Friday, April 27, 2007

Mayor's Office Shakeup

"...will allow us to reshuffle

and maybe rethink how

we do business..."

UPDATE: The post-Skrinjar era at the mayor's office got off to a bit of a rocky start this evening.

Prior to our 6 o'clock news, the mayor's temporary media contact Joanna Doven returned my call with an update I'd requested.

She told me "Anna Dobkin has not accepted the job, so she is no longer with the city", and that the mayor granted Marlene Cassidy's request for an extension of time to decide on her job offer. I reported both items on the air.

Minutes later, Anna Dobkin herself telephoned me to say the mayor's office was incorrect. Dobkin says she notified both Economic Development Director Pat Ford and Planning Director Noor Ismael that she's accepted the transfer to Planning. Asked for a quote, Dobkin said " I'm happy to continue working for the city". I told her I'd get the correction on the air and notify the mayor's office. I quickly e-mailed a correction to the producer in the control room, as I phoned the mayor's staffer Doven.

Doven told me she "know(s) what I'm talking about", but suggested that I "hold off". She said the information she'd provided earlier came directly from the mayor as of 5:30. She promised an update when one becomes available. I phoned the control room again to stop the correction from airing until the city's position is resolved.

UPDATE TWO: At 9 o'clock, Doven of the mayor's office confirmed that Dobkin had accepted the position and said that the earlier announcement had been the result of a miscommunication. Word from the mayor's office on Marlene Cassidy's decision is expected early next week.

You can see the raw video of my Q&A with Mayor Ravenstahl on the Pittsburgh Channel website.

The following is based on my Channel 4 Action News report on the shakeup in the mayor's office:

Mayor Ravenstahl himself calls two of the three members he's removed from his administration "close confidants" of the late Bob O'Connor--and he says there's no bad blood.

He met one-by-one this morning with all three:
--letting each know this is their last day at the highest levels of pittsburgh government,
-offering them lower-ranking city jobs,
-and giving them until the close of the business day to accept or reject them.

Luke Ravenstahl's big shakeup makes his mark on the mayor's office by removing three key figures closely tied to the late Mayor Bob O'Connor.

Chief among them: Dick Skrinjar who is ousted as the mayor's spokesman. Skrinjar's O'Connor ties date back to the last campaign. Skrinjar has accepted a city parks job, running senior citizens activities.

Mayor Ravenstahl admits "it can be perceived as a demotion, but I want to reiterate that by no means do I have any ill feelings or any bad words to say about any of the three of the employees."

Also out: the mayor's Executive Secretary Marlene Cassidy, whose ties to O'Connor date back decades. She's been offered a job at a city authority. She shares a home with Dennis Regan, the controversial O'Connor confidant who resigned as Ravenstahl's operations director months ago.

The mayor hints he's not done, saying there could be "perhaps a reshuffling of the entire fifth floor. but we will be soliciting and looking for qualified candidates for both positions immediately."

Out as well is the O'Connor campaign official who planned the late mayor's inauguration as well as O'Connor's funeral. Anna Dobkin is out as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, but was offered a job in City Planning.

Some see this as Chief of Staff Yarone Zober flexing muscle, but Council President Doug Shields says it's Ravenstahl shaping his team.

Said Shields: "I think Yarone Zober as the Chief of Staff has the strong role. He's the mayor's right hand man and as such he's going to be a key player in the Ravenstahl administration."

Mayor Ravenstahl said "we'll know by Monday if they have accepted the positions."

"So, they're still on the city payroll but they're not holding those jobs?"
I asked.

Mayor Ravenstahl paused, then responded "...through today, correct."


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Being "Circumspect" Isn't A Bad Thing

I've gotten some questions about my reporting that Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board members were "very circumspect" in their answers.

Some readers felt perhaps "circumspect" is a negative description. It's not. In some professions--like the judiciary and journalism--it's a virtue.

Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary says "circumspect" means "careful to consider all circumstances and possible consequences : Prudent ".

The Oxford American Thesaurus describes "circumspect" and "vigilant" as synonyms for: careful, cautious, wary, watchful, and alert.

It says "to be circumspect is to be watchful in all directions and with regard to all possible consequences ( | these journalists have to be circumspect, not criticizing anyone too harshly)".


Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ethics Board Podcast...& A Look At Its Powers

Update: I've redone the podcast, organizing it by topic
instead of using the raw audio.

As promised, here's a link to a podcast based on Q&A with city ethics hearing board members Kathy Beuchel & Sister Patrice Hughes and board nominee Penny Zacharias.

All three are very circumspect in their answers. They emphasize what they see as the educational and service role of the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board.

That's not to say the board will lack powers and duties to investigate alleged ethical violations and hold hearings on complaints.

The city code gives them the authority to issue subpoenas and take sworn testimony, require evidence, and issue orders and penalties.

The code makes it clear they can launch investigations on their own, with or without a complaint.

Section 197.12 (a) (1) (INVESTIGATIONS) says:

"Upon a complaint signed under penalty of perjury by any individual or upon the Ethics Hearing Board's own motion, the City Solicitor shall conduct a preliminary inquiry into any alleged violation of the city provisions." [Emphasis added.]

(The city's ethics handbook is available online. It reviews the city's code of conduct and the powers of the ethics hearing board.)


Friday, April 20, 2007

Ethics Board: Closer, But No Quorum

This post is based on my Channel 4 Action News report.
I hope to add a podcast this weekend.
The Trib's story is at this link. The PG's coverage is here.

The allegations against Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle prompted city council and the late Mayor Bob O'Connor to revive Pittsburgh's ethics board, but the panel still hasn't managed to start its job since it was confirmed last summer. Today, some members gathered to try to get things in gear.

Those criminal charges against Councilwoman Carlisle don't appear to be on the radar of the ethics board members, at least not yet. They did, however, answer some reporter questions about the job facing them when they finally do get a quorum and start dealing with the business of city ethics.

It was the kickback conspiracy charges against Twanda Carlisle filed by District Attorney Stephen Zappala that prompted the mayor to ask the city ethics board to try again to hold it's first meeting. Today, they still couldn't muster a quorum, but the two members and one nominee who did make it don't seem inclined to take up the Carlisle case.

Sister Patrice Hughes said "that sort of has been turned over to Steve Zappala's office. Would we be beating a dead horse if we picked this up?"

Her fellow ethics board member Kathy Beuchel said "I think you look to what's important for this commission to do going forward."

Sister Hughes did answer that they could look at spending by city officials: "that's a critical issue, and I think we've seen examples, terrible examples of expenses that really are not promoting good government, that are self-serving. And that would be something that should be looked at".

But Hughes, Beuchel, and ethics nominee Penny Zacharias, are all more focused on teaching city officials and workers about ethics than launching investigations. Bbeuchel spoke of "charting a course that has a strong education and prevention component to it, so that all of the city employees and those that are considered public interested can really have the right context."

Zacharias said "we have a great opportunity to open up all aspects of the authorities of the board. Education is obviously a very important one of those, though."

Two ethics board members are out of the country, preventing the panel from having a quorum--at least until Mayor Ravenstahl's nominee is confirmed by pittsburgh city council next week. Rev. John Welch is in Canada and Rabbi Dr. Daniel Schiff is in Israel, according to an aide to the mayor.

Here's a link tracking back my previous posts on the ethics board. So far, the Pittsburgh Channel version of my story does not include the video.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Oh, The Places You'll Go: The Reporter-Free Zone

Follow along?

Out a restricted access side-door, down a private corridor, out an electronically-locked back door, down a less-used elevator, across a long lobby, immediately back onto another elevator, and back upstairs again.

That's the circuitous path the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board nominee took out of city council chamber, thanks to an aide to the mayor and a city law department lawyer.

What happened with Ethics Board Nominee Penny Zacharias after her questioning by council became much more interesting than her appearance itself. ( She was welcomed with polite, brief, encouraging comments by council members.) Elaine Effort of KQV and I were the only reporters covering her appearance, and I was there without a photographer. We were going to introduce ourselves and ask the nominee a few basic questions.

Now, the unexpected intrigue.

Instead of walking out of council chamber's public door, Mayor Ravenstahl's Manager of Policy Gabe Mazefsky and Assistant City Solicitor Kate DiSimone led Penny Zacharias out through a private side-door to the city clerk's office. Elaine Effort and I left council chamber by the main door; from the hall, we could see the trio standing behind council's reception area. We approached. They retreated down the private council hallway.

I asked a city clerk official if we could speak with Zacharias, and she told us they were apparently meeting. Three minutes later, she told us that they were gone.

Elaine and I headed for the City-County Building lobby, checking out the exits on the Ross Street side and Grant Street side. I phoned mayor's aide Mazefsky, who told me the nominee had left. At that point, Elaine called to me. She'd spotted Zacharias and DiSimone. The pair had gotten off an elevator on the opposite side of the building from city council, near Ross Street. They were standing around a corner next to the elevator, away from wider view.

Remember, I don't have a photographer, just my microcassette. Elaine Effort approached Zacharias with her KQV microphone and audio recorder to ask a few questions, but Zacharias refused and started walking away.

Elaine pointed her microphone and began recording, and I clicked on my microcassette. Zacharias and the assistant solicitor kept walking--so we did too, recording as we went. The audio on my cassette is hard to hear because of the lobby's accoustics, but here's what I can make out:

Effort: "Why can't you answer just a few-- a simple question?"

Nominee Zacharias: "I'm not answering (unintelligible)."

Mayo: "Would you be willing to talk to us about how you came to serve on the board? Had you sought out a position, or were you nominated or invited?"

Effort: "It's a public board..."

Solicitor DiSimone: "She was nominated by the mayor."

Mayo: "Right. So the question was: was she recruited for the position? Did she volunteer?"

Effort: "How did it come to you? Why are you uncomfortable talking about a public board that people are interested in seeing reconvened? Why is it a problem? It's a public board."

Nominee Zacharias (not breaking stride): "That's correct, and I'm very excited to serve on it, and I'm looking forward to it."

Mayo: "Would you be willing to stop walking and chat with us, and answer a few basic background biograph(ic)al questions?"

( At this point, Zacharias and the assistant city solicitor get back onto another elevator--this one on the opposite [i.e. Grant Street] side of the City-County Building. I hold the elevator door open and Elaine joins me in doing so.)

Solicitor DiSimone: "I'm going to show Miss Zacharias where our meeting is going to be on Friday."

Mayo: "You are (who); I'm sorry?"

Solicitor DiSimone: "My name is Kate DiSimone, I'm with the city law department and will be meeting this Friday..."

Mayo: "Do you know what time and the location of the meeting?"

Solicitor DiSimone: "The meeting is scheduled for 10 o'clock. I'm not sure of the location yet." ( Editor's note: see two answers earlier, above.)

Mayo: Okay, and under the Sunshine Act, it will be open and we'll be able to attend, correct?

Solicitor DiSimone: "We're not sure if it's going to be a business meeting yet, based on the fact that only three members have RSVP'ed to us so far, so..."

Mayo: "Nonetheless, you're covered by the Sunshine Act. You can't, unless..."

Solicitor DiSimone: "We are covered by the Sunshine Act, and certainly it's an Ethics Board meeting; we're not interested in hiding...from the media or from publicity. But one of the first orders of business will be for the board to elect a chairman, and the members really don't know each other very well yet. So perhaps the first order of business... well, not business, but... The first thing for them to do is get to know each other a little bit and decide how to move forward on the chairmanship."

Mayo: "What members are available for the meeting?"

Solicitor DiSimone: "We have Penny, we have Sister Patrice Hughes, and I believe Kathy Buechel."

Mayo: "Okay, and I guess she (Zacharias) won't be confirmed by then, so they (council) won't vote until next week."

Solicitor DiSimone: "No, they will not vote next week, but judging from the tenor of the council meeting today, I don't think there's going to be any problem."

Mayo: "It will be a get-acquainted session."

Solicitor DiSimone: "I believe so."

Mayo (to Zacharias): "And again, why were you declining to just stand still and talk to us...and why'd you duck out the back door?"

Nominee Zacharias: "I was in a meeting, actually after the meeting. I was getting some materials that were mentioned at the meeting. Nothing to hide. Just going on with Miss DiSimone right now."

Mayo & Effort: "Okay, thank you. Thank you." ( The elevator doors closed. )

( Note: while Mazefsky said Zacharias had left, she had actually walked halfway around the City-County Building's fifth floor, rode an elevator down to the first floor, walked across the lobby to the side where she began, and then rode an elevator back up again. Some members of the general public must do that to get to areas on floors divided by locked doors and restricted access. With her escort, however, it doesn't appear the nominee had any trouble passing through restricted areas.)

I'm recounting all of this here for a few reasons. For one, it's a window into what reporters sometimes face in gathering the most simple information from public officials. For another, it shows a reason why I'm so interested in the slow-to-revive ethics board. The most simple answers and access somehow become complicated and difficult-to-get when covering this story. It's the sort of thing that naturally gets a reporter's attention.



Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Carlisle, Quotes, and Notes

Pittsburgh Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle on her first City Council meeting since her arrest on kickback conspiracy charges:

"As an elected official, where else would I be? I'm representing council district 9 and the city of Pittsburgh. I was elected to this job. I'm going to do this job to the best of my ability, and keep moving forward. And I thank you all today. I'm not resigning. I'm moving forward, and keep on running. Thank you."

Council President Doug Shields on the councilwoman's return:

"As president of city council and as a citizen of this country, I'm well aware of the fact that everybody has the presumption of innocence, and that presumption is afforded to Ms. Carlisle as well. We're not going to lose our focus on our job here in city council, and I'm sure Ms. Carlisle is going to perform the duties of her office to serve her district. That's her job."

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl:

*On Carlisle's return:

"That's a decision for Councilwoman Carlisle to make, and ultimately for city council as the legislative branch in government. And I would rather let them handle their issues internally. The councilwoman obviously made her appearance today and feels that she's capable of doing the job. She has her right to appear in court and she's innocent until proven guilty, and therefore decided to continue on. and so i'll let council deal with that issue internally if they feel the need to."

*On the City Ethics Hearing Board:

"I think that we need to make sure that they get together. And in fact I believe our goal is to have a meeting this Friday. To bring the ethics board together, determine what their role is. To look at perhaps the Councilwoman Carlisle issue, as well as other issues that are important for the ethics board to consider. And really find ways for us to be more transparent in government, make recommendations to myself and my administration on ways we can show the public that we are respecting their tax dollars and spending them in a good way. So it's our hope that they will make recommendations to us towards that end as well. And meet as regularly as they need to, to ensure that we can build the trust in the public."

(Note: City Council will question the mayor's ethics board nominee at the beginning of its Wednesday meeting.)

*On Commander Catherine McNeilly's open letter, which appeared in today's Post-Gazette:

"I haven't seen it, nor do I intend to read it. As far as I'm concerned, that situation is over, and i'm ready to move on."



Monday, April 16, 2007

Mayor's Ethics Nominee

Named to fill
4 month vacancy

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has picked his nominee to fill the vacancy on Pittsburgh's Ethics Hearing Board.

She's attorney Penny E. Zacharias, an associate at Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney. The mayor's office says Zacharias is a 2002 graduate of Pitt's law school and lives on the North Side.

The city clerk's office confirms it's received her nomination and says it could be introduced in city council this week.

The Mayor also repeated again today that the long-dormant ethics board will hold its first meeting soon, perhaps this week or next. His office said later that a meeting this week could be problematic because two of the current four members are out of town. Mayor Ravenstahl indicated last week that the criminal charges filed against Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle prompted him to act on the ethics panel.

Some of you have e-mailed lately, asking about the long-delayed ethics board. If you click this link, you'll see all of my blog posts on the topic. Read them from oldest to newest and check out the links provided in them, if you're curious about how things developed.

The Buchanan Ingersoll biography for Zacharias notes that the primary focus of her work is financial transactions, "including syndicated loan transactions, asset-based, acquisition and merger and real estate financing".

Her recent work includes:

  • "Assisting with the first securitization of a portfolio of loans to microfinance institutions in Latin America and Asia."
  • "As agent's counsel, assisting with an $85 million secured credit facility for a borrower in the trucking industry."
  • "Representing the U.S. Virgin Islands as bond counsel, in the issuance of its $268,020,000 revenue bonds."

The law firm notes her other civic and charitable work includes:

  • "YMCA of Downtown Pittsburgh, Board of Management"
  • Career Literacy for African American Youth, former mentor".


Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Podcast Listening Suggestion

Check out this recent podcast by the PG's Dennis Roddy. It includes a great glimpse into the sometimes intriguing, sometimes frustrating give-and-take behind simple 'no comment' quotes. The podcast itself is an interesting look at how politicians and their allies use legal maneuvers to knock opponents off the ballot.

I always enjoy checking out his podcasts, but I wish the Post-Gazette would make it easier to locate its links to the latest "Dennis Roddy's Audio Journal". For a while they were listed among the paper's other podcasts, but now the most recent ones aren't. It turns out that the only link is this teensy-tiny text in a small box on the PG's home page. The text is so small, I would never have guessed it was clickable, had it not been pointed out to me. It's a good "Web Extra" feature and it shouldn't be so hard to find. This link should work for future reference (though it sometimes comes up blank).


Police Side-Jobs: Weekend Update

I was off on Friday and didn't get to cover the story, but Pittsburgh's Police Bureau has announced details of how it will get a handle on city officers' side-jobs. Details are in the Trib and PG. Jeremy Boren's Trib story states the fee to be collected by the city will feed money into the police union's legal defense fund.

A footnote: I finally was able to get information from Philadelphia's police public affairs unit about how such work is handled there. Since I'm writing this at home and don't have my notes with me. I believe their spokesman told me that all secondary police employment for Philadelphia officers is booked through their city only. The businesses pay Philadelphia for the service, and the city pays the officers who--as a result--are working for Philly, not those businesses. Philadelphia also requires its officers to get approval for any out-of-uniform side-jobs. Certain jobs are prohibited: working as a bouncer, for example. My previous post on how it's done some other cities is posted here.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Cmdr McNeilly's Open Letter: UPDATE

Fresh Details

New Development: The Post-Gazette confirms it will publish the McNeilly letter, but now says it will not be able to publish the letter until next week. It appears that newspaper layout considerations, not content, are the reason for the delay.

The Pittsburgh police commander who fought her demotion with a whistleblower lawsuit is about to reveal what she'll do with the money the city is paying her to settle the battle. First, she is going to use her free speech rights to write city residents a message.

The city's settlement of Commander Catherine McNeilly's whistleblower/first amendment lawsuit awards McNeilly $85,000. I've learned that McNeilly is spending $4,000 of that money to publish an open letter to Pittsburghers in the Post-Gazette next week. As I reported on Channel 4 Action News, I've obtained a copy of that letter. It's available in its entirety on the Pittsburgh Channel.

In the letter, McNeilly writes that the money addresses what she calls "the injustice done" for actions "taken in good faith and in the public interest, according to the law". She says, however, it was "only a redress for a time consuming and expensive diversion from the core issues".

McNeilly quotes the federal judge's ruling that her whistleblower case was about "allegations of wrongdoing and improper and undue influence by the mayor's office in the police department matters." The commander's letter appears to urge U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan and Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett and his public corruption unit to investigate.

Commander McNeilly writes that 'I would be greatly disappointed if..(they) chose to ignore the findings of the federal court '... "especially in light of the fact that so much remains unchanged to this day". Her open letter says "I can only hope that our criminal justice system has duly noted the federal court's findings and i have faith and confidence that the system will take up the task".

Former city Operations Director Dennis Regan resigned, even though Mayor Ravenstahl said a probe by the city solicitor did not prove allegations Regan intervened in police discipline of a police officer. That officer, Frank Rende, is the brother of the woman with whom Regan lives--the mayor's Executive Secretary Marlene Cassidy. The city has always insisted McNeilly was disciplined only for including Officer Rende's personnel data in an e-mail to city council complaining about Regan.

Referring to Mayor Ravenstahl's office, McNeilly writes that she remains convinced that "this administration genuinely believes there has never been any wrongdoing emanating from that office, regardless of what has been said in federal court."

U.S. Attorney Buchanan acknowledges receiving McNeilly's letter, and says she will take a look at the public record in the McNeilly court case.

McNeilly's public letter maintains the case began when she was trying to start disciplinary action against Officer Rende, whom she alleges was abusing sick time and off-duty employment privileges. She writes that the alleged abuse was detrimental to other officers and to public safety. In her letter, she describes it as an "irony" and "charade" that the officer has never been disciplined, and she maintains that he is getting higher pay and status as an 'acting detective'. McNeilly says the officer's actions have been "rewarded rather than reprimanded". She faults the Ravenstahl administration for keeping Cassidy as the mayor's executive secretary during and since the controversy. McNeilly's letter describes Cassidy as holding what McNeilly calls "an influential and sensitive position within the mayor's office, making her privy now, as she has been throughout, to all aspects of this situation". Despite extensive references, McNeilly's letter never uses Regan's, Rende's, or Cassidy's names.

In her letter, McNeilly writes that "I do not intend to become enriched personally as a result of this redress of justice". The commander says she has decided to create an charitable endowment from the settlement money that will make donations to several charities for years to come.

She writes that among those benefiting will be: the American Civil Liberties Union, two churches, a convent, a retirement community, a group called "Concerns of Police Survivors, Inc" (which assists families of officers killed in the line of duty), and the Allegheny Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. McNeilly says her husband, former Pittsburgh Police Chief Robert McNeilly, her brother--city police chaplain Father Lou Vallone--, and her attorneys are also making personal non-tax-deductable donations to the endowment. Vallone is the is pastor of one of the churches to benefit from the planned endowment. McNeilly's letter invites Mayor Ravenstahl, Police Chief Nate Harper, and their attorneys to make donations as well to charities of their choice.

Prior to the Channel 4 Action News story, the Mayor's Office said it had not yet seen the letter.


The Carlisle Case and the Ethics Board

First meeting now ordered

In the wake of the criminal charges filed against Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl now says he wants the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board to meet:

"It raises our awareness in my administration. I've directed my administration to have the ethics board meet as soon as next week to ensure that they deal with this issue and other issues that are important, very serious matters. And we want to ensure that these types of activities do not occur in city hall."



The Carlisle Case: Read The Detective's Affidavit

Click the images below to view details of what the district attorney's investigations unit says it found, in a detective's own words.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Notes on Don Imus

My note to MacYapper

I'm a reporter, not a commentator. It's not my job or habit to offer personal opinions, but I feel compelled to make a rare exception after reading John McIntire's MacYapper post about Don Imus.

MacYapper: "The dude was trying to be funny. Unlike Michael Richards, his tirade was, I believe, born of an attempt at humor, not pure racism. He tried, he failed. Now he apologizes. Profusely. Ad nauseam."

John, the fact that the remark was "born of an attempt at humor" doesn't make it one iota less racist. It's simply a perfect specimen of something that a person who is racist would think is funny. Saying "it's a joke" never removes any of the sting of hate from such comments--it simply provides a view into what's inside the person who is speaking. You don't squeeze an orange and have vinegar come out.

MacYapper: "the fact that these kinds of phrases are tossed around in the black community and by black comics doesn't make it acceptable for the I-man to utter. But that's why such phrases are in our heads. And that's why, in an attempt to riff and be funny, that kind of phrase mind come out of somebody's mouth."

Please--let's not pity the poor, confused, easily-influenced and misled white national talk show host who doesn't know any better, as though it's those darned rappers and black comics who put "such phrases in our heads". Heaven knows, he and we have never heard insults and jokes spoken by white racists all our lives, have we? He's never made a choice to think and speak his own words, right?

Here's a little flashback I'll share with you. Back in the 80s, my wife and I were vacationing in New York City and passing through the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center. An odd, overbearing man came up to us as we were reading a building directory. He pointed to the map and said "here's where you find the gays, and here's where you find the blacks"... except he didn't used the word "gays" and he didn't use the word "blacks". He used words I won't write here. As the man moved on, a group of star-struck teenaged girls was following him, giggling. "Who was that?" we asked. They answered, "It's 'Imus In The Morning'!"


Calendar Note: Mayor Forms Group

"The group will meet six times a year"

The PG reports that "Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl today announced the formation of a commission dedicated to keeping young professionals here. The Propel Pittsburgh Commission has been in the works for months..."

The Post-Gazette's Rich Lord also writes "The group will meet six times a year and will submit quarterly reports to the mayor and council on policy matters important to young professionals".

Meanwhile, as reported here last month: "Pittsburgh's Ethics Hearing Board still hasn't held one meeting since its five members were confirmed last July".


Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Point/Counter-Point: The McNeilly Settlement

The Pittsburgh Channel has details from my Channel Four Action News report. Here's a point/counter-point from comments made outside Council Chamber.

Jim Malloy, President, Fraternal Order of Police:

"Council made a decision today. I disagree with that decision. I don't think that you reward somebody with 85-thousand dollars when they freely admit that they violated the contract, they violated the rules and regulations."

"They never attempted--and I talked to Commander McNeilly--I explained to her. We were in the federal courthouse. If she thought there was skullduggery going on in the administration, all she had to do was walk down the hall and see the U.S. Attorney and tell them. They'd have sent a task force down to investigate, like they do everything else."

"She didn't do anything except what she wanted to do. She helped write the rules and regulations, but she in turn ignored them when it met her need. That's what I object to. You write these agreements, you work on these contracts, and what we're opening the door to now is that."

"Police officers, they're sworn to keep the privacy of individuals to themselves. You all understand exactly what policemen do out there. They get involved in the intimate parts of many people's lives. And they live with those secrets and keep their mouths shut. Are we saying now that because Cathy McNeilly could the rules and regulations, so can they? I hope not. I think that there's an obligation on the part of a police officer to abide by rules. And there's a greater responsibility when you write the damn things, you must abide by the rules."

".... I think when somebody comes up to you and says 'yeah, I violated the rules, sure, I violated the contract, but I did it for good reasons'--let the court decide whether those reasons have value or not. Not because you're afraid you're going to line the pockets of her attorneys. They're going to spend over a quarter-million dollars on this case, and never put a glove on to get in the ring."

"...I mean, if you do that with every case that comes to city council, and you just simply blindly follow the law department and say 'yeah, well, they think we can lose this case'. You can lose any case, you can win any case. You guys have been around this business long enough to know that some you win, some you lose. But at least you get in a fight."

Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh City Councilman:

"I'm convinced that if we would have pursued this in court that we would have lost. The Whistleblower Law is there for a reason. It's to protect employees. Even those that make decisions that go against union rules."

"Always remember that the U.S. Constitution trumps any agreements. The civil rights of Catherine McNeilly were violated, and if we went to court, we would have lost more than just the 85-thousand dollars that we had to agree to today, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars we're going to have to agree to in legal fees. This city would have lost its integrity."

"From the very beginning, when Dennis Regan was first nominated for public safety director, I said it was the wrong decision. When the investigation went out against Catherine McNeilly, and then the actions were taken against her, I said it was the wrong decision, it would end up costing the city money. These were a series of missteps, of very serious issues that needed to be addressed outside of politics. Unfortunately, the only response from the administration at that time was that I was being political."

"...If that trial were to continue, we would lose. We'd lose a lot more taxpayer dollars than the 300-thousand or so that we're going to lose. This city would have lost its integrity by denying an employee their civil rights--guarantees that are provided to every single citizen in this country."

"Union rules do not trump the U.S. Constitution . They don't trump the Whistleblower Law. That is why we have the Whistleblower Law, so that somebody--an employee-- who feels that there is no other course of action, who feels that the entire system is up against them, has the ability and the right to go and pursue what they know to be right in their heart."

"...Yes, she broke the rules of the union agreement, but we took away her civil rights. Something that's guaranteed to everybody through the U.S. Constitution. We had no chance to win this. We had to fold the tent now, with 300-thousand dollars or so on the table of taxpayers money, because of missteps that were made throughout this process."


Sunday, April 1, 2007

What Do Other Ethics Panels Do?

Here are some quick facts for comparison.

Allegheny County's "Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission has its own website via the county. Its members were appointed in December, 2002. A reference in this document shows they met the very next month. They publish their meeting minutes and annual reports online, and those records show that the the county's Ethics Commission members meet an average of seven times a year. In their first full year, they met eight times. Their meetings are open to the public in accordance with Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act. I covered their January 25, 2007 meeting. When they had to hold a portion of their meeting in executive session, they followed the letter of the Sunshine law: announcing the reason during their public session first, and then inviting the public back in at the conclusion of the closed-door executive session. Member names and their complaint form are available online.

Pennsylvania's State Ethics Commission has extensive information available on its website. Meetings of its members are not only open to the public, they're available via streaming video on the state's site.

hiladelphia installed its new Board of Ethics members in November, after action by voters last spring to create an independent panel. A news release dated December 18, 2006 refers to members' "fourth public meeting in its first three weeks of operation". Their website has a special section dedicated to spotlighting their "WhistleBlower Protection Policy".

(Links updated April 3, 2007.)