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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Taking council the night before presidency vote

Posted By on Sun, Jan 3, 2010 at 5:43 PM

Last week, I made two predictions. The first was that if Bill Peduto couldn't wrangle enough votes to be city council president tomorrow, the choice would be Theresa Kail-Smith.

That was before Mayor Luke Ravenstahl pulled his New Year's Eve surprise, vetoing a prevailing wage bill so late that council couldn't override it. I then made a second prediction: that in choosing a council president, a vote for anyone other than Bill Peduto would mean council was happy being in utter subservience the mayor. 

Right now, it looks like both those predictions are going to come true. 

Of course, things could change in an instant. But I've been hearing the same thing others have: that Peduto couldn't get his fifth vote, and that Burgess couldn't even get close to Peduto. That Kail-Smith is, at least for the moment, the frontrunner. And that part of the machinations involved include her choosing Robert Daniel Lavelle as her finance chair. The two swing-votes, in other words, would be calling the shots. 

As Dayvoe over at 2political junkies notes, this would mean that the two most powerful people on council would have less than one year's experience combined. Dayvoe asks whether a councilor has ever been named finance chair on their very first day on the job. I believe the answer is "yes" -- I'm pretty sure Doug Shields became finance chair upon being sworn in back in 2004. But of course, Shields had years of experience working on council, in the office of Bob O'Connor

[UPDATE: I'm reliably informed that this is NOT so. Even Doug Shields had to start out working the lowly engineering/construction post. My apologies for the mistake.]

In fairness, Lavelle has some experience too: He was a former staffer for Sala Udin way back when. But the experience gap is broader than a Shields/Lavelle match-up suggests. Let's compare the total years of experience in both factions. In the Kail Smith camp we have:

In the Peduto camp we have

Mathematically speaking, then, the faction supporting Kail Smith has an average of 1.6 years of experience in city government -- less than half a term. The faction supporting Peduto has more than twice that -- 4 years.

I'm going to suggest -- just for a second -- that we put aside the questions of who supports the mayor and who doesn't. Let's just analyze whether council will be led by people who know what the hell they are doing. 

Like I said last week, I think Kail Smith's handling of the tuition tax could betoken a promising future. If she were being chosen as a compromise candidate -- if Ravenstahl hadn't just pulled his prevailing wage stunt -- there'd be reason to see a silver lining in her presidency. In such circumstances, she'd likely have a steady hand at her side -- Peduto serving as finance chair, for example. She'd have the benefit of experience, but without being laden with all the baggage. 

But so far, at least, that ain't what's happening. Instead, the two city legislators with the most experience seem likely to end up with the least amount of power.

That is a surefire recipe for a weak, ineffectual council -- however well intentioned Kail-Smith or anyone else might be. Like I said last week, if council's choice isn't Peduto, "what other choice is there if council wants to be taken seriously?" I'm still not sure. But the choice definitely isn't a president and finance chair with less than a year's experience between them. That makes council a joke -- which of course would suit the mayor's agenda perfectly. It suggests council doesn't even take itself seriously -- so why should anyone else?

Again, though, things can change between now and council's meeting.

Perhaps Patrick Dowd, who has been a strident voice upholding the importance of transparency and process, will see the danger here. Yes, he's been upset by some parliamentary maneuvering that took place during the prevailing wage vote. But if you believe in process, surely the idea of maintaining checks and balances -- of a strong legislative branch keeping the executive honest -- matters too. 

Or perhaps Kail-Smith will decide that she really, really doesn't want the headaches that come with the job. Perhaps she'll insist on a more seasoned person sitting at her right hand. Or perhaps Peduto's side will offer Darlene Harris -- who has long boasted of her financial acumen while on the school board -- the finance chair and win her over. 

Granted, it doesn't seem likely. Harris, after all, is up for relection in 2011. And she represents the North Side -- Ravenstahl's stronghold. Dowd and Peduto's differences seem irreconcilable. And it may be asking too much for Kail-Smith to buck the mayor so early in her tenure. 

But who knows? Because what I'm also hearing -- and getting e-mails about -- is that a LOT of people are angry at Dowd in particular. I'm sure he's hearing from them too. Dowd will face election in 2011 as well, and the base that helped elect him didn't do so in order that he could lay down for Luke Ravenstahl. This council presidency vote may be Dowd's Rubicon.

And Dowd -- along with others supporting the mayor's choice here -- might want to think about something else. If the mayor is dealing with Lavelle, it means that he's double-dealing Lavelle's former rival, Tonya Payne. Payne was one of Ravenstahl's most reliable allies on council, before Lavelle beat her. She hoped to challenge Lavelle's former boss, state Rep. Jake Wheatley. But it looks like Ravenstahl is being far less faithful to her than she was to him. 

Just one to grow on, councilors. But maybe anticipating a knife in the ribs is just one of those things that comes with experience.

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