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".



Bram Reichbaum said...

I remember when the protest occurred at City Hall, Zober was the one to go stately forward and enunciate the pro-developer argument. I wonder if it's a coincidence that he's being tapped again this time? In other situations it has been Ravenstahl himself who speaks to his own politics ... except on these issues it seems.

Are you 100% certain Bob that the requirement for 24 hours notice is a Rule of Council and not a facet of the Home Rule Charter? Because I think you may be mistaken ... I don't think 6 members can opt to waive that requirement.

Bob Mayo said...

Interesting point, Bram. Both Dowd & Peduto appear to agree that Council could waive the requirement with six votes -- Dowd, implicitly so by faulting them for only having five. Last night I looked up the City Code:



(c) Special meetings of Council shall be called by the Clerk at the order of the President, or of any standing committees of Council, or of one-third ( 1/3) of all Council members, or of the Mayor. However, the call shall be in writing, shall specify the purposes for which the call was made, shall be signed by the parties ordering the call and shall be entered by the Clerk in his or her minute books. The Clerk shall give written notice to the members of any special meeting not less than twenty-four (24) hours previous to such meeting."

I don't see a provision to waive the 24 hour requirement there. Anyone else want to join in?

Mark Zabierek said...

This is among the reasons why people don't have respect for members of Council. Here you have, arguably, two of the best and brightest of the body, and they don't know their own rules. Bob, your research is on point: the 24-hour rule is not actually a rule at all; it's the law, and, as such, cannot be waived or suspended. The sixth vote was always moot.

The dirty little secret of all of this is that this bill is a sop to the unions that underwrite all these members' campaigns. It's anti-competitive and, ultimately, counter-productive. The process issues are a mere diversion.

Chris Potter said...

As I understand it, the 24-hour rule is a matter of state law as well, under the Sunshine Act. Section 709 of that law requires that "an agency shall give public notice of each special meeting or each rescheduled regular or special meeting at least 24 hours in advance of the time of the convening of the meeting specified in the notice."

I'm no constitutional scholar, but I don't see how anything council could do would affect that -- the provisions in local law HAVE to be consistent with state provisions. There'd be no point in including language about waiving the 24-hour rule because doing so would be illegal.

Chris Potter said...

Ooops. I take my previous comment back: the law DOES allow for exemptions for emergency meetings.

Chris Potter said...

... Though of course the law defines "emergency meeting" as being one called to address "a real or potential emergency involving a clear and present danger to life or property." This doesn't qualify in my book.

Bob Mayo said...

Exactly right, Chris! Bram's comment had me up late last night, writing a new post after re-reading the Home Rule Charter, relevant parts of the City Code, and the Sunshine Law. I've scheduled the new post to pop up Sunday morning.

Mark Rauterkus said...

The wiggle room, wrongly, would have not "ended" the last meeting -- only suspended it by a few days. Then the meeting can 'resume.' Then the new meeting isn't needed to be scheduled.

So, they could have changed the rules of council by changing the minutes to only suspend the meeting that they really ended.

Don't cheat. People don't want to live in a place that has gov officials cheating.

Oh well.

Council, once again, did too little too late -- and of the wrong acts IMHO.

Just pick up the issue again in 2010.

Amadi said...

Law or no law, it's dismaying to see Councilman Dowd treating this as a big game, talking about maneuvers and whatnot. Politics may be about tactics but governing isn't, or shouldn't be. Clearly Patrick doesn't understand the difference. I'm sorry now that I supported his bid for mayor. For him to start throwing around high-handed rhetoric about fascists (misusing the concept as badly as the dimwit Tea Partiers) is just ridiculous and his behavior in council chambers was juvenile and unseemly. He owes the people of the city and his council colleagues a sincere and swift apology but I won't hold my breath.