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Monday, January 6, 2014

Progressives take the helm at Pittsburgh City Council

Posted By on Mon, Jan 6, 2014 at 12:30 PM

Bill Peduto's swearing-in ceremony won't come until this afternoon. But so far, it's all going according to the progressives' plan.

There were few surprises at Pittsburgh City Council's reorganizational meeting this morning. Bruce Kraus became council's first openly gay council president by a 7-2 vote that followed the swearing-in of new member Dan Gilman, along with that of returning councilors Theresa Kail-Smith, Natalia Rudiak and Daniel Lavelle.

Unlike in previous years, the moment was largely devoid of drama: There were no other nominations for the presidency, and Kraus' allies had been saying for weeks that they had at least six votes lined up -- those of established progressives Rudiak, Gilman, Deb Gross, and Kraus himself, plus potential swing votes Corey O'Connor and Theresa Kail-Smith. Joining with that group in backing Kraus today was Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District. His vote was perhaps the only question mark going into today's meeting.

Darlene Harris, Kraus' predecessor as council president, voted "no," as did Ricky Burgess, a longtime foe of Peduto and his allies on council.

And as is council's tradition, Kraus then assigned his colleagues to chair council's various committees. The plum spot, chairing the city's Law and Finance committee, went to Rudiak. Kail-Smith captured the public-works spot, while Lavelle will be the public-safety chair.

Lavelle previously chaired council's committee on land use and development, a post Kraus handed over to Gross. The move may have implications for a controversial development project by the Buncher company in the Strip District. Gross has been warier of Buncher's plans, supporting an effort to nominate a produce terminal as a historic structure -- a status Buncher opposes. Lavelle has opposed the nomination.

But the big loser is Burgess, who formally held the Law and Finance chair, but has to content himself with heading up the Human Resources committee -- perhaps the least desirable slot. (It was previously held by Peduto himself, when he was part of a council minority.)

Burgess left council chambers shortly after the meeting ended. Harris said she voted against Kraus because of concerns about his attendance at official council gatherings. "Most of the time, he's in his district having meetings [during council conclaves]," she said. "I think these are critically important." She also raised concerns about whether council could be independent, considering the close allegiance between Kraus and Peduto.

During public remarks, Kraus took pains to counter concerns the legislature would be a rubber-stamp: He emphasized that "Bill and I understand how very important it is [for council] to be an independent body ... and at the same time to keep the doors open [and] have a true cooperative relationship." Asked by reporters about Harris' concerns regarding his attendance, Kraus chuckled and said "I stand by my record." As for his status as council's first openly gay president, Kraus said his ascension "speaks volumes for the city of Pittsburgh, and how diverse and inclusive we are."

As council president, Kraus earns a spot on a city pension board that could help Peduto reverse a move made in the waning hours of Luke Ravenstahl's term: a bid to change actuarial assumptions in the city's pension plan, which could raise the city's pension contributions by millions of dollars a year. Kraus said he hadn't been briefed on the issue, and couldn't say how he'd vote.

But in the meantime, Peduto's friends on council were basking in their victory. During remarks following the swearing-in, Kail-Smith largely thanked her supporters, including a host of Democratic committeepeople, while Lavelle, who has long been on the outs with Peduto, urged his colleagues that "we have to invest in the least among us." Rudiak, however, sounded a triumphal note. When she'd been sworn in for her first term four years ago, she noted, she'd called for "a reawakening" -- and "you have delivered."

"The American Dream," she added, "is being reborn in the next great American city."

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