Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Busman's Holiday's Holiday

Years ago, I was vacationing in New York when I turned on a hotel room TV only to see a national news report showing smoke rising from Western Penitentiary and detailing an inmate uprising there. It was a strange experience for me as a reporter--watching an event from afar that I would most surely be covering if were I home and on duty.

Western Penitentiary In Happier Times. [No, I was not a reporter at the time of this etching]

So far, there's been no breaking news story to overshadow my current vacation, but the week is still young. At least now I can blog about it if something happens.

I'm still in town while vacation this week, though did I spend last Friday in Akron covering the sentencing of Donna Moonda. That assignment put me out of the loop for the moment in covering the city budget. City communications staffer Joanna Doven was nice enough to agree to set aside for me a hard copy of the mayor's 2008 budget and five-year-plan. (It's a sign of my long-standing acquired taste for covering city government that I missed being there for the media presentation. )

I e-mailed a welcome to the mayor's new press secretary, Alecia Sirk on Monday. I note the latest news releases from the mayor's office still have Joanna's name on them; perhaps there's a delay in the transition.


UberBlogger Mark Rauterkus posted about my vacation before I did. In his role as a candidate for city controller, he sent me links to his flurry of complaints filed with the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board. The PG's Early Returns noted the details in this post, under the headline "Can't muzzle Mark". Mr. Rauterkus managed to create an online access complaint form for the ethics board, while the city has not yet done so. The ethics board was unable to meet as planned recently (because of concern it could not muster a quorum, according to the law department). Their next scheduled meeting will be the second Friday in October.

Speaking of prolific Pittsburghers, PG reporter and columnist Dennis Roddy's latest podcast is online. You can check out his reflections on the Pittsburgh Organizing Group's anti-war protests here.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Lobbyist & The Governor Respond

Local lobbyist Leslie Merrill McCombs is speaking out against what she describes as slanderous suggestions by a Republican state lawmaker that she has an inappropriate relationship with Democratic Governor Ed Rendell.

Here's a link to my Channel 4 Action News report on Governor Ed Rendell's reaction to Senator Jeffrey Piccola's plan hire a private eye to investigate McCombs' lobbying the governor for the film industry. McCombs is also a friend of Governor Rendell. The lobbying is not illegal, but was months late in being registered with the state, as required by law.

McCombs was already registered as a UPMC lobbyist at the time in question. When she asked the governor to back $75-Million in tax credits for the film industry this summer, she had not yet also registered as a lobbyist for the film company called Lionsgate.

Rendell says there should be a penalty for her failure to register, but he doesn't think it's a big deal. The governor says he was on the record as favoring film industry tax credits before the lobbying by McCombs, whom he's known for years.

Philadelphia media headlined the story as 'Guv, the blonde, and lobbying law', with a photo from a July Pirates game of them seated side by side.

Quotes from McComb:

• "My technical and brief noncompliance in amending my registration is being leveraged by some for political reasons. This is a flimsy nonissue."

• "Clearly, it is being suggested that I have an inappropriate relationship with the governor. That suggestion is disgusting and insulting, and I am appalled that an elected public official can get away with such slanderous behavior. It is deeply hurtful to me and my family."

You can read her complete response on The Pittsburgh Channel.

Quotes from Governor Rendell:

• "You know, he can do anything he wants, or his committee can. I think it's probably a waste of money. I don't know anybody who wouldn't answer questions about this."

• "She's a good friend of mine, fundraiser. I'm good friends with her family. She was one of my best fundraisers from my re-election, but she had no effect on my decision."

• "She's a friend, so's her son, so's her husband."

• "I will say this about her because she's getting a little grief. She has been probably the strongest advocate for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County of anybody in the last four and a half years. When we had the BRAC hearings. she was instrumental in putting together the presentation for Allegheny that saved the 911th. She didn't get a dime for that from anybody."

• "That baseball game that was in the newspaper-- I was there with her and five other people, and her son was there."

• "It's typical media."

Saying that Dave Malone lobbies him as much as McCombs does, Rendell observed:

• "Nobody's interested in Dave Malone because he's a tall, dark haired white guy."



Friday, September 14, 2007

Reminder: You're Invited!


[UPDATE: Our event will be in the Lower Lounge of the William Pitt Union, off of the Main Floor lobby. If you enter from the 5th Avenue side of the William Pitt Union, walk in towards the center of the building and you will find the Lower Lounge atrium is to your left.]

This is a reminder that you're invited to join us for a special event Saturday afternoon.

If you're coming, please note the traffic advisory at the bottom of this post.

We think you'll find the event interesting, whether you work in the news media or you're someone who wants to learn more about your rights as a Pennsylvania citizen to access public records.

It's a Forum on Open Government & Pennsylvania Open Records Law Workshop on September 15, from 1 to 4 p.m. in the William Pitt Student Union on Pitt's Oakland campus. The event is co-sponsored by the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition.

The event is free and you don't have to pre-register, but please RSVP if you can.

You can learn more about it by checking out Pittsburgh SPJ's website, and using the "click here for details" link in the top banner. If there are updates to the program, we'll provide them there. The Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition's (PaFOIC) website is a great place for exploring the subject.


Please note the likelihood of traffic delays due to work on the Parkway East.
I'm providing links below to a newspaper article on the subject.

Parkway East will be down to 1 lane each way - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The following detour suggestion is from a PennDOT website:

Ramp Closures at Bates Street

• I-376 WestBound Off Ramp to SR 885 North (3B)
Suggested Detour:
- Take Exit 1C (Grant St)
- Make right onto Blvd of Allies (SR 885 North)
- Can access both SR 885 and Second Ave.

• I-376 EastBound On Ramp to SR 885
Suggested Detour:
- Take Second Ave. west to the Blvd. of the Allies
- Access I-376 EB from Blvd. of the Allies


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Resignation Letter Shockwaves...In San Francisco?

Another Mayor Is Cleaning House

"...Request for resignation letters has sent shock waves through City Hall".

This story is not about Pittsburgh. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is shaking things up in his city, too.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

"Although he refused to say how many resignation letters he plans to accept, City Hall observers say the mayor is probably targeting a handful of individuals he wants to remove from their posts, but doesn't want to have to publicly fire".

There's more in this story about their mayor:

"...who is running for re-election in November but faces no serious political threat in the race, told department heads and commissioners in letters Monday that the request signals his desire to 'make bold changes in the coming term.'"

...and there's analysis in this editorial:

"...department heads, aides and commission appointees have until Friday to offer their resignations - and he'll decide which ones to accept."

You can check out Mayor Newsom's two letters here and here.

An Astrologer/Blogger there is blaming Pluto and a solar eclipse.

Meanwhile, there's a video online of my Channel 4 Action News story about Mayor Ravenstahl's city government shakeup. I can't provide a direct link, but one appears within this Pittsburgh Channel story.



Wednesday, September 12, 2007

City Directors Who Act... And Actors Who Direct

[Post updated at 7:06 a.m.]

All of the talk in city government about "acting directors" brought to mind the theater casting calls for "singers who dance" and "dancers who sing". I googled "directors who act" and "actors who direct" and found this show business quiz.

As The Burgher of "The Burgh Report" blog notes, we are now marking 90 days since Mayor Luke Ravenstahl asked for resignations from ten top city officials. The 90 day mark may be significant, because the city code says that no one may serve as an "acting director" for more than 90 days. The mayor's news release back in June said that "all directors not appointed by Mayor Ravenstahl have been asked to serve the city in an acting capacity".

I say that the day "may be significant" because in recent weeks, the mayor has been telling reporters that he "never accepted" the resignations, but is keeping them in his desk. When I asked the mayor about this a couple of weeks back, he denied ever describing those affected as "acting" directors. While the news release from the mayor's office plainly described them in that way at the time, my check of Channel 4 Action News video that aired back in June does not show the mayor himself uttering the word. (Our raw, unedited tape is long gone. I'm sure other reporters are rummaging through bins for their old tapes right now.)

(To read the mayor's June news release, go to this link, then click 'Read More..." at the bottom of that post.)

The Burgher argues in his post that the issue is cut and dry--and not in the mayor's favor, but it appears there the mayor may find wiggle room in the city code. As The Burgh Report itself quoted from the city code back in June,

The mayor may remove the head of any major administrative unit at will. A removal shall not be effective until the mayor transmits reasons to council in writing.

The mayor may remove any member of an authority at will except as otherwise provided by law. A removal shall not be effective until the mayor transmits reasons to council in writing.

Some City Council members complained months ago that Mayor Ravenstahl never notified them in writing about the shakeup as the code requires. It seemed at the time to his critics to be an ignoring the law; it may now actually provide the mayor a technicality backing for his assertion that he never formally accepted the resignations. If the mayor never "transmits the reasons to council in writing", can he argue the removals will "not be effective"?

The insights of the affected directors themselves would be valuable on this point, but they are understandably silent. Some were so cautious as to ask me not to even mention their individual "no comment", out of apparent concern that saying even that much to a reporter might endanger their job security.

The only "acting" department head who freely discusses that status is Acting City Solicitor George Specter, who's been holding the post on a temporary basis for more than a year. He stepped up after the late Mayor Bob O'Connor-- acting from his hospital room-- dismissed several of his top administration officials.

Specter acknowledges that there is no enforcement provision in this law and says that no one has ever tried to force the issue. He also points out that his "acting" directorship is far from the longest-running in city history.

That distinction would go to Kathy Krause: she was Mayor Tom Murphy's acting public safety director for more than a decade. Murphy took office insisting that Pittsburgh's police chief would report directly to him and not through a public safety director. His administration never formally changed the structure of city government, however. In fact, some state and federal agencies apparently required that their formal dealings with the city involve its public safety director. Krause filled that role in a low-profile "acting" capacity for twelve years.

Council President Doug Shields introduced a bill back in July that would make changes in the city rules governing the use of "acting" directors. That bill has been held back in committee three times, so far: on July 2nd, July 18th, and July 25th. It's scheduled to come up again for discussion and a vote in today's council meeting. Some in city government say they expect that action on Shields' legislation will be delayed once again. The 90 day anniversary of the mayor's resignation requests to the directors may bring some discussion of the issue in council this time.

Footnote: All ten director positions are posted as current openings on the city's website. One position of note no longer posted there is "Press Secretary", though it's been vacant for nearly two months longer than the rest. Dick Skrinjar was moved out of the job back in April. Joanna Doven has been Acting Press Secretary for 4 1/2 months, though the mayor has said periodically that since April that he hopes to make a final decision on that post soon. While Skrinjar called himself "Director of Communications", the position is not a department-level job and does not require confirmation by city council.



Sunday, September 9, 2007

Invitation To Open Up?

The above image is from the website of PassOpenRecords.org, which describes itself as "A Movement to Lift the Lid on Pennsylvania Government".

It's a good site to learn more about the topic of our free special event this Saturday. Did I mention that you're invited?

I also recommend checking out OpenRecordsPA.com to learn more on the issues.

Here are some good columns on the topic by:

the PG's TechMan,

the Trib's Dimitri,

and the Trib's Brad Bumsted.



"Right To Know": An Editorial Sampling

ooking ahead to this Saturday's free Forum on Open Government and Open Records Workshop, here is a sampling of editorials on the topics from the Trib, PG, and other sources.

Public test / Pennsylvanians still struggle for the right to know
May 27, 2005

You need better access to public records
December 6, 2006

Open season: The governor wants to expand the right to know
March 11, 2007

Editorial: Let the sun shine / Pennsylvanians still have problems with records
March 14, 2006

Transparent government: Opening its records
April 26, 2007

Newspaper group pushes for broader open records law
April 29, 2007

The right to know: Make it real

June 12, 2007

Burden of proof: A key change of heart may pry open public records
June 14, 2007

Open access to public records allows citizens to be informed
August 10, 2007

Open records: One step forward, one step back
August 10, 2007

Some bite, please
August 14, 2007

Open records law: Accountability at last
August 16, 2007

Join effort to defend 'right to know'
September 2, 2007


Friday, September 7, 2007

The Pittsburgh Foundation & The Pittsburgh Promise

Both The Post-Gazette and The Tribune-Review are reporting William Trueheart's retirement from his post as President and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation.

It brings to mind that The Pittsburgh Foundation did respond to my request for a comment on The Pittsburgh Promise, though the answer didn't arrive until the day after my story aired.

Here's what spokesman John Ellis wrote via e-mail on August 30th:


Regarding our conversation about the Pittsburgh Promise, The Pittsburgh Foundation’s position is that we look forward to seeing the detailed plans for this initiative that are currently being formulated by Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Mayor and that we would consider any funding opportunities at that time. I would just add that The Pittsburgh Foundation has been a consistently strong supporter of the School District, and of Supt Mark Roosevelt’s reform agenda.

Please let me know if you need anything more.

Kindest regards,


The Pittsburgh Foundation response strikes me as similar to that from The Heinz Endowments, though without the underlying cautious tone of the latter. See my last blog post to compare.

A question that comes to mind is whether the transition in the leadership at The Pittsburgh Foundation will delay its consideration of support for the Pittsburgh Promise.