Thursday, December 17, 2009

News of interest to bloggers, part 1

Posted By on Thu, Dec 17, 2009 at 8:40 AM

As a companion to my story on the upcoming Post-Gazette labor talks, I hope to have a bit more on the PG+ experiment later today. But in the meantime, I wanted to flag a story (which I first spotted over on Blog-Lebo):

Forward Township supervisor sues Web site users

The lede:

A Forward Township supervisor whose character has been attacked in anonymous posts on a local online discussion board has filed a lawsuit over the matter.

Township Board of Supervisors Chairman Tom DeRosa has filed a complaint in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court against some of the anonymous site users, identified in the suit as Howard and Robin Doe.

"They're spreading a lot of lies about me on the Web site," DeRosa said of his reasons for bringing the action. "I'm going to find out who they are."

Well, don't say you weren't warned (mostly in the comments section). I was wondering whether Luke Ravenstahl's decision to hire Philly attorney Richard Sprague might be the opening salvo on online discourse ... but it looks like a township supervisor beat him to the bunch.

For bloggers, the bottom line is this: Federal law effectively precludes you from libel suits based on what other people post on your Web site. (See here for more details, or the comments section of the earlier post linked above.) But you could find yourself served with a subpoena, demanding that you turn over ISP addresses and other identifying information about the people who post on your site. 

This is, in fact, exactly what happened at the site in question, elizabethboro.com. Site operator Richard S. Rattani has given notice to his posters here.

I'm no lawyer -- perhaps Mike Madison would care to weigh in on this -- but this challenge looks like it deserves to be taken seriously. Bloggers and commenters alike should pay attention. The internet is less anonymous than it feels, folks.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Not Your Average Joe

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2009 at 6:35 AM

I've got no idea who the Democratic gubernatorial nominee is going to be next year. But it's pretty clear who's gonna win the hearts of progressives: Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel.

For one thing, the dude gave a conference call to bloggers this week (which is nicely covered by the Pittsburgh Comet). For another, he's got Adlai Stevenson's hairline. 

adlai.jpg

hoeffel.jpg

But mostly, Hoeffel's appeal is his position on ... well ... just about everything, as an interview with City Paper suggests.

Gay marriage? "I'm in favor of marriage equality. I feel very strongly that we're all equal in the eyes of God, and our job is to ensure that the laws treat people that way."

Government reform? Hoeffel supports campaign-finance limits (though he won't "disarm unilaterally" by imposing them on himself in 2010) and a raft of other changes. 

The environment? Hoeffel favors a 5 percent extraction tax on natural gas drilled in the Marcellus Shale. Proceeds will be used to remediate the environmental damage wrought by the drilling (whose effects our very own Bill O'Driscoll wrote about earlier this year).

Pittsburgh's financial problems? Hoeffel favors giving the city power to levy a tax on commuters, based on a percentage of the income they earn within the city -- just like Philly has had for years. He's also open to expanding the payroll preparation tax to non-profits (which was what Mayor Tom Murphy first proposed, by the way). "Some of those non-profits make a lot of money, and they have to give something back," Hoeffel says. 

"Pittsburgh needs to deal with its problems, and the state has to give it more authority to raise revenue," he adds.

Infrastructure? Hoeffel wants to increase investment in mass transit, as well as investing in highway construction and repair. Where will the money come from? By tolling I-80 -- hell, the guy favors gay marriage; he ain't getting any votes along that stretch of road anyway -- and doubling the gas tax. 

You can check out much of his platform at his campaign Web site, of course. But yeah, the guy believes strongly in a government role in job creation and education. He'd build on Rendell's more successful initiatives -- like his early-childhood education programs -- while trying to avoid some of his shortcomings. ("One quality I have and Rendell doesn't is, I like legislators," says Hoeffel, who has served in the state House and in Congress.)

And it's not just the policies that make Hoeffel appealing: It's the pride with which he proclaims them. 

That said, I can't help but worry that such candor is gonna get Hoeffel crucified ... a prospect he seems almost touchingly unconcerned about. Asked about how doubling the gas tax would go over, for example, Hoeffel conceded, "People and legislators will object to that at first blush." No doubt. In fact, my guess is the second blush would be on the faces of Cranberry Republicans, standing with pitchforks along the banks of the Susquehanna, their faces further reddened by the flames of burning effigies. 

 

As proof of his ability to reach across the aisle, Hoeffel notes that he's one-half of a bipartisan coalition running Montgomery County. But that says as much about his GOP counterpart, Jim Matthews, as it does about Hoeffel. Probably more. Republicans out in the Philly suburbs tend to be socially moderate. Republicans from other parts of the state, by contrast, tend to be more batshit insane. It's hard to imagine Daryl Metcalfe, the pride of Cranberry, joining with Hoeffel to raise the gas tax, or support marriage equality. Hell, it's hard to imagine a lot of Democrats out here doing that.

But on the bright side, the things that might make it hard for Hoeffel to govern could make it easier to win.

The political calculus is pretty straightforward: Tom Corbett, the runaway favorite to be the GOP's candidate, is from the Pittsburgh area. So he'll be tough in the west and, by virtue of being a Republican, likely to command the rural parts of the state. Democrats' best hope, the logic goes, is to play to their strengths by locking up Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. And you don't appeal to those areas by being a socially conservative old-school Dem toting a Pittsburgh accent ... so maybe Dan Onorato and state auditor general Jack Wagner aren't the winning ticket.

"The political fact is that Democrats have to win the suburbs of Philadelphia," Hoeffel says.

That's the theory, anyway. And Hoeffel has some polling data -- which he paid for -- to suggest he has a shot. A mid-September poll compiled for his campaign suggests that among likely Democratic voters, Hoeffel ekes out 15 percent of the vote statewide. That's slightly more than Onorato or Wagner poll ... though it's all within the survey's 3.5 percent margin of error, and anyway fully half of voters say they are undecided. The main factor is Hoeffel's strong showing in the Philly area, where Hoeffel has nearly a third of voters.

On the other hand, every indication is that Rendell -- who's still popular in the Philly area if nowhere else -- is backing Onorato in this race. Be interesting to see whether that changes the dynamic out East.

But no matter what happens, at least there's a candidate for progressives to get excited about. How often does that happen in a statewide race? 

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Up the Tubes

Posted By on Tue, Dec 15, 2009 at 12:40 PM

Been a little remiss with the blogging, I admit: The "Best of" issue always makes me want to throw myself off a bridge. But I've been meaning to write a post like this for a little while now, and finally have an excuse.

I've always thought that one of the best, and most overlooked, blogs in town is the Tube City Almanac, authored by Jason Togyer.  Togyer is a former reporter, having worked at the Pittsburgh-Tribune Review and other publications. So maybe it's no surprise that, probably more than any other blog in town, the Almanac seems poised to go beyond relying on, or even merely supplementing, mainstream media.

And now it's about to take another step in that direction: Seeking 501(c)(3) status and -- brace yourself -- actually paying people for writing online news.

A few words about the Almanac for those who aren't familiar. As its name suggests, the site focuses on McKeesport, the other city in Allegheny County. Sometimes, it reports alongside the traditional press on matters like the municipal budget or the ongoing saga of a councilor nicknamed "Sluggo." Sometimes it breaks stories -- reporting well ahead of anyone else the possibility that Dish network would abandon McKeesport. Sometimes Togyer just does community news ... rah-rah stuff that doesn't get bloggers' juices flowing, but that connects a media outlet to its community. And sometimes, he just hosts a forum for that community to voice its own doubts and misgivings.

Togyer tells me he launched the site in part because "the Pittsburgh media really doesn't care about McKeesport unless we're shooting each other." There are exceptions, of course: Togyer has kinds words for the Mon Valley beat reporters at both the Trib and the Post-Gazette. But extra voices never hurt. Togyer's goal is to provide "newsmagazine-type coverage" of his community -- occasionally breaking stories, but more often shedding a different light on them. Which is why he's looking for help now.

The amount you can expect to earn as an Almanac contributor "is going to be pathetic," Togyer tells me. He estimates payments will be around $25 or $50, "and closer to the $25 end of the range ...  This is an opportunity for someone who is a student looking to put some clips together, or for someone who has retired." Still, he says, "as a writer, it's insulting to me to say, 'You should be glad just to get the exposure.' I'm a member of the National Writers Union, and quite frankly, I'd be going against the union if I didn't pay something." 

Togyer will be, to the best of my knowledge, the first local blogger to do so. Next year, he'll try to raise money not just from online ads, but from Paypal contributions and the occasional fundraiser. Initially, he's seeking about $1,000: Togyer says he has about 2,100 "semi-regular readers -- so if they each gave me 50 cents, we'd be there." He plans to take no salary of his own: "This is a part-time hobby-type gig for me," he says. "Is it sustainable as a model if I didn't have a day job? No. And that's the problem."

It's one problem, anyway. Togyer says that "other than a few e-mails saying, 'Oh, cool,' nobody has actually responded" to his online invitation. The offer has only been up for a week, of course. But I've been a little surprised that no one else -- even another blogger -- seems to have taken notice of what he's up to.

I'm just guessing here, but perhaps part of the reason is that bloggers are just as parochial as the MSM when it comes to places outside city limits. It's the curse of the hyperlocal: Sites like the Almanac, or Blog-Lebo (where, incidentally, local blogger Michael Madison has called it quits) just don't draw much attention outside the community they serve.

That worries me a little. As Togyer says, "If I can do a site like this in McKeesport, there's no reason somebody couldn't do one like it in Kitanning." But in a county of 130 different municipalities, that's counting on an awful lot of folks willing to write about borough council meetings. Lately, in fact, I've been thinking that one argument for consolidating local governments is that it would keep all the politicians all in one place. Imagine how much easier it would be -- even for the MSM -- to keep an eye on things with a streamlined government. Think how much money our cash-strapped newspapers could save in staffing if we had a one-stop-shop for political chicanery. 

But of course, that's the least of the challenges facing the news biz. I have an article coming out tomorrow in the print edition -- online Thursday -- about the dark clouds gathering around the Post-Gazette's upcoming labor talks. There are a lot of worrisome signs in the days ahead. Togyer's move is a rare bit of hope, and he can count on a bit more than 50 cents from me.

After all, someday I might be writing for him.  

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

She's b-a-a-a-a-a-ck

Posted By on Tue, Dec 8, 2009 at 2:26 PM

... Or she would be, if she'd ever left.

Tonya Payne has just sent out a press release disclosing the entirely unsurprising fact that she is running for state Legislature -- or "spread[ing] her wings and fly[ing] to a higher branch of government" as her press release puts it. While her statement doesn't mention the incumbent by name, the state House seat she is seeking belongs to Jake Wheatley.

Wheatley has long been aligned with Sala Udin, Payne's nemesis. Payne beat Udin to win her council seat, but was defeated in her reelection bid this year by a Udin protege, Dan Lavelle. The possibility that she would run against Wheatley was first raised here a month ago, and has been talked about for much longer than that.

Payne's press release goes on to say -- well, let's just reprint it below. It's a remarkable document. Note how fellow outgoing city councilor Jim Motznik manages to take a swipe at Udin. This is gonna be one classy campaign!  

Last night, City Councilwoman Tonya Payne made a formal announcement at the LeMont in Mt. Washington that she would spread her wings and fly to a higher branch of government as a contender in the race for the State House of Representative 19th Legislative District seat in the primary this coming May.

She was surrounded with over 200 attendees that included community constituents, government officials, Ward Chairs and Committee people of the Allegheny County Democratic Party, City Councilmembers, and friends and family. The entire night was filled with excitement and anticipation as guests speculated the outcome of the evenings' event. Opening guest speakers were City Councilman Jim Motznik and City Councilwoman Theresa Smith. Both speakers voiced that City Councilwoman Tonya Payne always voted and worked for what was best for her community and not what would benefit her. City Councilman Jim Motznik proudly stated that Tonya Payne accomplished more in her 4 years reign in office for her City Council District 6 than her last predecessor did over his entire 10 years on council. City Councilwoman Theresa Smith passionately spoke that Tonya's moto was always "community first." The room clapped excessively when City Councilwoman Tonya Payne took center stage. She uplifted her guests with her positive attitude, honor, drive, and integrity. She graciously thanked all the attendees for coming to tonight's special engagement and for their continued support throughout her political career.

She stated she wanted to share with them an important step in her next journey. Her motivational passage that she shared with her guests was "when one door closes, one must open, and in this case, the door that shall open shall be bigger and far better." At the end of City Councilwoman Tonya Payne's speech, she reached over to the front of her podium, and in a dramatic fashion she ripped down a white sheet of paper to unveil her navy blue and gold poster that proudly displayed TONYA PAYNE STATE REPRESENTATIVE. City Councilwoman

Tonya Payne then formally announced, "I, Tonya Payne, am officially running for the State House of Representatives, representing the 19th Legislative District, and I wanted to share this defining moment with my family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and everyone who believes that I will represent the state & the district in the best capacity as what is best for my community." The guests cheered, clapped loudly, and gave her a well deserved standing ovation.

"Tonya has always been in support of the community," said Financial Planner and Political Consultant Bonnie DiCarlo, a longtime supporter. "We need someone in Harrisburg who will really work and continue to be in support of the community.

Payne has served on City Council for the past four years. Among her many accomplishments, Councilwoman Payne was the key negotiator in the Oak Hill agreements as well as the Hill District Community Benefits Agreement. Additionally, she has secured over $6 million of funding for community development projects in the past four years. Councilwoman Payne has over 20 years of experience working for her community, and is proud to be born and raised in Pittsburgh.

A self-aggrandizing journalist? Perish the thought

Posted By on Tue, Dec 8, 2009 at 12:30 PM

I'm going to interrupt my usual liberal whining for some straight-up self-aggrandizement.

If reading this blog hasn't satisfied your appetite for discussion of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's tuition tax, you might want to give a listen to a radio debate I took part in yesterday on the subject. The discussion took place on Pittsburgh Business Radio, a regular feature on WMNY 1360, and was hosted by former mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis. The other disputants were co-host Anna Dobkin, the learned and garrulous Joe Mistick, and the inimitable Chad Hermann.

All smart folks, and among that crowd, I was probably the person most sympathetic to Ravenstahl, though I think there was broad agreement that:

a) the city ain't as well run as it could be

b) it's fair to expect big non-profits to contribute more to the cost of city services than they have so far. 

Interestingly, the argument seemed to focus less on the goals themselves than on the best means toward achieving them. My fellow panelists, for example, argued that Ravenstahl should have taken a more collaborative approach to seeking revenue from non-profits .... whereas I'm more from the "power concedes nothing without a demand" school.

In fact, it only occurred to me as I was driving back to the office that Ravenstahl's proposal has something in common with an idea suggested back in 2007 ... by former mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis. 

During a debate hosted by City Paper, DeSantis was asked what he would do to get more money from the non-profits. His response was that non-profits might be encouraged to give more money if it was earmarked toward shoring up the city's pension fund rather than general operating expenses. That is, as you probably know, what Ravenstahl's "tuition tax" would do -- direct the money straight to the pensions.

Non-profits, said DeSantis,

think the general fund, the financial budget of the city, is a financial shredder. And they're just very ambivalent about giving more money ... I think we can get a bigger commitment if they knew that the money was going to be dedicated for specific purposes. The money from the non-profit community would not go into the general fund, but actually would go specifically to key purposes, like for example funding the pension fund. I have a proposal that I've put forward previously where we would take at least the amounts that we've gotten in the last three years, $5 million a year -- ideally much more than that -- and that money would go directly into the pension fund.

We're all hearing chatter about how Ravenstahl is talking to universities now, and how he's willing to belay his tuition tax pending the outcome of those negotiations. This may be a chance to test DeSantis' theory, albeit two years later.

Anyway, it was a good and thoughtful discussion all around. And since it was radio, it wasn't immediately apparent that I was -- once again -- the worst-dressed person in the discussion. That makes it an improvement over this KDKA-TV segment from a couple weekends back, in which the bloggesr are the ones wearing the ties, and the "professional journalist" looks like he just woke up on his parents' couch. 

I had to split early from the DeSantis show, but other segments can be found here

And since I'm whoring myself out, I'll also note that tomorrow I'm moderating a citylive! discussion tomorrow evening. This is a reprise of an event I hosted last year, while slightly buzzed (thanks to a drinking game I was playing with the other attendees). Ten Pittsburghers, all of whom are much more talented and creative than myself, will share their ideas for improving the city -- in three minutes or less. Ideas range from the pragmatic to the fanciful. There's plenty of opportunity for audience participation, and with any luck, I may figure out how to knot a necktie by the time the event kicks off. 

Monday, December 7, 2009

The year of the half-mast

Posted By on Mon, Dec 7, 2009 at 5:11 PM

Western Pennsylvania has lived through 2009 in an almost permanent state of mourning. There were the Stanton Heights police shootings, the LA Fitness shooting, and now this: Penn Hills police officer Michael Crawshaw was gunned down in his patrol car Sunday night, awaiting back-up

This crime will stir up the inevitable debate over gun control, as it has before. Monday afternoon, the gun-control advocacy group CeaseFirePA released a statement asserting, "This is not a day for rhetoric" -- then adding, " ... but the senseless carnage caused by gun violence ... cannot be ignored."

If history is any indication, though, it will be ignored. CeaseFire notes that six officers have been killed across the state this year. But God willing, the number of police killed will remain lower than the total in 2008 and 2004: Seven Pennsylvania officers were killed in both of those years. Yet gun laws have remained unchanged. 

And maybe the problem isn't just the guns. 

The CeaseFirePA release notes another worrisome trend. "Assaults on police in Pennsylvania have increased by 76 percent [since 2002] -- a horrible statistic," asserts the group's executive director, Joe Grace.

In a phone interview, Grace told me the number was based on claims made by Gov. Ed Rendell and other state officials. Rendell actually cited a slightly different stat: "The number of assaults [on] law enforcement officers with firearms in Pennsylvania has increased by 76 percent between 2002 and 2007 [emphasis mine]." But the overall rate of assaults on police -- ranging from fatal shootings to drunken dipshits punching an officer during a DUI -- have been on an upward trend.

According to annual Uniform Crime Report data compiled by the Pennsylvania State Police, police reported nearly 3,600 assaults in 2008. That's a sizable increase from the 3,132 reported from the year before. In fact, for the past five years, there have been an average of 3,136 assualts on officers each year. That's more than a 9 percent increase over the annual average in each of the previous five years.

In other words, police aren't just being subjected to more firearms-related violence: They're reporting more attacks of all kinds.

And for the past couple years, the reports show, Pittsburgh has had the state's highest rate of assaults on police. 

A caveat: "uniform" crime reports are sometimes anything but. Different departments can report data in different ways, and numbers might fluctuate not because of a change in crime rates, but in how departments record them.

And in any case, Grace had no explanation for the trend. "I can't tell you there's been a report or an analysis of that," he said.

The horrific high-profile crimes we've seen this year don't lend themselves to easy theorizing. Police say the Crawshaw shooting stemmed from a dispute over drug money, and that it was carried out by a parolee whose long record -- and ankle monitoring bracelet -- had little effect on his criminal behavior. In Stanton Heights, meanwhile, accused shooter Richard Poplawski may have been motivated by anti-government rhetoric. Other than standing accused of depraved acts of violence, it's not clear what these suspects have in common.

The fact that Penn Hills suspect Ronald Robinson was out on parole means that we will likely hear a clamor for harsher sentences, and more restrictive parole. If Robinson is guilty, no sentence could be too long. But in general, throwing more people in prison doesn't seem to make police any safer.

The Pew Center reports that Pennsylvania's prison population has jumped by more than one-fourth in under a decade. Yet reported assaults on police have been as high as they've ever been. On the other hand, the Center also reports that prison rehabilitation programs are ineffective ... and that the number of people returning to prison for violating parole has increased by more than one third in recent years.

Is there some connection here, between an increasingly punitive society and an increasing amount of violence directed at police ... those men and women who represent the full force of the law -- but who are often just brave, lonely individuals waiting for back-up out in the street? I don't know. Maybe there's no way to explain this sort of madness. Maybe there's no way even to talk about it, except in terms of grief and vengence. 

And yet something in us keeps looking for answers. 

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Look on the bright side, Pitt fans!

Posted By on Sun, Dec 6, 2009 at 10:36 AM

Hearts were broken all over Oakland last night after Pitt's Big East football loss to Cincy. But there's some consolation for Pitt students: You saved face ... and maybe $130 or so.

The day before the game, the Pitt News (where I serve as a member of the advisory board) ran this story:

Nearly 2,000 people have signed up on Facebook to "Rush the field when (not if) we beat Cincy."

... "I understand [Pitt] might be unhappy because its an NFL field, so another team needs to play there," Pitt student Braden Slike, who created the Facebook event, said. "But other schools can rush the field when their teams win, and I feel that we can do the same."

That "other team," of course, is the Pittsburgh Steelers ... who are playing the Oakland Raiders at Heinz Field today, in a must-win game. Can you imagine what would have happened if Pitt won, and enthusiastic students tore up the field? And that caused Jeff Reed to miss a crucial field goal? It'd be a whole new amount of momentum for Luke Ravenstahl's tuition tax.

I mean, Slike's quote basically sums up everything that drives people nuts about college students. For starters, Heinz Field doesn't belong to students: It was built with tens of millions of taxpayer dollars paid by people who live across the county. But no matter: Since other schools rush their fields, Slike feels Pitt students should be entitled to do the same thing. 

Of course, it's not clear how many students would have done so. Slike, for example, told the Pitt News that while he launched this Facebook campaign, "he will not be attending the game himself because he has to work on a paper for school." What a guy.

But the school took it seriously enough to buy a full-page ad in the student paper, urging students to "Stay in the Stands."

"There's been some talk about rushing the field on Saturday," the ad says, "but it's a really bad idea." The ad notes that students have been seriously hurt in similar demonstrations, and that "rushing the field is a violation of Pitt's Student Code of Conduct." 

And as the Pitt News mentions, some 2,000 students were members of this Facebook page. To put that into context, that's about as many students who signed up on two anti-tution-tax Facebook pages together. Nothing wrong with the priorities in Oakland! 

Friday, December 4, 2009

Payne removed from party post

Posted By on Fri, Dec 4, 2009 at 3:23 PM

No doubt readers of this space have been wondering for weeks now: "What happened to Tonya Payne and the effort to remove her from her post chairing the Democratic Party's city committee?"

Well, wonder no longer. Jim Burn, who chairs the county committee, has stripped Payne of the chair, and removed her from the state committee as well. 

"Tonya is a friend," Burn told me, sadly. "I hate doing this no matter who is involved, but this stings even more."

Payne was accused of trying to engineer a write-in campaign after losing the Democratic primary to Daniel Lavelle. That would have meant that Payne, despite being a party officer, was trying to thwart the party's own nominee. 

Burn notifed Payne of his decision in a Dec. 1 letter. 

"As a Party we have an obligation to honor the choices made by the Democratic voters we represent," the letter read in part. "Once the voters ... decide in the primary who the Nominee is going to be, it is our responsibility to honor their choices even if we personally do not agree with them. If members of this Committee, especially its leaders, can not follow the most fundamental tenet of our charter, then they should not be in this organization." 

Burn says that Payne denied having any direct role in the write-in campaign. But he says he was directed to a pro-Payne Facebook page (referenced in this blog post over at Progress Pittsburgh). That page, Burn wrote to Payne, "lists you as the Adminstrator/Creator of a page which advocates your write-in campaign and which also offers instructions on how to do a write-in campaign.

"What makes [this] situation worse in my opinion is that ... you denied any direct involvement when I asked you about this," Burn wrote.

Payne can appeal Burn's decision to the state committee's Executive Board. But for now, Burn says, she has been removed from the chair, and the state committee -- the two positions he appointed her to. 

As for who takes the chair now, that turns out to be a bit of a murky question -- like almost everything else touching upon the local party apparatus. The city committee's vice-chair is Ed Gainey, and it's possible he will fill out the remainder of Payne's term until another round of party elections next year. That's how it would work if Burn were removed from his county position, anyway. 

But rules at the city committee are a little looser, and Burn says he's "going to talk to the city committee officers. Do they want the vice-chair to finish out the term, or do they want to elect another chair -- or for me to appoint one -- on an interim basis? The city rules are diametrically opposed to those we have in the county, or in other municipalities."

But even in Pittsburgh, it seems, some rules still apply. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Shuffle Boards

Posted By on Tue, Dec 1, 2009 at 2:28 PM

Secure in last month's re-election victory, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is putting his stamp on city boards. Among the casualties: Barbara Ernsberger, who has been removed from the city's Planning Commission, where she served as secretary.

But the most interesting pick may be one of Ravenstahl's choices for the city's ethics board. Ravenstahl has chosen attorney Isobel Storch, who's worked for Ravenstahl's former election challenger, Patrick Dowd ... and who represented Dowd in a matter that raised allegations of improper influence within the Ravenstahl administration.

Ernsberger, a local attorney who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Commonwealth Court last month, was appointed by Bob O'Connor in 2006 to fill out a term that expired in January 2008. But until now, she was neither removed nor replaced. "I wish I could thank Mayor O'Connor for appointing me," she told me, "because I really enjoyed being on the commission. I'm happy I got to do it as long as I have."

But Ernsberger didn't seem to be taking her removal personally ... and she said there weren't any sharp areas of disagreement with the mayor on any issues before the Planning Commission. "I can't give you a story on that," she told me, wryly.

Ravenstahl's decision to pick Storch might prove to be a bigger story anyway. 

Storch, you may recall, represented Patrick Dowd when Dowd challenged a controversial electronic billboard Lamar Advertising wanted to mount on a Grant Street Parking garage. That challenge was later joined seperately by city councilors Bill Peduto and Doug Shields. Lamar was tight with members of Ravenstahl's administration, and in his unsuccessful mayoral challenge, Dowd turned the matter into a campaign issue.

Honestly, I'm not sure most voters knew what the hell Dowd was talking about. But the Lamar saga did spawn all kinds of craziness, including the eventual departure of former URA head Pat Ford. So on the surface, picking Storch would seem to be either a very counterintuitive -- or very principled -- choice for the mayor to make. 

Somehow, though, I doubt it will be seen that way. The Lamar saga, after all, also ended up alienating Peduto/Shields from Dowd himself, thanks in large dispute over who should pay for attorney costs. Mutual distrust lingers between them even to this day. Storch's nomination probably isn't going to make their relationship any cozier.

After all, the mayor is losing two staunch allies -- Jim Motznik and Tonya Payne -- this year, and needs new friends in 2010. And though it may sound bizarre to say it, Dowd may be his best hope.

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