Ravenstahl, LukeCc: Harris, Darlene; Deasy, Dan; Koch, Jeffrey; Motznik, Jim; Payne, Tonya; Bodack, Len; Peduto, Bill; Carlisle, Twanda; Urbanic, Bill; Zober, Yarone; Zober, Yarone; Mazefsky, Gabe; Stettner, Melissa

Welcome Back Mr. Mayor! "I wish to remind you" that despite the fact that you say you have been here the past three months, bills to the Animal Rescue League have gone unpaid and their contract has expired. Even though our door is always open, neither myself nor our respective Council members, because of your seeming absence regarding city operational issues, have heard anything from you about this matter prior to receiving your last minute request to renew the ARL contract, with rates increasing fourfold. Once again, let this e-mail serve as an invitation to you, to contact your BFF and FPA (favorite political ally) Bill Peduto to schedule an appointment. And as always, any issue not requiring me but only staff can be handled by the group email method you seem to prefer. Thank you.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Mayor Expands “Open Door Policy” By Installing Revolving Door To His Office

New Door Capable of Kicking More People In The Ass While Also Meeting City Visibility Standards; Council Urged to Use Anytime

Ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the mayor’s new revolving door were marred by sharp criticism from City Council today. Councilman Bill Peduto led the charge because the door installation was not put out for competitive bid. Councilman Shields joined with Peduto and asked for a legal opinion from the city solicitor as to whether the no-bid status of the door was lawful. But Mayor Ravenstahl deflected all criticism telling reporters that installing a door which will kick people in the ass more efficiently and at a greater rate of speed qualifies as a professional service and therefore does not have to be put out for open bid.

Weighing in on the fracus, Tonya Payne said she is pleased with the new door because it will serve her Downtown constituents well. Jim Motznik, usually a close Ravenstahl ally, parted ways with the mayor on this issue and cited closing of the city’s asphalt plant as his reason for disagreement. When reminded that the asphalt plant had no bearing on the mayor's new revolving door, Motznik added that “Everything in this city revolves around that asphalt plant. The city will never get back on its financial feet until it is reopened.”

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ravenstahl Instructed In Proper Usage of "Send" Key

Parental Block Installed On Key As Back-Up Precaution

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Luke Celebrates Landslide Victory By Taking Out Friend And Foe Alike

Shields Mutters “This Is Not What O’Connor Would Have Wanted” After Being Kidney Punched

Yes, It Stinks

The Admiral over at the Burgh Report informs us of the millions/billions of dollars which will be required to get our sewer system up to Clean Water Act standards. Where will this money come from? Where it always does. The cost will be borne by us and also by us.

All of us will pay ever-increasing sewer rates to fund the rebuild of Alcosan’s underground system. Then all of us will pay a second time when we are required to fix the portion of the “system” that is on our own property. i.e. The sewer laterals that run from our homes to Alcosan’s pipes in the street. Whether we know it or not, WE own the pipes that run from our home’s foundation wall out to the curb. In fact, the individual homeowner is already being compelled to remediate this section of the problem.

Today, in certain city neighborhoods, the individual property owner is required to fix the storm/sewer water problem BEFORE he is allowed to sell his property. (Home, townhouse, condo, commercial property, whatever) City Council passed a Dye Test Ordinance in March of 2006 saying as much. They had no choice. The Clean Water Act federal consent decree trumped everything.

The ordinance name, “Dye Test”, refers to the testing method used to determine if a property’s storm water is “illegally” being funneled into the city’s sewer lines. This test is conducted by a plumber and it costs about $100. The plumber runs brightly-colored dye through the property’s downspouts and storm drains and then checks to make sure he does NOT see the dye running into the city’s sewer lines. If dye is spotted in the wrong place, the property fails its “Dye Test” and the owner must then reroute the storm water.

Where should the rerouted storm water go? The city’s Dye Test Ordinance says it must go to “some appropriate legal place”. And where is that? It’s easier to list where storm water cannot go. It cannot flow down a driveway, cross a sidewalk or flow directly onto another person’ property.

The cheapest and best way to “fix” the problem and still be in compliance with the city’s ordinance is to clip the downspouts which run storm water into street sewer lines. Gutters and downspouts would then be reconfigured so as to direct the rainwater to the property’s back yard. Caution should be taken to make sure your new backyard “pond” is far enough away from your home so as to avoid water problems with foundation walls. If the back yard is not large enough to keep water a safe distance from the home’s foundation, an underground gravel pit could be fashioned or rain barrels could be utilized as a collection point for the rerouted rainwater. This kind of “fix” will cost a few hundred dollars, probably a thousand at most.

And what happens if one has NO backyard with grass, like most homes in Larryville or the Southside? Well, that’s when it gets ugly. If your home is in a section of town that has a “dual system”, meaning both sewer and storm lines in the street, you will be required to pay for a new sewer lateral which connects with the correct kind of pipe in the street. This can cost THOUSANDS of dollars. Communities just outside of Pittsburgh (like Edgewood, Fox Chapel, etc) have been dealing with this expense for years now. In order to be able to sell their homes, these folks have been forking out the big bucks for new sewer laterals.

Unlike our neighbors, Pittsburgh’s sewer system is so old that much of the city DOES NOT have a dual system. For this reason, the more problematic areas like Larryville and the Southside are presently exempt from individual property owner remediation AT THIS TIME. PWSA’s web site has sewer maps for every city neighborhood showing which streets are presently exempt and which streets will require the property owner to bear the cost of Dye Test remediation as a condition of sale. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, “green” streets on PWSA’s maps will require property owner fixes whereas the “red” streets are exempt. AT THIS TIME. When PWSA/Alcosan starts upgrading their lines in the streets, all bets are off as to which streets, if any, will remain exempt.

Were it not for Councilman Bill Peduto’s watchful eye, the situation would be more of a hardship to property owners than it presently is. At PWSA’s prodding, City Council’s original draft of the Dye Test Ordinance required every property on non-exempt streets to have remediations completed and paid for prior to the actual sale of the property. Regardless of the sale price of the property, regardless of the extent or cost of the needed sewer modifications, regardless of the ability of the property owner to pay. That meant some little old lady living on a fixed income trying to sell her modest home for $40,000 to $50,000 had to fork out hundreds-to-thousands of dollars BEFORE she could close on her sale. The catch-22 being she probably needed the money from the sale in order to pay for the modifications that were needed in order to be able to sell.

Much to PWSA’s chagrin and opposition, Peduto amended the ordinance helping folks like the little old lady in the above example. The final ordinance now allows cash from the settlement of a property sale to go into an escrow account and then be used to pay for required sewer modifications which are to be completed within 60 days of closing.

Other onerous ordinance wording changed by Peduto seemed to infer that RENTERS of property with “illegal” storm water connections might be liable for fines levied by the city if the owner of the property failed to make the needed modifications!

Bottom line is that the city has known for decades that a drastic overhaul/rebuild of its sewer system was inevitable. Like the tale of the ant and the grasshopper, all metro area municipalities other than Pittsburgh have been diligently rebuilding their plant. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, chose to busy itself making sure it got a new convention center, a new stadium, another new stadium, and now a new hockey arena.

We do have our distinct priorities. And we will now be paying for them accordingly. Maybe even twice.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Public Works Smack Down

Oh these public works guys! They sure know how to roll with the punches!

Jeff Koch
Kevin Quigley
Kurt Staudenmaier

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Motznik Cat Sting Nets Hundreds

Family Pet “Boots” Dodges Dragnet, Leads Police on Low-Speed Chase

City Councilman Jim Motznik’s legislation requiring all city cats to be properly licensed was kicked off by a city-wide dragnet yesterday. Scores of police set up road-blocks and check-points along the most heavily traveled thoroughfares looking for felines driving without a license or with one that had been previously revoked. City canines lauded the effort, pointing to the fact that dogs have been unfairly singled out and profiled for years.

O’Malley family pet “Boots” spotted a roadblock along Ohio River Blvd and took off in the opposite direction with a battery of black and whites in hot pursuit. Boots was finally apprehended without further incident when the family SUV ran out of gas.

The day-long dragnet was so successful, city leaders said it will probably be repeated at least once a month for the remainder of the year and might become a permanent part of Mayor Ravenstahl's Redd-Up Campaign. “Once we get the unlicensed cat population under control, we’ll then move on to the raccoons,” Motznik told reporters.

Editorial: Hasta La Vista, Baby!

(Or, Thank God I Guess This Isn’t Cuba After All)

Unbelievable. Who would have thunk it. Incumbents Len Bodack, Twanda Carlisle and Jeff Koch have all been kicked to City Council’s curb. Three of four arrogant and/or party-endorsed and/or union-affiliated and/or criminally-inclined council members up for re-election have failed to retain their seats. Mind-boggling as this must be for the local Democratic Committee to swallow, Michael Lamb’s big controller win over Doug “I’m-The-Official-O’Connor-Legacy-Guy” Shields is the proverbial icing on the cake.

The significance of this is huge. Even Councilman Jim Motznik now sees the writing on the wall: "It's something we haven't seen happen as long as I can remember, and I've been watching city politics for 30 years," he said. All but Ravenstahl seem to understand that a new wind just might be blowing here in the Burgh. The Young Mayor, it seems, continues to insist he doesn’t think it will “affect his agenda” at all.

Be that as it may, attitude changes were unquestionably apparent in Thursday’s council session. Presented with a $7 Million public works capital wish list for approval, what must have been a Motznik from some parallel universe became indignant, even downright irate when he spied a $400,000 line item for “Vehicles To Be Determined.” Public Works Director Guy Costa could not answer Motznik’s questions as to how many or what kind of “TBD vehicles” there were, what they cost, or who they were going to. Costa had no specifics and didn’t seem to feel he needed any. Altered-state Motznik was outraged. Costa was perplexed. Apparently $400,000 TBD line-items have been no big deal in the past.

Surreality continued as Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle took up the post of watchdog for suspicious-looking invoices. With a poker-straight face, she questioned contractor payments which looked like they may have been purposefully split into smaller multiple invoices so as to escape review by falling below a $10,000 threshold. Who better to sniff out this type of con than the dog who scammed that particular bone in the first place!

But proof positive that earth had slipped completely off its axis, and Pittsburgh with it, was Bill Peduto getting angry enough to curse in front of the cameras. Ever controlled and ever the consummate professional, Bill let loose with “damn”, “crap”, and “hell” all in the space of just a couple of sentences.


Well, I say “Thank you, Pittsburgh.” Thank you to those who went knocking door to door, mile after mile. Thank you Rich Lord of the Post Gazette for keeping on their butts. Thank you Bill Peduto for not packing your bags, heading off to some other city where sane people live. Thank you everyone for finally tiring of all the "crap". For finally getting up off our "damn" asses. And for surprising the "hell" out of the Endorsed, the Approved and the Anointed. It’s high time.

Monday, May 7, 2007

SEEN: Pittsburgh's 1st Annual Seniors Bingo Bacchanal

Bingo Czar Dick Skrinjar and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl wait in the wings to give the opening address at Pittsburgh’s 1st Annual Seniors Bingo Bacchanal. Skrinjar is seen here wearing the newly-approved Bingo Beret and Lucky Medallion. Authorization for the city’s official “Bingo Attire” clothing line has been held up for weeks as City Council attempted to confirm that no sweat shop vendors were used and that 30% of all profits go to Hill District leaders, still unidentified as of this writing. Council did finally approve, with the only negative vote being cast by Jim Motznik who felt it was a terrible mistake to close the city’s asphalt plant. Even though the Bingo Bacchanal and plant closing had nothing whatsoever to do with one another, Councilman Motznik still felt a “no” vote was in order.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

What An Idiot II

Party Down ...
Political insiders say Ravenstahl showed up at a Tiger Woods party uninvited ....

What An Idiot

"I'm still out there as much as I was then, now more focusing on the government aspect of my job and the neighborhood aspect of rebuilding communities."

--- Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on how he spends his days.

Considering "government" IS his job, what other "aspect" could there be?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Ravenstahl Hires New Communications Director

Diversity Was Prime Consideration

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hired Missy Williams of the South Side as his new Communications Director. Ms. Williams, who turned 21 last December, replaces Dick Skrinjar who has moved on to become the city’s first Bingo Czar.

Missy first came to the mayor’s attention during his celebratory trip to New York City with Penguin’s part-owner Ron Burkle. “I was very impressed with Missy at that time and my intention was to somehow utilize her many talents for the betterment of Pittsburgh,” Ravenstahl told reporters.

Insiders noted that the mayor was hoping Williams’ hire would silence those critics who complain that the Ravenstahl administration includes too few women and minorities. Ravenstahl deftly covered both of those bases as Missy is reported to be 30% African-American.

Man Waits 36 Hours For PAT Bus

Succumbs to Exhaustion And Falls Into Trance-Like State

Former Port Authority employee, Peter Chen, fell into a deep sleep at a Brookline bus stop while waiting nearly 36 hours for the 41G. Mr. Chen was on his way to UPMC Montifiore in Oakland for his annual physical exam which included a full-body CT scan. But after being found semi-conscious, EMS personnel took Chen to UPMC Presbyterian instead.

Chen was one of nearly 1400 employees who were laid off last year due to emergency cost cutting measures but retained health benefits for life due to the aggressive negotiating tactics of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85. Authority CEO Steve Bland had warned that drastic cuts in service would occur if health costs were not reigned in. “That’s not going to happen,” said Pat McMahon, president of Local 85. And happen it did not. 1354 Authority jobs were subsequently eliminated and bus service was cut by 42 percent.

Chen’s wife, Linda, was relieved and happy when he was located. While annoyed at the long wait time on most bus routes, Mrs. Chen still thought the union had made the right decision taking their hard stand. “The doctors at Presby tell me that Peter’s stay may be long and costly due to his extreme exhaustion. As bad as things are now, just imagine how much worse they would be if we didn’t have these excellent health care benefits.”

Thursday, May 3, 2007

City Council Update

Pothole Practices

City Council responded to the wrong question today. With the exception of Jeff Koch, each council member assured the public that they had no power to decide which streets get paved and which are left to crack and crumble further. Koch, who spent 25 years in Public Works, felt he was elected to his council seat because of this experience and he therefore was expected to make decisions as to which streets should be paved and which should not. He further added, without any apologies, that that’s just what he intends to do.

Today’s discussion was prompted by Bill Peduto’s legislation which called for the mayor to abandon the subjective picking of streets and return to a computer-driven pothole assessment model. Council’s varied explanations were in response to public perception that street paving occurs on streets where the politically-connected resided rather than streets in the most need of repair. But their personal denials skirted the central issue which was whether “pothole politics” was in play at some level of local government. This, the real question, was left unanswered.

Councilman Jim Motznik, who like Koch used to evaluate streets when employed in Public Works, felt that the current “manual” evaluation system was working just fine. “The system does not need fixed”, was his eloquent summation of the situation. “Misinformation is being sent to the media. The public needs to know I don’t pick the streets, committee chairs don’t pick the streets, the Director of Public Works picks the streets.”

Exactly the point. The public does not trust that Public Works Director Guy Costa or any other civil servant is “picking” streets according to any objective criteria … manual or not. Council’s long commentary today did nothing to allay those fears.

Darlene Harris, who was not favorably inclined toward a computer-driven system, thought there would always be a need for the “human element”. She was also upset by the tone of the public emails she received on the subject as was Jim Motznik.

As usual, it was Councilwoman Tonya Payne who missed the boat by the widest mark. She indignantly declared that our lack of money, and not politics, was the reason all the needy streets weren’t being paved. Note to Tonya: The discussion was about the fair and objective prioritization of streets on the paving list. Not about our inability to get to all of them.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Pothole Politics

Peduto Says It’s Payback

Councilman Bill Peduto’s car slid into a pothole in front of his Point Breeze home yesterday. The accident occurred just days after the councilman released a report alleging pothole pavings were being used as perks for those in power and the politically-connected.

“That’s simply preposterous” Mayor Luke Ravenstahl retorted. “Why, right off the top of my head I can think of three public servants whose streets are in a desperate state of disrepair and have not been paved yet. If you count Peduto, that makes four and I’m sure there are plenty of others. It has always been my intention that our puny pothole paving budget be parsed out as impartially as possible.” The mayor of course was referring to Anna Dobkin, Dick Skrinjar and Marlene Cassidy; the three staffers who Ravenstahl abruptly demoted just last week.

But Peduto pointed out that numbers don’t lie and his report shows that Pittsburgh’s politically connected and ONLY the politically connected (save for the 3 demotions and himself) have had their streets repaired. “Regular citizens will never get on the list” he predicted.

It is well-known that the mayor blames Peduto for much of the disrespect he’s had to endure, including the upsetting nickname “Fluke”. So a giant pothole appearing out of nowhere and swallowing Peduto’s car whole did not surprise many of the local pundits. They were puzzled, however, as to what the three Ravenstahl staffers could have done to warrant their abrupt demotions much less being purged from the Pothole Paving List. Word is if there are any bodies to bury or skeletons to hide, these three know about them. Keeping those particular potholes uncovered might prove to be yet another impetuous decision the young mayor lives to regret.