Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Sign That Is Not A Sign

From left to right: Ravenstahl’s bodyguard, Ravenstahl’s father, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, “Development Czar” Pat Ford

A copy of yesterday’s televised marathon City Council post-agenda on zoning irregularities must be saved for posterity. As every history buff knows, there are specific points in time which denote the exact moment something passes from one state to another. The turning point of a war, for example. Or something liquid passing into a gaseous state. Or the moment of conception, the moment cancer metastasizes, the moment irreconcilably-different words come out of one’s mouth and you can never take them back.

These defining moments have happened a billion times a day since the beginning of time. But rare is the occurrence when such a moment is captured on film. This, my dear readers, is what happened yesterday. We televised what a civilization looks like just prior to the moment it looses its capacity for language, logical thought, hierarchical structure and commonplace functionality.

At issue was a Lamar Advertising LED billboard for the Grant Street Transportation Center which was approved without City Council or public discourse. City Council contended that such a structure requires “conditional usage” approval from the Zoning Department and Council. Having received neither, Council argued the billboard was not legal. Planning Director Noor Ismail, URA Executive Director Pat Ford and Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko all agreed that the 20x60 ft object which would be lit using electricity and would display advertising, messages and images…..was NOT a sign, “electronic” or otherwise. In fact, all three agreed the object in question had yet to be defined, did not exist yet in our governmental or human lexicon, and therefore no codes or regulations applied to it.

When asked for his opinion on such a preposterous assertion, City Solicitor George Specter said he would have to think about it, he’d have to study the matter, and it would take him at least two weeks to come to a final decision.

Ergo, our city was caught on tape at the exact moment before being thrust into our very own chapter of the next Dark Ages.

The details ……

Noor Ismail
Even though she is the Director of City Planning and Susan Tymoczko (below) reports to her, she only heard of or knew of the not-a-sign “in passing.” She never officially spoke to the mayor, the URA or the city law department about the matter. In fact, she was only made aware of Susan Tymoczko’s decision “after the fact.”

Susan Tymoczko
Using the vast knowledge she has acquired in her long city planning career, Tymoczko 1) Decided this LED billboard was not a sign 2) Said something powered by electricity was not “electronic” 3) Concluded the not-a-sign was not a “new or changed structure” 4) Concluded it was not a “change to the building’s exterior” even though the not-a-sign-certainly-not-an-electronic-sign was being built as part of the building’s exterior and was a change to the building’s originally approved form. 5) Was not aware that Zoning had previously denied a permit for this very same not-a-sign on this very same building. 6) Did not seek legal counsel from the city even though the only legal opinion made part of the application was that of the applicant’s own attorneys. And said attorneys of course advised Tymoczko as to all the reasons why the sign-that-is-not-a-sign should be allowed. 7) Notarized the not-a-sign application herself even though a notary is not supposed to notarize any document relating to any transaction where they themselves play a part. Tymoczko played an integral part in the application process as she was approving it. 7) Did consult on this matter with URA Director Pat Ford (below) who is not in her chain of command, is not even a city employee and therefore has no decision-making powers in such city matters. 8) Failed to consult with her official direct supervisor, Noor Ismail (above).

Pat Ford
The most awesome Super City Planner ever to roam the earth. Mr. Ford keeps copious notes of every conversation he has ever had with anyone in his life and indexes them for date, time and probably other super-secret designations that he would rather kill for than divulge. Ford testified 1) He’s a court-designated zoning expert and that this not-a-sign was the most debated, studied and researched not-a-sign in his 20 yrs of super-duper experience. 2) He thinks it would be unfair to deny city employees his vast reservoir of knowledge just because he has been promoted so quickly and so many times and now has no direct supervisory role with regards to said city employees. 3) He personally counseled O’Connor and Ravenstahl on this deal and “takes full responsibility” for it. 4) The not-a-sign approval was not based in code because there is no code for objects which are not signs and this object is clearly not a sign. 5) Approval was based upon action taken in 2003 whereby Lamar was allowed one new LED not-a-sign for every six regular signs they took down. The 2003 deal was struck because that was when the city discovered they had no laws regulating objects that looked like signs but were not. So instead of enacting zoning regulations for these overlooked objects, the city chose to “set a precedent” allowing them to do whatever they wanted to do at that moment. 6) Ford chose to continue with the 2003 precedent rather than clear up the “loophole/gray area” because QUOTE: “I liked the technology, [Ravenstahl] liked the technology, we had received no complaints, so I went ahead with it.”

Anne Marie Lubaneau (Correction thanks to ADB)
Ms. Lubaneau is the Executive Director of the Community Design Center of Pgh and member of the Planning Dept Design Committee. Ms. Lubaneau was on the Design Committee in 2004 when the LED sign was first proposed for the Grant Street garage and was DENIED. Lubaneau was also the ONLY person who testified yesterday that the LED object in question was in fact a real sign and should be regulated per existing zoning codes pertaining to signs.

Other troubling discoveries from yesterday’s testimony:
o An organizational chart exists which shows that City Planning reports to the URA even though this is an illegal arrangement because the URA is not a city entity and therefore has no legal jurisdiction or administrative oversight of any city functions. URA Director Pat Ford extrapolated his sign-is-not-a-sign logic to conclude that the organizational chart was not really an organizational chart …. It was an “Informational Hierarchy.”

o The city has already turned over $12 million to the URA in 2008, but the URA has no approved budget for 2008.

o Ford and Ravenstahl are planning a consolidation of City Planning and the URA (even though one is a city entity and the other is state) and they have not shared these plans with City Council nor have they asked Council to participate in the process.

o Councilman Patrick Dowd seemed more perturbed at the meeting's length than the blatent illegalites and incompetencies before him. Dowd also seemed unconvinced that his responsibility is to not only enact laws, but to also make sure they are executed as written.

o It will take City Solicitor George Specter two weeks to decide if a sign is in fact a sign.

Bottom line? Council President Doug Shields says he’s troubled that no one can give him the definition for a sign. “It unfortunately looks like we are headed to court.” Shields bemoaned. Unless, of course, the city can no longer define what a court is by that time.


Anonymous said...

I watched most of the marathon and you give a very good synopisis Char. I think I understand why the administration wanted to avoid sworn testimony. I've never seen so much stone walling in my life. The fact that the sign really isn't a sign and because there is no law on non sign signs pat Ford rules that it is legal. game set match.

This one can get dicey. I noticed the Council was smart enough to have a court reporter to take it all down for use in the court appeal.

Anonymous said...

What is pat Ford - some kind of nut job? He writes down EVERYTHING he does by the minute. A lawyer would have a field day with that stack of notes he has compiled.

Bram Reichbaum said...

"Councilman Patrick Dowd seemed more perturbed at the meeting's length than the blatent illegalites and incompetencies before him. Dowd also seemed unconvinced that his responsibility is to not only enact laws, but to also make sure they are executed as written."

I found his quote in the P-G mildly troubling, and what you add doesn't help at all.

However, I had also heard that he totally PWNED Pat Ford during question-and-answer, which would go a long way toward making his pleas for good manners rather a side-issue. Do you recall him expressing Council's authority to Mr. Ford?

I can't wait to check this out....

Char said...


I remember it exactly the opposite. Dowd conducted a leading line of questioning ….. All designed to point out that council had no business looking into the matter. That the city solicitor should rule on it and tney should just go home. That they should quit “playing lawyer” for the cameras. And , yea, oh by the way, that this was all taking so much more time than he had to give.

The only time Dowd perked up at all was when he realized Special Agent Ford had detailed minutes of every conversation he’d ever had with anyone. Dowd made Ford read back conversation entries regarding the CAPA sign approval when Dowd was a member of the school board.

Mark Rauterkus said...

Sorry. I went to sleep. Bad night of meetings, really. They turn out the lights on a few good schools. Then the lights go up on a public parking cathedral. Ugh.

Char said...

I've been asked about getting copies of this debacle.

The post-agenda was transcribed ... The first time council had a stenographer in chambers since 2004. However it may take weeks or months to transcribe that 6 hours.

One can call the city clerk and order a video.

Or, one could tape it themself when the meeting is rebroadcast. Which will be on Sunday, March 2 @ 10:42 am and then again at 7:42 pm. (On cable channel 13)

O said...

To clarify, Anne-Marie Lubenau is not an employee of the City, any functionary, or subsidiary therein.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Char I was RIGHT!!!! Patrick Dowd is totally PWNING Pat Ford, lock stock and barrel. Darlene Harris totally set the table for him, which is ironic because they were supposedly "rivals" or something.

This is great stuff.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Bruce Kraus is fumbling around. I am sorely tempted to fast forward, but he is obviously fighting his way through and getting his job done.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Pat Ford is now making his case for a Comprehensive Master Plan and for everything else.

Bruce Kraus opened the door for it with his own grandstanding, and thus far Burgess is content to let them get a little fireworky between each other. Revealing, but I'm starting to get anstsy for Doug Shields.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Ford is now defending the physical moving of the Planning dept., and the contrasts in development between the 1930's and 40's to today. This is getting off-topic IMHO, and more importantly, it is weaker ground for the home team.

It does get back to the fact that the whole electronic Art trojan horse originated with Ford.

Oooh, now SHIELDS!

Bram Reichbaum said...

Doug Shields = District Attorney Jack McCoy. Patrick Dowd out having some pizza or something. LOLs!

Bram Reichbaum said...

Shields: "I'm not here to hear you talk about what you think I think!"

Also: "I'm not being litigious, I'm asking questions."

I'm a little surprised Motznik isn't running back in to join in the yelling. Doug Shields would like more timely legal opinions. Now it's calmed down again. Precedent vs. code.

I'm much more interested in whatever story Dr. Dowd was telling during the evisceration.

Bram Reichbaum said...

Bill Peduto holds forth on the awesome and dramatic history between himself and Pat Ford.

(Wish I could see the look on Pat Ford's face.)

Defends the investigation. Defends Burgess's decision to bring Tymyzko (sp?) and Ismael and Specter to the table prior to Ford, and the purpose behind that decision. Sounds like its winding down and I gotta go.

Char said...

Doug was DA Jack McCoy!! You are so right! And I howled as I read your observations above!! I could almost hear your own laughter!

Isn't this great stuff? Shouldn't this be required viewing for everyone who plans to vote for anyone or anything in the next 10 yrs. Even a pop quiz on the Cliff Notes version would suffice.

People in this city need to understand and SEE what unprecedented bullshit goes on. Even for the likes of those who love setting precedent.

Anonymous said...

what does PWNNING mean?

Bram Reichbaum said...

From this link:


A corruption of the word "Owned." This originated in an online game called Warcraft, where a map designer misspelled "owned."

It basically means "to own" or to be dominated by an opponent or situation, especially by some god-like or computer-like force.

"Man, I rock at my job, but I still got a bad evaluation. I was pwned."


"That team totally pwned us."

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