Monday, January 18, 2010

Pittsburgh Flight to Haiti : Reporter's Notes

[UPDATE: You can read Burgher Jon's question about Monday's BRESMA coverage and my response here in the comments thread of this blog post.]

Raw notes aren't pretty... but here are my raw notes on the latest developments, followed by a statement from former US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan (via Bram of the Pittsburgh Comet). I'll have a report on Channel 4 Action News at Five.


Governor's press secretary Gary Tuma confirms that Governor Ed Rendell is among the officials on the flight to Haiti. At 3:17pm he said that the plane touched down in Miami "about ten minutes ago" and should be taking off within 45 minutes of that touchdown. It's next stop: Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

If all goes smoothly, they hope to pick up 61 of the children from the BRESMA orphanage at the airport here and return to Pittsburgh at 11pm or 12 midnight, by way of Miami. Tuma says that they don't know if things will go smoothly..and that the return to Pittsburgh could come later, if they do not.

He says some of the 150 children from the orphanage will be going to the French or the Dutch.

61 will be coming to Pittsburgh.

41 have adoptions "in the pipeline".

The 61 will first go to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh for evaluation. Catholic Charities will be involved in caring for their needs while they are here.

Tuma says that relatives of the two sisters had contacted UPMC, and that UPMC contacted the governor. Saturday and Sunday, arrangements were made. There was contact with the Haitian ambassador, the Pentagon, and Homeland Security officials to get clearance for the mission. Republic Air provided the plane, which also carries medical personnel and nurses.

Tuma says many officials -- including the Haitian ambassador in particular -- advised that it would be helpful if Governor Rendell were personally on the plane. Tuma says the Haitian ambassador believed that Governor Rendell's presence might provide strengthen their efforts, in case there was any trouble on the ground in Haiti.

Statement from Mary Beth Buchanan on the events of today:

"I had little prior knowledge of the attempted air rescue mission that departed from Pittsburgh today, though I have since been advised that some of the resources aboard the flight were collected through the efforts of myself and others. Now that it is underway I am hopeful for the best, and continue to pray for the safety of young Jamie and Ali, this group of Haitian orphans and all of the people suffering in Haiti."

Sent from my mobile device


Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Ticket?

UPDATE 7: [Councilman Bill Peduto on Twitter: "Ravenstahl backed City Council President slate lacks experience AND independence - it must be stopped. Not sure that I will be able to get the needed fifth vote, but we cannot let any Administration control Executive & Legislative branches."]

UPDATE 6: [Councilwoman Smith to Trib: "This is something that came to me on Tuesday, and, quite honestly, it's not something I'm seeking...I'm trying to find anybody but me."]

UPDATE 5: [Councilman Peduto, via Twitter to supporters: "Despite rumors, I am still a candidate for Council President with 4 votes and working for one more - thank you for kind words of support."]

UPDATE 4: [Councilman Burgess, via spokeswoman: "No comment".]

UPDATE 3: [Councilwoman Theresa Smith responds to my e-mail: "I appreciate the opportunity to comment; however, I will decline at this time and refer you to the Council members mentioned in your email for their comments. Thank you for the opportunity to comment and I look forward to working with you on additional reports in the future."]

UPDATE 2 : [Dayvoe of 2 Political Junkies notes: if true, Smith would become council president with 8 months experience, Lavelle would become finance chair with 0 days experience.]

UPDATE 1 : [Patrick Dowd confirms he now backs Smith for Council President. Says they need someone who can work together with others and reach across divides. Says Smith has shown that capacity and will serve them well, moving forward.]

The latest political buzz? That Theresa Kail-Smith has the votes to become Council President -- and that she will reward new Councilman Dan Lavelle for his vote by appointing him Finance Chair, the second most powerful position on council.

Anything can change between now and Monday morning's vote -- but the predictions now are that Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess will abandon his hopes for council presidency and throw his support to Kail-Smith, with Patrick Dowd and Darlene Harris providing the rest of the five votes needed.

Still awaiting callbacks from council members -- there are other scenarios.

Other sources say that Councilwoman Darlene Harris is herself a candidate for council president.



The Sunshine Law & City Council's New Year's Eve Veto Override Attempt

Okay, I think I've solved this.

• There's nothing in the City's Home Rule Charter that bans council from holding a meeting on less than 24 hours notice. You can check the pdf file here.

• There is something in the Rules of Council (incorporated into the City Code) that says the city clerk should give council members (not the public) at least 24 hours written notice of a special meeting.

• That 24 hour notice requirement can be waived by a vote of 6 out of 9 council members.


• A special meeting of City Council called with less than 24 hours public notice would violate Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law.

Here's the quote. The PA Sunshine Law says:

" An agency shall give public notice of each special meeting"..."at least 24 hours in advance of the time of the convening of the meeting specified in the notice".

Section 709 adds that a "Public notice is not required in the case of an emergency meeting" -- but it strictly defines an emergency as:

"A meeting called for the purpose of dealing with a real or potential emergency involving a clear and present danger to life or property. "

So, hypothetically, if Council had mustered the six votes, first to hold the meeting on short notice and then to override Mayor Ravenstahl's New Year's Eve veto, what could have happened?

The Sunshine Law says a legal challenge to the meeting could be filed within 30 days. If a judge ruled the meeting broke the Sunshine Law, he or she would have the option of invalidating any action taken at that special meeting. Note the passage uses the words "may" and "discretion". It's not an automatic loss.

"Should the court determine that the meeting did not meet the requirements of this chapter, it may in its discretion find that any or all official action taken at the meeting shall be invalid. "
(That's in Section 713, titled "Business transacted at unauthorized meeting void". )

What's the punishment the council members involved would have faced? A hundred dollar fine:

Section 714. Penalty
"Any member of any agency who participates in a meeting with the intent and purpose by that member of violating this chapter commits a summary offense and shall, upon conviction, be sentenced to pay a fine not exceeding $100 plus costs of prosecution."

[Update: Chris Potter also fact-checks these topics in a comment here and in his City Paper blog posts .]

A couple of open questions:

1) Are there any previous cases anywhere in which legislative bodies were stymied from taking override votes because of the timing of vetoes?

2) Does anyone see anything in the law or in court rulings that addresses the legality of a veto or an override vote in a case like this? Let me know.

Below are some document links, if you want to check them out.

"The Clerk shall give written notice to the members of any special meeting not less than twenty-four hours previous to such meeting."
See Article V: Legislative, Chapter 151: Council, § 151.01 Regular And Special Meetings, , section (c).

"No rule shall be suspended except by an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members elected and such vote shall be taken without debate."
See Rule VIII h.

See Sections 709, 713 714.



Friday, January 1, 2010

Mayor Ravenstahl's New Year's Eve Veto

Notes & quotes from my New Year's Day interviews

Council Finance Chair Peduto
Councilman Dowd
Mayoral Chief of Staff Zober

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have read my tweet-by-tweet reports of The New Year's Eve Veto. (See here .) Mayor Ravenstahl's maneuver is sparking bitter divisions. His opponents call him "undemocratic"; his supporters are comparing the other side to "fascists". The bill would have forced developers getting big taxpayer subsidies for large projects to pay workers prevailing wage rates. The mayor's tactic killed a bill unanimously approved by council. Since mayoral critics were more readily available than the mayor's staff last night, I'll start this post with the Ravenstahl administration's side.

Mayor Ravensthal's Chief of Staff Yarone Zober chose to meet me New Year's Day at the East Liberty site under consideration for construction of a new Target store. Zober used the site as an illustration to critique the prevailing wage bill:

• "..Whether it puts at risk things like nine acres of development, 500 jobs that could be created here, a hundred-million dollars of investment, put that all at risk."

Zober said the mayor had tried to talk with council members, but that:

• "The bill was rushed through. So much so, that there's so much vague and ambiguous language in this bill."

The mayor's chief of staff says that Ravenstahl tried to talk to council members, but they were frightened by potential political retaliation if they opposed the bill. Zober emphasized that the mayor's veto came within the 10 days required by law:

• "Everyone should have been quite aware of where this bill was, and council could have scheduled a meeting if they'd wanted to."

• "If we want to talk about undemocratic, there was a meeting that was held by council yesterday without required notice, against a city ordinance."
• "We followed the rules, we followed the democratic principles and, frankly, council did not."
• "Look, this is no 'gotcha' game. This is about making sure great investments can happen in neighborhoods like this."
• "There are things we can do to make this bill better. Less vague, less ambiguous, and allow developers and investors the right to figure out what they're doing when they come and invest in Pittsburgh."

Councilman Bill Peduto met me in the Shadyside business district for our interview. He appeared as much sad as angry as he talked about Mayor Ravenstahl's New Year's Eve veto tactic, which stymied any council override:

• "You are denying the American democratic process in that situation. You are basically saying this is a totalitarian society."
• "That's not good political maneuvering, that's stripping away the democratic process and taking the public out of it."
• "Under the new council session, it will be debated, it will be passed."

Peduto argued that the mayor's ends don't justify the means he used, adding:

• "there are others who would say the means are the way of judging a person's character."

Councilman Peduto also criticized a colleague:
• "You had Councilman Dowd who announced as he was standing there (in council chamber) that 'I am not present' for this vote, so that he could stay aligned with the mayor."
• "I don't know what Councilman Dowd is doing and I don't know why he's doing it. I feel disappointed by Councilman Dowd, and other than Joe Lieberman, (he's) probably one of the greatest political disappointments I've had in my life."

• "He began to heckle the council president during the hearing itself, and then moved to another part of the council chamber and continued to shout from that part of the chamber as well. In 15 years of working in that building, one the lowest points if not the lowest point I can think of."

On Monday, 2010 City Council members are expected to choose between Peduto and Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess in a vote for Council President. Peduto comments:

• "Are we going to have a council that is a rubber stamp for the mayor, or are we going to have an independent body that can make its own decisions?"
• "What I saw from the other side was complete confrontation -- a confrontation against the democratic process that we're sworn to uphold. I would consider it one of the lowest marks in my 15 years in city council."

On claims Mayor Ravenstahl's charges that the prevailing wage bill was vague, ambiguous, in need of more input, and has the potential to hurt Pittsburgh:

• "The mayor was silent on it for the seven weeks that it was before us. He never had an opinion, he never reached out to council."
• "He waited until the very last minute, when council didn't have the ability to fulfill it's democratic process and obligations, and then he made his position known. that's no way to govern, that's no way to lead."

Councilman Patrick Dowd wasn't available for an on camera interview. Dowd explained that New Year's Day is his wedding anniversary and that last night's meeting took him away from his family.

Here are some notes from our phone conversations. Most of this was not recorded, so I don't have a full transcript.

Dowd compared Mayor Ravenstahl's New Year's Eve veto maneuver to a chess game, saying:
• "Tactically, he beat us."
and adding:
• "Shame on us for not anticipating" it.

• Dowd faults his fellow council members for what he describes as a "total ignoring of the rules" by meeting and attempting a veto override. The city code require 24 hours public notice before a council meeting, or a six vote majority to waive that rule.

• I noted that Dowd had been part of the 9-to-0 unanimous vote for the prevailing wage bill, and asked why he himself didn't provide the 6th vote to waive the 24-hour notice requirement. Dowd answered there are "ways to deal with this, and it's not by bending the rules".

• Dowd dismissed the attempted veto override as a "goofy maneuver" and said he presumed the prevailing wage bill would simply be reintroduced for 2010.

• The councilman recalled that during debate of the legislation others on council "outmaneuvered" his attempts to amend the bill. Councilman Dowd calls it :
• "poetic justice they were outmaneuvered" by Mayor Ravenstahl.

• Dowd quotes:

• " can't bend the rules. And that's what fascists do -- and in the 30s, particularly. And that's what my colleagues were trying to do last night."

• "Two wrongs don't make a right".