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Monday, January 12, 2009

Transparent Motives

Posted By on Mon, Jan 12, 2009 at 6:35 PM

Today, county executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced their new campaign-finance reform measure. And guess what? For a bill that's supposed to increase transparency, it's pretty murky.

Partly that's because they didn't even have the legislation in hand for their press conference today. But we'll get to that in a moment. 

I'll leave it to others to discuss the proposed contribution limits, and the constant fretting over the "millionaire's exception" --  how to deal with candidates who finance their own campaigns. For some reason, that stuff seems to obsess everyone, despite the dearth of millionaires running for local office.

Instead, I'll focus on a few other wrinkles in the legislation proposed. 

First, both Ravenstahl and Onorato want identical rules for both county- and city-level candidates."We want to see that both pieces of legislation pass identically," Ravenstahl said. When it came to councilors proposing amendments, "I don't want to rule anything out, but we would hope that our councils ... would understand the important of having a mirror-image [pair of bills]. We hope that they will adopt [the legislation] as submitted." 

The Pittsburgh Comet, and maybe some others as well, see this as a good thing. I'm not so sure. Insisting on parallel bills could constrain legislative efforts to improve the bills. Onorato pledged he "would be prepared to veto a [county] bill that had significant changes that I thought were unfair." And Ravenstahl, clearly, wouldn't sign a city measure if Onorato couldn't get what he wanted. Both executives, then, could hold each other's legislators hostage. In order to toughen a bill, councilors might be obliged to reach an agreement with both executives and the other legislative body. Good luck with that.

Second, none of these rules would apply to Ravenstahl's mayoral race this year. Ravenstahl portrayed this as an issue of fairness -- to his opponents. They, after all, would not be held to the limits in trying to compete with him. 

But before we get too worked up over this angle, it's worth noting that to the surprise of -- um, nobody whatsoever -- Patrick Dowd is publically weighing a mayoral run himself. So is Doug Shields. This is great news for Luke Ravenstahl, who can only be helped by a fratricidal struggle between East Enders. Who needs friends -- even friends with big checkbooks -- when you have enemies like these?

Third, Onorato and Ravenstahl had no specific legislation to show today. They promised a bill would be forthcoming Thursday, which is nice. But even so ... Ravenstahl vetoed a campaign-finance measure proposed by City Council in June -- half a year ago. He pledged to come up with an alternative measure at the time, but for months we heard nothing. Now, all the sudden it's necessary to hold a press conference TODAY? They couldn't even wait an extra couple days when they had an actual bill in hand?

If nothing else, this is a nice way to get a two-day bounce out of a story -- coverage of the press conference today, followed by news of the bill's actual language later in the week. But one wonders whether this is the latest example of a by-now familiar pattern with Ravenstahl: Wander into some sort of ethical minefield, blow your foot off by stepping in something ugly, and then try to bail yourself out by announcing "reforms" -- reforms that wouldn't have been necessary if you'd had been a bit more discrete about gaming the old rules.

The latest Ravenstahl headache, of course, concerns Club Pittsburgh, a gay "fitness club" where a patron died recently, touching off allegations that the city ignored sexual activity taking place there: The club's owners have contributed to Ravenstahl and other city officials.

Finally, I realize I'm the only one who gives a damn, but the county was supposed to have campaign contributions posted on an online, searchable database in 2007. At today's press conference, Onorato said that was a goal, but we're going to have to wait a little longer. At the press conference, Onorato said "we're not prepared to roll out" any legislation or action on creating an online, searchable database. "We hope to do that sometime in 2009," he said, but "we'll deal with that on a different day.

As I've written before, in 2003 the county passed a law requiring that this system be set up in January of 2007. Onorato didn't mention that, and reporters didn't point it out.

I'm glad to see the issue getting some attention. Still, it's ironic that we begin this reform effort by stepping around our failure to complete the last reform effort. Let's hope that's not an omen for what's to come.

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