Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Why Don't You Just Tell Me Who You're Going to Vote For?

Over at 2 Political Junkies, Maria blogs about "Two Bizarre Phone Calls". The second call she describes:

"...was a recorded message that purported to be a poll. It went something like this:"

"We have a mayor's race. If you are going to vote for Ravenstahl press 1, DeSantis press 2, Olivia press 3, Scott press 4, if you want to keep your choice private press 5. There's also a controller's race. If you're for Lamb press 6, etc."

"OK, When the message began, I was excited. Maybe someone was conducting an independent poll!"

But then, she says:

"There was no pause to vote for mayor before controller and at the end it said to press zero to leave your email address if you wanted the results of the poll."

"At some point in listening to the message, I thought that it sounded a bit like Mark Rauterkus."

"I pressed 2 for DeSantis at the end of the message but that didn't allow me to also press 0."

"Was it you, Mark?"

Her story reminds me of this scene from Seinfeld--the one in which Kramer is plagued by wrong-number calls for Moviefone, and he tries to stand in for the automated recording.

In the comments section of Maria's post, the mystery of this phone poll is revealed.

Speaking of surveys, The Post-Gazette's Early Returns and The Burgh Report's Admiral Richard K. Turner recount how a mayor's race poll on KD Radio's website was hacked by a city goverment employee in order to favor Mayor Ravenstahl. The mayor's spokeswoman Alecia Sirk is quoted as confirming "it was a crazy tactic for supporting the mayor" that the city worker launched at home on his own time.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, this just goes to show that online polls aren't worth the paper they're not printed on.

In pre-internet days, some Pittsburgh controller's office employees were suspected of repeatedly calling in to skew KQV's Phone Vote. That poll has also always been easy prey for those who "vote early and vote often".



FEMA Wants Answers On The Yukon

[The following is a long-form version of my TV report.]

Channel 4 Action News has learned that the federal government wants the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) to look into the city's uses of the GMC Yukon paid for with a federal Department of Homeland Security grant. Those uses included transporting Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for personal as well as city business, until he learned of restrictions imposed on the use of the undercover investigative unit police car.

The grant appears to limit the car's use to anti-terrorism efforts, specifically the surveillance of Pittsburgh locations that are potential terrorist targets. Federal guidelines say: "failure to comply may result in the withholding of funds, termination of the award, or other sanctions".

The Federal Emergency Management Agency-- part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security---tells Channel 4 Action News: "FEMA headquarters has asked PEMA for a full accounting of the situation including what actions pema has taken and what actions they plan to take."

The federal grant that paid for the car is for the "Buffer Zone Protection Program" (BZZP) . It's meant to "make it more difficult for terrorists to conduct surveillance or launch attacks on critical infrastructure and facilities."

After a police sergeant's repeated complaints up the chain of command, Mayor Ravenstahl stopped using the Yukon. Among his personal travels in the police vehicle was a trip with friends to a Toby Keith concert at the PG Pavilion in Washington County.

FEMA tells Channel 4 Action news that "the concert was not an allowable use of the vehicle." Spokeswoman Marlene Phillips says "FEMA headquarters expects the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) to look into the situation, report back to FEMA headquarters on its finding, and to take appropriate action." She says "it's part of PEMA's responsibility." Earlier this month, PEMA told Channel 4 Action News that the agency was simply "a channel" for the funding.

After Mayor Ravenstahl stopped using the Yukon, Police Chief Nate Harper still asserted that he can assign the vehicle for things other than those specified in the Homeland Security grant. On October 3rd, he asked reporters: "Are you saying that then I should let those vehicles sit, not utilize them, and leave the officers stand by to wait for a vehicle? we aren't going to do that".

FEMA tells Channel 4 Action News that "general use vehicles are not an allowable expense." Spokewoman Phillips says "this was an authorized purchase of a surveillance vehicle under the BZZP program. Under BZZP, allowable expenses include vehicles purchased for surveillance of critical infrastructure."

Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman Maria Finn tells Channel 4 Action News "this matter is under review and we will continue to work with FEMA. Pending the outcome of the review, PEMA will take those results into consideration and determine appropriate actions, if any".

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Mike Huss says "we've talked with PEMA since this first came out, where the mayor realized that the vehicle was purchased with homeland security monies. I immediately contacted PEMA and advised them of this situation and have been in contact with PEMA since this happened. They're aware of it. We've discussed it. They've asked us to maintain a log on use of the vehicle and these types of things. It's under their purview to look at the situation and take what action it feels necessary."

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan has said previously that her office is reviewing the situation. Her office says she has no comment on the status of that review.



King vs DeSantis

Pittsburgh Firefighters Local 1 President Joe King has written a union "HotLine" letter attacking Republican mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis.

He says the letter is being distributed to firefighters union members, retirees, and firefighters widows. The letter constitutes an unofficial endorsement of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, though it doesn't use those words.

King writes that Mayor Ravenstahl would review the safety impact of any plan to close fire stations before taking action on the study. The union president's letter alleges that DeSantis would reopen the firefighters' contract and "implement the recommendations, without even reviewing the impact this new study/plan would have on safety"-- a claim the DeSantis campaign denies.

The campaign's spokeswoman responds that "Mr. Desantis said he is open to the possibility of closing fire stations", but that he also "said he would not compromise public safety". The campaign notes that DeSantis has not seen the details of the draft study prepared by a consultant to the oversight board, and cannot comment on its recommendations directly.

The Ravenstahl campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The King letter states that Local 1 has "not officially endorsed a candidate" for mayor, and says "there are important issues we need to discuss with Mayor Ravenstahl". The union president writes, however, that "I do know this Mark DeSantis is not the person I welcome discussing or negotiating new contract terms".

King's letter also says DeSantis "was directly affiliated with Rick Santorum". The DeSantis campaign says that suggestion is "patently false". The spokeswoman acknowledges DeSantis made a $400 contribution to the former U.S. senator's campaign in 2000 and a $250 contribution in 2006. She says that DeSantis has also made contributions to Republican U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, and to local Democrats Doug Shields and Valerie McDonald Roberts, and that DeSantis hosted a fundraising reception for Democrat Michael Lamb.

By the way, there's a spirited debate over the significance of campaign contributions under way at Bram Reichbaum's blog, The Pittsburgh Comet.

(Click the image of the letter below to enlarge it.)


Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Mind Boggles

(Click image to enlarge.)

You can read more via Google News. Eventually, it will move to Google News Archives, with other stories filed under the keywords FEMA, fake, & reporters.



Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Ain't No Sunshine"

From the Society of Professional Journalists. ( H/T to PassOpenRecords.Org . )

For Immediate Release:

SPJ National President Clint Brewer and National Freedom of Information Chairman David Cuillier sent a letter Wednesday to Pennsylvania lawmakers to oppose amendments to the state's open records law (H.B. 443) currently before the legislature.

If passed with the amendments, the bill could make Pennsylvania one of the most secret states in the nation. Below is the text of the letter:

Oct. 24, 2007

Hon. Josh Shapiro
105B East Wing
PO Box 202153
Harrisburg, PA 17120-2153

Dear Hon. Shapiro:

The Society of Professional Journalists, the largest association of working journalists representing news media outlets, college student journalists and journalism educators, writes to voice its strong opposition to the amendments added to the open records bill (HB 443) and urge you to send the measure back to committee for discussion and reconsideration, or vote it down outright. The bill as amended, ironically, would make Pennsylvania one of the most secret states, if not the most secret state, in the nation.

We support several provisions in the bill, such as putting the burden on the government to prove why a document should be kept secret, and allowing the requestor to choose the format of the record if it is available in print or electronically. Also, some of the exemptions are acceptable, such as for open investigations and medical records. However, we find the bill lacking and deviant from most other states in several ways:

First, the bill exempts far too much material that is routinely provided in all but a handful of other states, including e-mail, 911 tapes, agency audits, disciplinary and discharge records in government employee personnel files, and the addresses and birth dates of people included in government records. These exemptions will not protect people from privacy invasion and identity theft, but will only allow malfeasance to go unnoticed.

Second, the law should apply to all records, regardless of when the records were created, and should not pertain only to records created once the law is passed. We know of no states that grandfather in secrecy when updating their open records laws. It just doesn’t make sense. When women were provided the right to vote in 1920, the law applied to all women, including those born before ratification of the law.

Third, the ability for an agency to deny a request because it is deemed by an official as “burdensome” or an attempt to harass the agency is overly broad, vague and likely to result in blanket denials. Also, many states require a response within three or five days, not 10, and the ability to provide the record 20 days after the determination further delays access beyond reason.

Fourth, the public records office executive director should be appointed by the State Ethics Commission, which oversees the office, not by the governor. The more hands-off the person is from the agencies regulated the better.

Many more changes are needed to the bill, in conjunction with those who know how this legislation will work in real life. This bill has promise, but it needs more work and the revisions should be done in the light of day with full transparency and input from the citizenry and affected groups. If it does not go back to committee, then the bill should be voted down in the House. Although we speak on behalf of thousands of journalists, we do not see open government as a “media” issue. Studies show that about two-thirds of public records requests are submitted by businesses, a quarter by citizens, and about 6-10 percent by journalists. This is a public issue. Those framing the legislation ought to look at what is reasonable and what works in other states. Otherwise, Pennsylvania will be the poster child of secrecy and the courts filled with citizens litigating over legislative language that is vague, confusing and unworkable.


Clint Brewer, National President
Society of Professional Journalists

David Cuillier, National Freedom of Information Chairman
Society of Professional Journalists

(Original link at SPJ National website.)

PS: Coming soon, I hope to provide an update to
this post
by sharing my recent letter to Pittsburgh's Ethics Hearing Board.



Monday, October 22, 2007

UPDATE: Your Reactions To The Mayoral Debate?

(UPDATE: Miss what everyone's talking about? Now you can watch the entire Ravenstahl-DeSantis debate online. Click here for the video on The Pittsburgh Channel.)

First, a thank you. In my last post, I'd asked for your suggestions about what issues you'd like to hear the candidates address in tonight's mayoral debate on WTAE-TV. The question--and resulting responses--about which I've gotten the most feedback was submitted by The Burgher, of The Burgh Report blog.

It was his/her suggestion that I ask Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Mark DeSantis about the most difficult moment they've faced in their lives outside of politics. Observers of the debate told me they felt The Burgher's question did draw the candidates into a spending a moment apart from their prepared talking points. So, thanks and credit to The Burgher for that.

Thanks also to others who e-mailed suggestions; I tried to weave them in with the issues I wanted to cover during my turns at questioning. We never get to fit in everything we prepare. I do think there was some interesting give-and-take between the candidates.

I'm curious to hear your take on the debate.

Feel free to post comments addressing the issues and the candidates' remarks.

I'm told the most dramatic moment of the evening was when Marie Osmond fainted... but that was on "Dancing With The Stars", ten minutes after the debate ended.



Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mayoral Debate: Your Ideas?

Incumbent Luke Ravenstahl and challenger Mark DeSantis will face off in a live, one hour mayoral debate Monday night at 7:00 on WTAE-TV Channel 4.

Video of the Commitment 2007 event will be streamed live on ThePittsburghChannel.com.

WTAE-TV Anchor Sally Wiggin will act as the moderator. I'll be one of the panelists asking questions, along with Channel 4 Action News reporter Sheldon Ingram and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Jeremy Boren.

I'm interested in hearing what issues you'd like the candidates to address during the debate. You can e-mail your ideas to me at bobmayo4 at gmail.com, rather than posting them here as comments.

y the way, at the risk of wading hip-deep into controversy, I prefer "MAYoral" over "maYORal". Merriam-Webster Online has audio links pronouncing it both ways.

You can also read a discussion of this burning issue here. While that author offers some interesting history on the topic, I don't endorse the partisan tone of his critique.



Friday, October 19, 2007

Prosecutor Jails News Execs, Wants Data On Website Readers

It happened in Arizona. This Associated Press story on the PG's website provides details:

• "The leaders of an alternative newspaper chain were arrested after running a story about grand jury subpoenas they received seeking reporters' notes and information on who visits their Phoenix weekly's Web site".

• "The subpoenas also seek online profiles of anyone who read four specific articles about (local County Sheriff) Arpaio and profiles of anyone who visited the paper's Web site since Jan. 1, 2004. Also sought was information on what Web users did while on the site, the story said."

Editor & Publisher quotes an Arizona Republic report:

• "The alternative weekly newspaper, in its cover story, said the subpoena was part of an investigation orchestrated to get back at its reporters and the critical stories they wrote of County Attorney Andrew Thomas' political ally Sheriff Joe Arpaio."

The New York Times adds this context and more details:

• "The special prosecutor had been appointed to look into allegations that the newspaper had violated the law in publishing the home address of Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s home address on its website more than three years ago."

• "The weekly and its leadership has been in a long running battle with Mr. Arpaio, after the weekly published a series of stories about his real estate dealings."

“They did not have a warrant, but they told me that I was being arrested for unlawful disclosure of grand jury information,” Mr. Larkin said by phone from his home early this morning, after he was released from jail. Mr. Lacey remained in jail early this morning. Captain Paul Chagolla, a spokesman for the sheriff did not return a call for comment."

Here's link to the Village Voice account of what happened to its executives because of the story in its sister publication.



Thornburgh To DC on Wecht Case

The Post-Gazette reports that former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh will testify before a congressional subcommittee next week about his belief that politics are behind the federal prosecution of former Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht.

A news release on a congressional website says Thornburgh will appear on Tuesday, October 23 at 10 a.m. It says the testimony will be webcast via a yet-to-be-posted link here.

Thornburgh will be one of three witnesses. The hearing is titled "Allegations of Selective Prosecution: The Erosion of Public Confidence in Our Federal Justice System".



Going Backwards On Open Records?

The website PassOpenRecords.Org describes the PA House bill to change the Open Records Law this way:

•"Chapter 1 gets off to a great start by saying all the right things".


•"The next 20 pages pretty much eviscerate the noble principles set forth in the preamble."

See the post titled "Filleted" for the details of how things like expenses and audits could be exempted.

The "Looking Backward" post quotes Teri Henning, the general counsel of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. She warns that what came out of committee “is worse than current law . . . and our current law is one of the worst in the country. ”

A Patriot-News editorial headline reads: "House draft denies public access permitted under the current law". The Trib provides more details in this AP story.



Saturday, October 13, 2007

Oh, The Places You'll Go: The Sunshine Zone

Here's a story of an unnecessarily byzantine, non-specific answer to a direct question.

Let's start at the end, then go to the beginning.

The bottom line is that under Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law (Section 707 b), the ethics board can hold a closed meeting called a "Conference" to educate its members about ethics laws of other cities and how those laws are applied.

What did that take? 39 words, by my computer's count.

Now, let's rewind.

During Friday's ethics board meeting, Chairwoman Sister Patrice Hughes thanked Assistant City Solicitor Kate DeSimone for a memo summarizing Pennylvania's Sunshine Law. That memo indicates that the ethics board can use "Executive Sessions" to exclude the public from their planned educational briefings about how other cities' ethics laws work.

The memo was apparently the city Law Department's synopsis of what the state's Sunshine Law says, and how it applies in this case.

Now, as I understand it, state law only allows government bodies to hold closed-door "Executive Sessions" for six reasons. They are discussions of: personnel matters, labor relations, property purchases, litigation, confidential investigations & deliberations, and academic admission or standing.

After the meeting, I asked Sister Patrice if I could have a copy of the law department's memo, to examine its rationale in this case. She answered that since it was written by DeSimone, she'd feel more comfortable if I asked the memo's author for it instead.

When I did so, DeSimone hesitated, and requested that I not publish the memo if she gave it to me; I responded that publishing things is my job. She said she'd get back to me.

Here's a summary our our e-mail exchange over the next several hours.

• From: "DeSimone, Kate"
Sent: 10/12/2007 12:06 PM AST
To: Bob Mayo
Cc: "Sister Patrice Hughes"
Subject: Sunshine Act synopsis

Hello Bob:

I have spoken to my boss about the advisability of releasing the little memo regarding the provisions of the Sunshine Act, and he has advised against it. Although you are correct that there is nothing in the memo that you cannot get from reading the text of the act itself, our position has to be that this was a favor we did for the Board to help them in understanding this rather complex statute.

Sister, I am sorry that I did not mark the memo “confidential” in order to avoid any confusion.

Kate DeSimone

• From: Bob Mayo
Sent: 10/12/2007 12:16 PM EDT
To: "Kate DeSimone"
Cc: Bob Longo; Roberta Petterson
Subject: Re: Sunshine Act synopsis


Respectfully, since the purpose of the Sunshine Law is "sunshine", i.e. an open view for the public on the operation of government, I would suggest that the interpretation of how an exemption to the Sunshine Law is being applied should not be confidential.

You were acting in an official capacity in advising the board, and members would be adopting an official meeting practice based on that advice.

I ask that the city solicitor and the board members individually reconsider and provide us with a copy.

I'm cc:ing this to my news management, so that they're in the loop on this.


Bob Mayo

• From: "DeSimone, Kate"
Sent: 10/12/2007 12:52 PM AST
To: Bob Mayo
Cc: Bob Longo; Roberta Petterson; "Specter, George"; "Sister Patrice Hughes"
Subject: RE: Sunshine Act synopsis

Dear Bob:

I apologize if I gave any impression that this memo contained an “interpretation” of the Sunshine Act. On the contrary, there is nothing therein that can’t be gained from reading the text of the Act itself.


[In the interest of accuracy, I'm quoting my e-mail's typos and mangled, redundant wording as-is. I can only blame them on my "thumb-typing" in haste on my BlackBerry.]

From: Bob Mayo
Sent: 10/12/2007 01:22 PM EDT
To: "Kate DeSimone"
Cc: Bob Longo; Roberta Petterson; "Specter, George"; "Sister Patrice Hughes"
Subject: Re: Sunshine Act synopsis

I'm headed out on another story at the moment. For the moment, can you tell me (or quote) in a sentence or two which provisions of the sunshine act which allow for executive sessions for education of board members?

Please understand that I'm not saying that there isn't one, I'm doing my job by finding out what it is in this specific case.

If there wasn't some intrepretation involved, why was a memo needed?

Thanks again.


• From: "DeSimone, Kate"
Sent: 10/12/2007 04:33 PM AST
To: Bob Mayo
Subject: RE: Sunshine Act synopsis

Hi Bob:

At one point the act defined an “executive session” as “a meeting from which the public is excluded, although the agency may admit those persons necessary to carry out the purpose of the meeting” (Section 703), which seems to imply that any closed meeting can qualify as an executive session. Later, however, the term is defined a lot more narrowly as being limited to six specific subject areas (Section 708). There are also some rather inconsequential references to executive sessions in sections 704 and 707, where they are cited as exceptions to the open meeting rule.

Our Board is certainly not alone in using the term executive session as synonymous with a closed meeting generally, but they are aware of the narrower definition in Section 708, and they know anything they do outside of a public meeting has to fall into one of those specific categories or be outside the requirements of a meeting altogether (for instance, no quorum present, no deliberation of agency business).

The real purpose of the memo was to tell them what the Act says, since they need to know what it says, but except for Penny they are not attorneys and are very unlikely to read it on their own. As you know, it is not the most accessible of statutes.


What followed was one more round of e-mails. I noted I was apparently going to have plenty of reading ahead for my coming week of vacation. She wished me well and suggested I drink plenty of water, as the "Sunshine Act" makes for very dry reading. It was a friendly exchange.

Note, however, that the last e-mail quoted above still doesn't directly cite the specific, legally allowable reason for using an "Executive Session" as proposed. My reading of the law is that there is no "Executive Session" exemption that applies here. There is an exemption for closing the doors to the public to hold something called a "Conference"; that's a different thing.

When it comes to the law, words do matter and can bring different consequences.

The law defines a "Conference" as "Any training program or seminar, or any session arranged by State or Federal agencies for local agencies, organized and conducted for the sole purpose of providing information to agency members on matters directly related to their official responsibilities." It also says "an agency is authorized to participate in a conference which need not be open to the public. Deliberation of agency business may not occur at a conference." I added the emphasis because "need not be open to the public" suggests that it could be open to the public.

The law defines "Executive Session" as "a meeting from which the public is excluded, although the agency may admit those persons necessary to carry out the purpose of the meeting". I added the emphasis here because--by definition--the public always "is excluded" from every "Executive Session".

Since we're talking about the "Sunshine Act" --part of Pennsylvania's "Right to Know Act"-- I think these are fair questions to raise.

[ A link to the PA Sunshine Act, bookmarked at a relevant section. ]



Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Parking Tax: Orie Warns of Penalties

State Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie says she's preparing a letter to Pittsburgh's oversight board, asking it to warn City Council: by freezing the parking tax rate, council risks a cutoff of all state funds to the city. The ability to impose that penalty is one of the powers granted to the oversight board by state lawmakers. Pittsburgh's financial recovery plan approved by the Pennsylvania legislature requires that the parking tax be scaled back. That was part of the trade-off in exchange for additional taxing powers granted to the city, including the annual $52 emergency municipal services tax.

Councilman Jim Motznik, the sponsor of the legislation, had hoped that council's passing of the freeze would provide the basis for a conversation with state lawmakers in Harrisburg next week. Orie's reaction does not bode well for that conversation.

Motznik argues that parking lot and garage operators did not pass along this year's parking tax cut to consumers. His bill would lock in this year's parking tax rate at 45 percent instead of lowering it to 40 percent for 2008. His legislation dedicates revenues from the five percent difference to making payments on the city's debt and pension fund obligations. [PG & Trib coverage of the issue.]

You can watch video of my Channel 4 Action News report on the Pittsburgh Channel.

Here are some key quotes from my interviews with Orie and Motznik. They were conducted separately on Tuesday.


• "It violates the spirit and letter of the law. It's in complete violation of the state law. This was negotiated in a bi-partisan fashion."

• "Right now,what Councilman Motznik is doing is a back door tax on the backs of the commuters."

• "It's irresponsible for them to have passed this. I believe there is no support in the legislature to do this."

• "There are ramifications for violating the law, and they could lose state moneys. That alerts them them, you are taking an action in violation, this is what is at risk."

• "Under state law, if they want to play this game---and it's really sad, because they're violating the letter of the law--not only can the state withhold funding. The state, because it's a state created city parking authority, we can force them to reduce the rates."


• "I don't feel that it's illegal. We here on council control old taxes, new taxes, what tax rates are going to be."

• "I think it helps the cause in Harrisburg, because it shows that we're being fiscally responsible with the funds that we would have lost."

• "It gives us a few months to take something to Harrisburg and try to work out an agreement."

• "Worst case scenario, we don't agree, then we're headed for probably some legal problems. But the idea is not to fight with the legislature."



Tuesday, October 9, 2007

An Audio Footnote

This quick post is an audio footnote to Monday's entry, "Ravenstahl In The New York Times".

You can listen in to the 22 second mp3 file to hear the mayor confirm that there never was a "flip-flops" controversy.



Monday, October 8, 2007

Ravenstahl In The New York Times: UPDATED

The New York Times revisits Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in this story by Ian Urbina headlined "In Media's Eye, Young Mayor Says He's Learning." It follows another profile in the New York Sun by Seith Gitell just last week. The ironic twist here is that the Mayor's announced intent to maintain a lower personal profile until election day was launched as the lead story in the 'National Report' section of one of America's most prominent papers. In the interview, Ravenstahl himself recounts several of his controversies for the national readership.

You can see Mayor Ravenstahl's comments about his planned lower profile in my Channel 4 Action News report. The video is available on the Pittsburgh Channel.

The appearance of two New York newspaper profiles of the mayor within seven days gives rise to this question: did someone pitch interviews with the mayor to the New York media? The answer is "no". Times reporter Ian Urbina tells me no one pitched his story to him; it was a follow-up to his earlier profile of Mayor Ravenstahl. I also spoke with Seth Gitell, who says his story idea was his own; his wife has family ties to Pittsburgh that brought them here recently.

Given the focus of its story on Mayor Ravenstahl's "intense news media questioning", I was curious about whether the New York Times interviewed any local journalists for their perspective. I was surveying local political and government reporters via e-mail when Times reporter Ian Urbina himself graciously responded directly. He tells me he did not speak to any local reporters who actually cover the mayor. As you'll see in the Times story, commentator John McIntire is quoted--but misidentified as a KDKA Radio talk show host, a position he left six months ago. When I asked Urbina if he interviewed any other media source beside McIntire, he said he had also contacted the satirical website "The Carbolic Smoke Ball".

Here's an unusual tidbit in the Times story:

“I like him because the city runs,” said Eliza Wiles, 54, waiting for a bus several blocks from City Hall. Ms. Wiles added that she could not care less that the mayor was younger than her son or that Mr. Ravenstahl wore flip-flops on a plane to Los Angeles — an episode that drew criticism. “The abandoned cars get gone, street lights get fixed. The place is safe,” she said. “That’s what matters to me.”

Flip-flops criticism? Really? The only references to this I can find stem from one talk show host who was sympathetically joking with the mayor about the media attention by bringing up whether he'd worn flip-flops on a plane. Mayor Ravenstahl admitted to that when I asked him about it today.

Mayor Ravenstahl: "That was just part of our casual conversation that we had. No, you're correct."

Q: "No one's grilling you about that?"

Mayor Ravenstahl: "No.... You are now, though. (Laughter)."

Times reporter Urbina was not let in on the joke. Urbina tells me that when he pressed the mayor to elaborate on the sort of media queries that trouble him, Ravenstahl cited the "flip-flops" example. The Times reporter--trusting the account--used the mayor's description to elicit the comment from Pittsburgher Eliza Wiles quoted above.

The mayor has used the "flip-flop" story as though it was real at least twice before. It occurred in passing during the course of radio interviews here and here.



Friday, October 5, 2007

Digging Deeper: The Money & The Car

My review of the city's grant and the federal homeland security guidelines shows that the money used to buy the city police intelligence squad's GMC Yukon appears to have strict strings attached. It's specifically for protecting infrastructure from terrorists. (See video link in this Pittsburgh Channel story.)

The city's grant agreement to get the homeland security money makes it clear. The money used to buy the car that sometimes transported Mayor Ravenstahl was intended for the 'Buffer Zone Protection Program'. That means it's to be used to "protect and secure critical infrastructure and key resource sites across the country".

City officials signed a pledge that "The City of Pittsburgh agrees that all equipment received shall be used only for the purposes set forth".

Homeland security guidelines show examples of the suggested types of equipment and uses intended for the money. They include:

• biological, chemical, and radiation detection,
• explosives mitigation,
• and security systems.

The homeland security guidelines go a step further and spell out what it describes as "unallowable costs". It specifically says "unauthorized program expenditures.. include... general use vehicles".

The federal documents caution that the list of protected sites "will remain classified for security purposes". It makes no secret, however, that the intended use of the money is to "make it more difficult for terrorists to conduct surveillance or launch attacks".

[You can browse through the Program Guidelines and Application Kit here. I should caution you that it's a very large .pdf file.]

The homeland security department warns that:

• "it is the responsibility of the recipient to fully understand and comply with these requirements."

• "failure to comply may result in the withholding of funds, termination of the award, or other sanctions."

The city also agreed to provide federal and state agencies "the right to examine all records and documents that are related to BZPP equipment", and that "all equipment received is subject to audit by federal or state agencies". The city also agreed "to retain all cost-supporting records and documentation for a period of three years".

Public Safety Director Mike Huss responds that "the vehicle was part of the application and purchased by PEMA (the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency) [for the city]. They would not have purchased it if it were unallowable."

PEMA tells me that it's just a "channel" for the money. It also says that other policing assignments cannot share the car with the anti-terrorism effort, as Chief Harper has been suggesting.

I interviewed United States Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan Friday afternoon. She says:

• "Allegations of the mayor's alleged misuse of a vehicle have just come to the attention of my office. We're going to take a look at the purposes for the grant: what the specifications were, whether the purchase was an allowable purchase, and exactly what uses are permissible under the grant. Once We've had an opportunity to do that, we'll be in a much better position to determine whether there were any violations of the grant agreement."

• "There are a number of issues that my office could look at. We do play a role in coordinating homeland security functions within the region. ...The grants that have been made available to law enforcement and to municipalities around the country are very important and we must make every effort to make sure that these funds are being utilized properly. There are a number of issues that we're going to look at, and again it is premature to get into precisely what we'll do once we gather all the facts in this matter."



Thursday, October 4, 2007

Q&A: Mayor & Chief On The Yukon

Thanks to Chris Twomey of The Pittsburgh Channel for posting this raw video from reporters' Q&A with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Police Chief Nate Harper. You can look in by clicking here. I was going to post it as a podcast, but Chris kindly agreed to offer up the video.

One way or the other, I'll be blogging more about this story tomorrow. (I was off sick today.)

While not it does not pass judgment, the language in the statement from U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan is striking. Because the Homeland Security grant for purchase of the Yukon was federal funding, the United States Attorney's office has jurisdiction to examine whether there were violations of the terms of the grant.



Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Sirk On Blogging No More

Excerpts From An E-Mail Exchange:

From: Bob Mayo [Reporter, WTAE]
Sent: Monday, October 01, 2007 4:49 PM
To: Sirk, Alecia [Press Secretary, Mayor's Office]
Subject: Blog request

[ Excerpt ]

Would you be willing to send me an e-mail sharing your thoughts about your personal blogging and about what went into your decision now to stop?

From: "Sirk, Alecia"
Sent: 10/02/2007 02:17 PM AST
To: Bob Mayo

Subject: RE: Blog request

[Excerpt In Response ]

There’s not much to tell. I loved blogging and certainly had fun with it – I hope folks took it that way. On stopping? Not only do I not have time now, but people would certainly be reading things into it that weren’t my intent in posting, and that might hurt someone else. Don’t ever want to do that.

As has been said on the blogs around the City – who have made me feel so great with their kind posts and comments – it’s just the price of my current business – along with regular lunch hour!

Thanks for the inquiry,


Alecia Sirk
Press Secretary
Office of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl

When Dick Skrinjar was Mayor Ravenstahl's press secretary, I'd occasionally encourage him to consider taking up blogging. He never did, though I've sometimes wondered if that suggestion led indirectly to Councilman Jim Motznik's brief venture into the burghosphere that ended as abruptly as it began.

In response to my posts here, Skrinjar would sometimes (jokingly, I think) preface his comments to me with the question "now, is this for a blog or is this for a TV news story?"

By now, you've read on The Burgh Report and the PG's Early Returns that Alecia Sirk, who was named as Dick Skrinjar's successor, has given up her blog.

Sirk's "Love of Chair" vanished suddenly on Sunday evening, following a Post-Gazette profile of her husband, URA Director-designate Pat Ford. The online version of the PG story had added a link to her blog shortly before "Love of Chair" disappeared. Fragments remain in Google's caching of its contents. Early Returns' Rich Lord posted this farewell memorial.



Monday, October 1, 2007

Guest Blogger Jon Greiner on "Bodies"

Guest Blogger

A while back I offered a couple of my fellow Channel 4 Action News reporters an invitation to share their guest blog posts here. Reporter Jon Greiner is the first taker. Jon's post appears below.

"Recently my wife and I traveled to Columbus, Ohio and saw the "Bodies" exhibit coming soon to the Carnegie Science Center. While it's generated a lot of controversy for issues connected to ethics, I'd like to offer an opinion I don't believe I've seen yet. It's overpriced! It costs $22 for adults and $16 for children. I know that the demand is there and that the exhibit will draw a couple hundred thousand people here, allowing the Science Center to make a lot of money for its worthwhile projects. But that doesn't change my mind that it's overpriced by about fifty per cent."

"It's not that we had a bad experience at the exhibit. In fact, since the display had been in Columbus since June, there were only about twenty people in all of the seven display rooms, so we could spend as much time viewing as we wanted. We finished in just under two hours. They'll issue tickets at fifteen minute intervals to spread out the crowds. But there's a lot to see and read, and it could get very frustrating standing two or three deep to take your turn at it."

"With regard to the controversy over the display of real human bodies, I can say that it was, in a word, strange. You can't help but wonder who these people were. But I wouldn't think to advise you on whether you should go. In my opinion, it wouldn't hold the attention of young children for long, but that's your call."

"I just wanted to suggest you try to find a way to get a discount on tickets, and especially to try to go during off peak hours. You'll be able to spend a lot more time at it that way, which you'll appreciate, especially if you've paid $76 or so for a family of four."

"Thanks to Bob for allowing me to borrow his blog space. If you have any specific question, pleas e-mail me at jgreiner@hearst.com. Hope you enjoy it!"

I'm happy to welcome Jon as our guest in the burghosphere. I'll be bringing you some fresh posts of my own soon.