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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mayoral race begins in earnest at Squirrel Hill forum

Posted By on Sun, Jan 27, 2013 at 5:22 PM

Much of this afternoon's mayoral debate -- the first such event of the 2013 season -- involved City councilor Bill Peduto attacking Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Ravenstahl attacking Bill Peduto … and City Controller Michael Lamb agreeing with each of them about the other.

Eventually, video of the debate, and an ensuing forum for candidates in city council district 8, will be posted online by the Democrats of the city's 7th Ward. Hell, it may even be up by the time you finish this post, which I'll warn you is like 1,100 words long.

There were some points of agreement during the discussion, which was hosted by the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club before a standing-room-only crowd at Squirrel Hill's Wightman Community Building. All three candidates seemed supportive, for example, of a $80 million tax subsidy to spark development at the site of the former Hazelwood coke works. And all agreed that the city's large non-profits had to contribute more to the city's bottom line. ("They need to do more," was how Raventahl put it. "That's just the reality of the situation") Though there were debates about how best to approach it: Lamb seemed to cast his net most widely, discussing a plan to have paramedics visit residents with chronic health conditions between emergency calls, in hopes of reducing emergency-room visits. (UPMC and Highmark were supporting a pilot project, said Lamb: "It's probably the only thing they've agreed on this year.")

The most pointed exchanges were between Peduto and Ravenstahl, and some of them revisited issues that date back to the mid 2000s, when both men were on council. During that time, for example, Peduto voted against an $18 million tax subsidy for a PNC Bank office tower; Ravenstahl favored it. Today, Ravenstahl said the project helped spawn a wave of Downtown construction, and said of Peduto, "I assume he's proud of his vote."

Peduto's reply: "It's a hard case to make that PNC doesn't have the money and needed" subsidies.

Peduto and Ravenstahl also voted opposite ways on whether the city should accept Act 47 financial oversight by the state. Peduto favored oversight, while Ravenstahl opposed it -- partly, he said, because it didn't provide more revenue from large non-profits. While the city is now poised to leave state oversight, Peduto is the only candidate who opposes doing so, saying it is necessary to hold the line on labor and other costs.

The sharpest disagreements concerned the police bureau, which has been racked by a series of controversies, including a grand-jury investigation which may involve police chief Nate Harper, and the tragic death of Ka'Sandra Wade. "It all starts at the top," Peduto said of such concerns. Referring to the controversial promotions of Assistant Commander George Trosky, Peduto argued that such moves damage morale "at the very top, and it works its way down." Peduto later contended that Ravenstahl was not filling vacant positions on the police force, so that it would look as if the city was running surpluses.

Lamb also had some tough words for Ravenstahl. When the mayor argued, as he has previously, that the city's most recent class of police recruits was "the most diverse … in the past 10 years," Lamb sharply retorted, "The most diverse class we've had in this administration, we had two African Americans."

But Ravenstahl later turned the diversity issue back on Peduto. Peduto is the only one candidate who is open to ending a residency requirement for Pittsburgh police; Peduto said he would be willing to drop the requirement during contract negotiations in exchange for other concessions. Both Ravenstahl and Lamb want to retain the requirement, arguing it helps keep neighborhoods safe. What's more, argued Ravenstahl, "If you think it's hard to attract minority candidates now, it'll be even harder" without a residency requirement in place.

At times, Ravenstahl gave as good as he got. He accused Peduto and other councilors of passing a citywide ban on natural-gas drilling simply to "grab a headline and be a leader in their own mind." He made similar criticisms of a council-backed ordinance to punish gun owners who don't report the loss or theft of firearms, calling it "frivolous." Lamb backed up both those criticisms, calling the measures unenforceable.

Ravenstahl didn't respond to many of the attacks launched against him, though after the debate, he denied Peduto's accusation that the city was short-staffing the police force. "We have more cops today than when I started in 2006," Ravenstahl said. As for the attacks from his rivals, "We're focused on what we're doing," Ravenstahl said. "The challengers in many cases will come after the incumbent. My plan is to rise above it ... and be straightforward and honest with the voters."

As for the challengers, the debate's final question was targeted at them: Was it a good idea, asked moderator Chris Zurawsky, to have two challengers in this race? Ravenstahl, wisely, deferred to his opponents on that one. Both Lamb and Peduto gave the kind of answer you'd expect, touting their commitment to engaging with voters across the city and sharing their visions and whatnot. But Peduto acknowledged the problem. "I'm not going to [tell Lamb] not to run," he said. "I wish I could, but I can't.


There was also a forum -- the word "debate" would suggest much stronger contrasts than were in evidence -- for the three announced candidates for city council district 8. Activist Jeanne Clark, Peduto aide Daniel Gilman, and lawyer Sam Hens-Greco have all pledged not to run negative campaigns, and held to that pledge. The strongest, if not the only, substantive disagreement between them involved the city's outright ban on drilling for natural gas within city limits. Jeanne Clark had harsh words for the ban, which council passed in 2010. The ban, she said, was "something that made people feel good," but that consumed energy that might have been better spent on advocacy at the state level. Echoing earlier remarks by Ravenstahl and Lamb, she argued that the ban was not constitutional, and that city officials ought to focus on using the city's zoning code to enhance public safety, should the ban be tossed out. Hens-Greco, too, supported stronger zoning, though he added he would leave the ban in place to give the city leverage in the absence of other protection. Gilman offered the only full-throated defense of the ban.

But even this disagreement may not be terribly significant. After the forum, Clark said she "would not be leading the fight against" the ban, though she would be "leery" of paying the court costs necessary to defend it. And Gilman said he'd be in favor of tightening up zoning rules as well -- when and if the judicial system decides local governments have the power to do so at all. (The state's Act 13 sharply curtails the power of local officials to regulate zoning, though local governments have sued to overturn the law.)

In the end, the sharpest distinctions between the candidates boiled down to style. Clark touted her advocacy on environmental and women's issues; Gilman touted his work in the trenches of city council, where he serves as Peduto's aid. Hens-Greco, meanwhile, pledged to propose a series of initiatives – including a plan for city councilors and other officials to give up reserved parking spots next door to the City County Building. Hens-Greco argued that if those spots were metered and opened to the public, it could generate $360,000 a year.

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