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.