City Government

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Protesters turn out for city's opening case in police contract arbitration

Posted By on Thu, May 7, 2015 at 3:24 PM

Protesters gathered outside the City-County Building this morning. - PHOTO BY ALEX ZIMMERMAN
  • Photo by Alex Zimmerman
  • Protesters gathered outside the City-County Building this morning.
City officials began their presentation this morning on what they believe to be a fair contract with the police union — and, as expected, their argument focused mostly on the city's financially distressed status and the need for long-term fiscal responsibility.

But before the city's lawyers began, about 14 protesters stood outside the City-County Building Downtown demanding a more transparent disciplinary process and a tougher Citizen Police Review Board, and that officers be required to live in the city (a requirement that's currently in litigation).

The protest, organized by We Change Pittsburgh, hit on issues that have so far been absent from the arbitration proceedings. "Police officers are given the authority to perpetrate violence, and therefore should be subject to more exacting public scrutiny," says Bret Grote, a 33-year-old protester, surrounded by chants of "from Baltimore to NYC, end police brutality!"

"[We're] protesting for discipline and accountability in these contract negotiations," adds Celeste Scott, one of the protest's organizers. 

  • Photo by Alex Zimmerman
In the past, the Peduto administration has indicated it is interested in a reformed disciplinary process as part of a new contract. City Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge told City Paper that the city plans to make a presentation on disciplinary issues in the next few days of arbitration proceedings. 

But back up on the sixth floor, at least in the morning session, the administration's arguments focused mostly on debunking the FOP's claim that the arbitration panel could award a contract that is more favorable than what is allowed under laws that govern the city's financially distressed status. (Because, as the union argues, the city shouldn't be classified as distressed in the first place.)

"This isn't a trial on Act 47," the law that governs financially distressed municipalities, argued Gretchen Love, a private lawyer hired by the city to argue its case. The FOP "[doesn't] like the process. There was never an intention to work with the city."

Because contract negotiations between the city and union never resulted in an agreement, decisions about the contract go to binding arbitration, a process in which a three-member panel ultimately breaks the gridlock. Today marked the city's first day of arguments and expert testimony. The FOP made its case over the past month.

The city argued that 71 percent of its overall expenses come from wages and benefits, a number that will only rise. "It is increasing because of cost drivers like wages, health care, pensions and post-retirement health," Love says. "Any additional wage increase or benefit enhancement ... just exacerbates this problem."

As the city's presentation was underway, Mayor Bill Peduto chimed in with a statement of his own. "The only impact that these proceedings have relative to the City’s financial success is whether it assists the City in regaining its financial health, or whether it attempts to push the City back to the same place it was in 2004. It is that simple, and important," Peduto's statement reads in part.

"The City cannot tax its way to financial sustainability, sell more assets, further reduce services that are already cut to the bone, or keep ignoring investments in our infrastructure. If we did, the City we share would die."

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Artisan Tattoo on Penn Avenue vows to keep moving forward as Indiegogo campaign winds down

Posted By on Mon, Apr 27, 2015 at 2:40 PM

A banner that reads "Keep Artisan Alive" hangs on Artisan Tattoo's facade along Penn Avenue in Garfield. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
  • Photo by Ashley Murray
  • A banner that reads "Keep Artisan Alive" hangs on Artisan Tattoo's facade along Penn Avenue in Garfield.

With less than 24 hours to go on its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to pay for renovations, the owners of Artisan Tattoo still need to raise about half of their $87,200 goal.

"The money that we raised made the situation go from impossible to just really hard," says Meliora Angst, co-owner of Artisan.

Meliora and her husband Jason Angst are raising money to keep their business "alive" after being told they'd need to do costly renovations to keep their Garfield business up to code.

Owners Jason and Meliora Angst - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
  • Photo by Ashley Murray
  • Owners Jason and Meliora Angst
The couple purchased the Penn Avenue building in 2012 and say they have since been trying to navigate the city's zoning laws for their vision of a three-story commercial business,  which will eventually include a cafe in addition to the tattoo studio and art galleries. When a new inspector nixed the approvals of an initial inspector, the process became confusing and expensive, the Angsts say — a situation they described for City Paper last month. And now they say, they're required to spend more than $60,000 on building a new three-story fire escape, as well as almost $30,000 on renovating several bathrooms to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Tim McNulty, a spokesperson for the city, told CP last month that Artisan did not contact the city to have its 2014 renovations approved and was operating its business in the building before it was allowed.

"As with everything, the city has to balance business needs with safety," McNulty told CP.

The new inspector gave the couple a six-month temporary occupancy permit, so that the business could stay open during construction.

"[The fundraising campaign] bought us time," Angst says.

Angst says the city still has to process some paperwork before their six months officially begins.

"We’ve got half the money, so that’s great," Angst says. "We can figure the rest out on the way."

Angst says after Indiegogo takes its cut of the campaign money (crowdfunding platforms often take a percentage) and they pay for their "perks" promised to donors, they'll have about $30,000, which she says is enough to buy all of the construction materials.

Also, rather than cash, Angst says, some construction companies donated free labor and other organizations donated free space for fundraising events. She says a few more monetary donations could pan out before the deadline tonight.

"We're continuing to build with the money that we raised, while also continuing to work really hard," Angst says. "We have plans A, B, C and D. We're just waiting to see what works out."

Video by Ashley Murray

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Police union gives opening arbitration presentation, compares Act 47 to "crack for mayors"

Posted By on Wed, Apr 8, 2015 at 6:12 PM

Police union slide - PHOTO BY ALEX ZIMMERMAN
  • Photo by Alex Zimmerman
  • Police union slide
In a roughly four-hour opening presentation this afternoon, attorney Richard Poulson sketched the framework for what will be the police union's major argument in contract arbitration: that the city is more financially solvent than its "financially distressed" status makes it seem and can afford to pay officers more and increase other benefits.

"If you came down from Mars, you would have no idea this city is distressed," said Poulson, an attorney at Willig, Williams & Davidson and outside counsel for the union.

Poulson said the union would not put forward "a specific wage proposal" but was looking for "fair raises over the course of the contract that reflect the skill and risk involved in policing."

Negotiations between the police union and the city over the past several months have stalled. (This morning, for instance, the parties couldn't even agree where to hold the arbitration sessions.) And since public-safety unions aren't legally allowed to strike, a three-panel arbitration panel is charged with making a final decision on the contract when traditional negotiations don't yield a deal. The panel will hear 10 days of testimony: five from the union and five from the city — and for the first time, those proceedings are public and being held at Downtown's DoubleTree hotel.

Much of Poulson's opening argument hinged on an interpretation of Act 47, a state oversight program for financially distressed cities like Pittsburgh that, among other things, creates a financial-oversight mechanism that can dial back what municipalities spend in labor contracts.

At one point, Poulson said that Act 47 "is like crack for mayors," because of the limits it imposes, adding Mayor Bill Peduto "loves it."

A lawyer representing the city, in a formal objection to the focus of Poulson's overall presentation, said, "We're not here to put [the] Act 47 plan on trial."

The city's current Act 47 plan establishes a cap of a 7 percent raise over five years, Poulson said. But because of amendments to the law that allow for exceptions to the cap if it is "arbitrary, capricious and imposed in bad faith," Poulson said the panel could exceed that number.

Mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty says he will leave it to city lawyers to respond to claims made about Act 47, but characterized the union's testimony as "hyperbole and platitudes that were devoid of facts."

The city, he added, is "going to show that the city is progressing financially and isn't out of the woods yet."

The last police contract, which took effect in 2010, included a 9.5 percent salary increase over five years and a signing bonus of $2,000; the 2005 contract included a two-year wage freeze, but a 7.5 percent raise over five years, according to Poulson. The current base salary for a first-year officer is $42,548 (close to half of the nearly 900-member force earns at least $63,514, McNulty says).

Though the union isn't a seeking a specific percentage raise, it argues that a 40 percent salary increase would put city officers only in the middle of the pack among county police departments (though the union acknowledged that it is not likely to get an increase close to that number). The union reiterated its arguments that past salary increases aren't significant enough to retain officers, who often leave for higher-paying jobs outside the city.

"Morale in this department is in the basement," Paulson said. "This used to be the job. Today, it feels like the job of last resort."

The union's presentation will resume tomorrow at 9 a.m. at the DoubleTree.

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Key Obama Campaign Consultant Speaks at Hill House Tomorrow

Posted By on Wed, Apr 8, 2015 at 1:40 PM

Michael Slaby, who guided online and social-media strategies in both of Barack Obama’s presidential runs, speaks tomorrow night as part of the Green Building Alliance’s Inspire Speakers Series.

Michael Slaby
  • Michael Slaby
Joining him are Debra Lam, chief innovation & performance officer for the City of Pittsburgh, and emcee Andrew Butcher, co-founder and CEO of Pittsburgh’s G-TECH strategies.

Slaby is a consultant who uses technology and social media to address social challenges. In addition to Obama for America, Slaby has worked for organizations including F*ck Cancer, LiveStrong, and Bright Pink, and for the United Nations and the U.S. State Department. Currently, he is a managing partner of Timshel, a new company.

The GBA, which promotes more sustainable architecture and construction practices, says Slaby’s talk will address how to “inspire a diverse and inclusive movement to transform our region into a thriving place from the ground up.”

Also speaking is Lam, a Pittsburgh native with an international resume that 
Debra Lam
  • Debra Lam
includes stints in New York, China and the U.K. She has worked as a project manager and policy consultant at Arup, a global consulting and design firm, and has done strategy work with clients including the World Bank. In her current position, she works to make city government more efficient, open, transparent and responsive.

The event takes place from 5-8 p.m. tomorrow at the Hillman Auditorium. The Hill House is located at 1825 Centre Ave., in the Hill District.

Tickets are $20 and are available here. The evening includes beer, wine and food as well as networking opportunities.

Other Inspire Speakers Series co-sponsors include Chatham University and Sustainable Pittsburgh.

BREAKING: City/police contract arbitration to happen in more comfortable, climate-controlled environs

Posted By on Wed, Apr 8, 2015 at 11:15 AM

For readers eagerly awaiting news from contract arbitration between the city and police union — which is open to the media for the first time and will surely include titillating discussion of pensions and municipal budget priorities — you'll be glad to learn that discussion this morning focused on climate control, proper seating and brightness of the AV equipment.

In private negotiating sessions with a neutral arbitrator this morning, the police union successfully argued that the room's stuffiness and limited seating warranted a move to the DoubleTree Hotel. The blue plastic seating, joked FOP lawyer Bryan Campbell, looked like something you could buy at "Kmart for $10."

Police union president Howard McQuillan agreed that the room should match the professionalism of the presentation and said that the police union would pay for the accommodations. The neutral  arbitrator had previously ruled arbitration proceedings would happen on the sixth floor of the City-County building, but was apparently not interested in sweating it out, either.

For a peak at the non-temperature related issues under discussion in the police contract, check out our preview here. And for those of you following along at home, or are hoping the police union will also foot the bill for an open bar, the union's presentation is set to begin at the DoubleTree at 12:30 p.m.

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Thursday, April 2, 2015

UPDATE: Police union invites media to contract arbitration

Posted By on Thu, Apr 2, 2015 at 2:50 PM

After months of stalled contract negotiations, the union that represents city police officers announced this afternoon that it is inviting media organizations to attend arbitration hearings that are typically not open for to the public.

The announcement comes less than a week before city and union officials are set to appear before an arbitration panel, according to Howard McQuillan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, the union representing city officers.

The statement, released to City Paper minutes ago, reads in part: "Mayor Peduto has publicly suggested that the Act 111 arbitration process should be a transparent one. FOP Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 supports the concept of open hearings, so we are notifying local media. We will not object to your presence during the hearings (we do not know whether the City will object). Our only request is that you not video or audio tape the actual hearings, but instead take written notes. FOP representatives will be available on site for comment before and after the hearings."

"The mayor says he wants a transparent process," McQuillan told City Paper. "We agree it's something the public should see from the beginning to the end."

Through a spokeswoman, the mayor released a statement which reads: "We welcome and encourage the media to attend all police union bargaining sessions, and we look forward to open and honest discussions for the betterment of our police officers and our entire city."

Since the police union is not legally allowed to strike, contract-negotiation deadlocks are resolved by a tripartite arbitration panel, with one representative each from the union and city — and one "neutral" arbitrator. That panel's final decisions are binding.

similar arbitration process can be initiated when the city and union disagree over discipline, but McQuillan says those shouldn't be public because they involve the disciplinary records of individual officers.

McQuillan says four negotiating sessions with the city haven't yielded an agreement and the first session in front of an arbitration panel is set for April 8. The police contract expired at the end of 2014.

The city did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the status of contract negotiations.

Members of the law-enforcement community differed on whether hearings in front of the arbitration panel should be open to public scrutiny. 

"I think the public has a right to know what’s being discussed," says Robert McNeilly, a former Pittsburgh police chief who was interviewed before the FOP's announcement this afternoon. "It’s in the citizen’s best interest. If a decision’s made and nobody ever knows what was discussed or why a decision was made — everybody’s in the dark.”

Sheldon Williams, an officer with city police until 2011 and current member of the Citizen Police Review Board, says  that "there needs to be some element of confidentiality there." He argues that for the neutral arbitrator to "make a fair decision," it makes sense not to have every step of the negotiating process aired publicly.

The police union's full statement here:

To Pittsburgh Local Media:

On behalf of Pittsburgh’s active and retired police officers, I would like to invite you to attend our upcoming Act 111 interest arbitration hearings between the City of Pittsburgh and FOP Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1. Those hearings will result in an interest arbitration award that will set the terms of a new Pittsburgh police CBA for the period beginning January 1, 2015.

The FOP’s presentation will take place on April 8, 9, 13, 14 and 23 at the Double Tree Hotel located at One Bigelow Square, Pittsburgh, PA 15219. Hearings are scheduled to begin at 10:00 a.m. each day.

Mayor Peduto has publicly suggested that the Act 111 arbitration process should be a transparent one. FOP Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 supports the concept of open hearings, so we are notifying local media. We will not object to your presence during the hearings (we do not know whether the City will object). Our only request is that you not video or audio tape the actual hearings, but instead take written notes. FOP representatives will be available on site for comment before and after the hearings.

We look forward to including you in this process and hope to see you there.



                                                                                         Howard D. McQuillan,

                                                                                         President FOP Fort Pitt Lodge#1

This post was updated on 4/2/15 at 4:15 p.m. to add a statement from Mayor Bill Peduto.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Auditor General, Mayor call for pension reform

Posted By on Wed, Nov 5, 2014 at 5:11 PM

At a press conference timed to follow last night's election, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Mayor Bill Peduto today announced the launch of an audit of the city's pension plans for firefighters, police and other municipal employees.

While the pension audit is one done regularly by the auditor general's office, DePasquale and Peduto used the opportunity to talk about the city's dire pension outlook and call on newly elected representatives to help solve the state-wide crisis.

"People want to have safe streets, enough cops to protect your streets, communities that are safe from fire because you have enough firefighters," said DePasquale. "The only way cities are going to be able to afford that is to get their pension costs under control and there's going to have to be help from Harrisburg."

Of the 1,218 municipalities throughout the state, 573, including Pittsburgh, are distressed and underfunded. Pittsburgh was ranked number two on a list of the top 25 municipalities with the largest unfunded pension liabilities.

"What we've seen is a loss within the asset, some of it due to market condition, some of it due to a lack of adequate investment," said Peduto. "Bringing about a systematic change in our pension system is absolutely required not just for Pittsburgh but for every other older city throughout the state of Pennsylvania."

According to the auditor general's office, Pittsburgh has an underfunded pension liability of $485 million. Throughout the state, the pension liability totals $6.7 billion.

In addition to illustrating the state's pension problem, DePasquale also detailed a number of possible solutions. These include establishing consistent member contributions, updates that account for the population's increased life expectancy, and excluding overtime and lump-sum leave payments from pension benefits.

"This is about protecting people's retirements. These changes have to occur," Peduto says. "At the end of the day if we go bankrupt there's no money to give anyone, not only the employees of today but the employees of the future."

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

City reaches agreement with Penguins on lower Hill District development

Posted By on Tue, Sep 9, 2014 at 1:48 PM

After months of community meetings, today the city announced they'd reached an agreement with the Pittsburgh Penguins on development of the 28-acre lower Hill District site.

"It's goal is to build transformational wealth for the residents of the greater Hill District," said Mayor Bill Peduto.

From left: Kevin Acklin, Bill Peduto, Daniel Lavelle and Travis Williams
  • From left: Kevin Acklin, Bill Peduto, Daniel Lavelle and Travis Williams

Among the agreement's highlights is the creation of a tax increment financing district in the Hill District, which will be the largest in the city. It will generate from $22 to $50 million of investment from the development's tax revenue for the Hill District.

Local leaders said they hoped the agreement could begin to reverse decades of disinvestment in the Hill District that began with the original development of the Civic Arena, which has since been demolished to make room for the new development.

"We do have two Pittsburghs," said Kevin Acklin, the mayor's chief of staff. "We have neighborhoods in the city that haven't seen investment and development in generations."

The TIF funds can potentially be used for neighborhood improvement and investment like residential facade grants, grants for down payment and closing cost assistance, and street and utility improvements. The city said the agreement also has the highest level of commitment to minority and women business enterprise participation in the city.

"When we did the arena project it was a lot of hard work, but we found a way to work with the community and we came up with the community benefits agreement," said Penguins COO Travis Williams. "I think we've shown again that this city and this community and these corporations and foundations know how to come together to make something good happen."

But while the agreement promises millions of dollars of investment for the greater Hill District, it does not meet the community's desire for 30 percent of the development's residential units to be affordable housing.

"The community hasn't even had a chance to see it let alone say whether they support it or not" said Carl Redwood, a community organizer with the Hill District Consensus Group, who interrupted a press conference earlier today where the agreement was announced. "We have the power in the community. We can stop the whole development."

Out of the 1100 residential units planned, 20 percent will be affordable housing. Of these units, 15 percent will be affordable for families and individuals making 80 percent of the area median income, 2.5 percent will be at 70 percent area median income, and 2.5 percent will be at 60 percent area median income.

This plan includes, greater levels of affordability than what was originally proposed by the Penguins: 20 percent affordable housing at 80 percent area median income. Rental rates could be as low as $600.

"The economic reality of being able to get to 30 percent, the reality is the dollars to fill those gaps are limited, so this was based on an analysis of what was achievable," said Hill District councilman Daniel Lavelle.

While Lavelle admitted he didn't get everything he wanted out of the agreement, he said there will be a variety of opportunities for Hill District residents. Future efforts will focus on training individuals to be able to work on the site and building capacity in small businesses in order for them to occupy the site.

"I agree with Councilman Lavelle, you're never going to get everything you want in negotiation," said Mark Lewis, president of the POISE Foundation. "But I think we've heard things in the past about minority participation limits set for the stadiums that did not come to fruition, so we have to wait and see what the commitments are really going to be to make the opportunities available for those in the Hill District."

Work on the site will begin in the next six to nine months.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Rev. Jesse Jackson brings campaign for voting rights amendment to Pittsburgh

Posted By on Mon, Sep 8, 2014 at 5:17 PM

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto says the United States is among 11 nations who elect public officials but do not guarantee citizens the right to vote. Today, he joined Rev. Jesse Jackson and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in advocating for a constitutional amendment that would protect the right to vote.

"It's time for the United States to join the rest of the world in supporting its citizens," Peduto said.

From left: Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bill Peduto, and Rich Fitzgerald
  • From left: Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bill Peduto, and Rich Fitzgerald

Pittsburgh is the second city to come out in support of a constitutional amendment. In August, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and the Cincinnati city council led the way by passing a resolution endorsing the addition of a voting rights amendment.

Earlier today, Rev. Jackson met with Pittsburgh city council to urge them to pass a similar resolution.

"All Americans should have the fundamental constitutional right to vote," Jackson said. "Most people really think they have that right now, but they don't. Each state has its own set of rules on elections."

Jackson's campaign is in response to the August 2013 Supreme Court decision that invalidated a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring federal approval of election law changes in areas with a history of voter discrimination. The next step will be to encourage members of congress to sign on to H.J. Resoltuion 34, which would amend the constitution and allow congress to develop a national election system.

Fitzgerald, along with county council president John DeFazio also committed to passing a resolution in support of the amendment.

"This was brought to our attention in many ways a couple of years ago when our state legislature tried to suppress the vote and deny people's right to vote," Fitzgerald said.

Pennsylvania was one of at least 25 states who in the past few years proposed legislation requiring people to present photo identification when voting or expanding established voter ID laws. The local law was passed in 2012 but later struck down in January 2014.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

City ignores, then rejects CPRB recommendation to fire officer who was found to have violated police policies

Posted By on Fri, Aug 29, 2014 at 5:05 PM

Back in March, I wrote a story about the years of neglect foisted upon the Citizen Police Review Board, and the hopes some police accountability experts had that the Peduto administration might take civilian oversight of law enforcement more seriously than his predecessors.

And while it's probably still too early to tell exactly how seriously the CPRB will be taken by Peduto and the new yet-to-be-named permanent police chief, there's now at least one high-profile case in which the CPRB's recommendation to fire an officer who arrested a teacher outside a community meeting is being largely ignored by the city.

That case involves Dennis Henderson, who was arrested by Pittsburgh officer Jonathan Gromek outside a Community Empowerment Association meeting last summer. Henderson claims there was no apparent reason for his arrest other than commenting on Gromek's driving as he drove down the street in his cruiser, which led to a verbal confrontation that quickly escalated.

In November, based on findings from the city's Office of Municipal Investigations that Gromek had violated bureau policy, the city appeared to settle on a written reprimand as the appropriate punishment.

But the CPRB reached a very different conclusion, recommending instead that Gromek be suspended for five days pending termination for actions the review board deemed "egregious."

And while the CPRB's recommendations are not binding, the police chief or mayor are required by law to respond to the CPRB within 30 days and either accept the board's recommendations or explain why they shouldn't.

In this case, interim chief Regina McDonald didn't respond specifically to the CPRB's recommendations issued March 26 until July 8. And even though she agreed with the CPRB's finding that Gromek violated bureau policies on proper conduct and incompetency (though disagreed with their rationale without explanation), she wrote, "No action will be taken based on CPRB's findings and recommendations" beyond action the bureau has already taken based on OMI's investigation.

Asked why McDonald did not respond to the specific recommendations until over three months after she received them, police spokesperson Sonya Toler wrote, "OMI investigated and the police bureau took appropriate action." She did not elaborate. Officer Gromek is currently assigned to Zone 3.

Mayoral spokesperson Tim McNulty did not respond to an email asking how seriously the CPRB's recommendations should be taken or whether Peduto believes Gromek should continue to serve on the force.

CPRB executive director Beth Pittinger says she isn't surprised by the city's response.

"The acting chief of police is from the old school," Pittinger says, adding that the timing of CPRB investigations often comes well after the city has already made a recommendation for discipline, which happened in this case. "I think we are all anxious for a chief of police to take the reigns so we can get out of this holding pattern."

Jerome Jackson, a witness to the incident and executive director of Operation Better Block, said the rejection of civilian recommendations only worsens the community's perception of the police department.

"Unless the CPRB is taken seriously and its recommendations are taken seriously, what good is it?" he asks. "It doesn't help community-police relations."

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