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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A quick thought before today's council meeting (UPDATED)

Posted By on Tue, Jun 22, 2010 at 11:49 AM

As I type this, council is set to meet in just a few minutes. Among the items slated to come before it are Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's proposed new board members for the Citizens Police Review Board. Today's Post-Gazette, meanwhile, features city council president Darlene Harris expressing bafflement at claims by Bill Peduto and others on council, who say they didn't have a chance to weigh in on a list of council nominees before they were sent to the mayor:

Mrs. Harris and Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, chairwoman of council's public safety committee, reiterated Monday that all council members had the chance to put in names.

Mrs. Harris said council members received at least four e-mails on the issue from her, Ms. Kail-Smith and the city clerk's office. Ms. Kail-Smith said she stopped in her colleagues' offices to remind staff members of the need to fill board seats.

I'm willing to bet that's true, whatever protests Peduto voiced to me late last week. I've since seen a purported copy of one of those e-mails myself. If that all pans out, Peduto and Co. deserve even more blame than I doled out last week. Not only should they have recognized the abstract threat reprseented by having current members serving expired terms, but they obviously should have responded to the immediate request for input. 

That said, I'm not sure how much of a difference it makes from a legal perspective. As I pointed out last week, the city code's language on reappointing board members is vague where the review board is concerned. But about the only clear provision is this one:

[T]he Mayor shall fill [each] vacancy by appointing the Board member from a new list of three (3) nominations submitted by Council

Council only submitted seven names for four seats under its jurisdiction. That's five short of what it is obliged to do. Blame Peduto for that if you wish, but council as a body didn't live up to the requirements under the code. To me, that makes the nominations it sent over flawed. And while Peduto has only himself to blame for the part he played in this, he raised a good point with me: Issuing a list of nominees by formal resolution -- rather than by informal chain e-mail -- is a much saner way to go about this. 

I mean, what the hell. In other news yesterday, the city's financial overseers demanded that council jump through some extra budgetary hoops before hiring a consultant to review plans to lease the city's parking garages. I don't see anything wrong with that request on the face of it. But if council has to follow the rules for choosing who reviews the future of city parking garages, it ought to follow the rules when it comes to choosing who review the police. 

But we'll see whether anyone else agrees.

UPDATE: Well, that was ugly. There was Theresa Kail-Smith, saying she was "disgusted" by councilors who raised a stink about the process while not doing their "damn jobs." And then things REALLY got frosty.

Here's what I think: Everyone is right.

Theresa Kail-Smith and Darlene Harris were right to fault critics of the nomination process for not taking part in it by submitting their own nominees. Kail-Smith and Harris argued passionately that they had sought feedback through a handful of e-mails and a drop-by-office visits. And I sure didn't hear much that sounded like a denial from anyone on the other side of the table.  Which struck me as a pretty damning silence. 

Harris and Kail-Smith also argued, as I pointed out last week, that such a process was similar to the one used to appoint council nominees for the Ethics Hearing Board, and some other appointments as well.

On the other hand, I think Bruce Kraus and Bill Peduto et al. were right about the larger picture here. Just because there's a precedent for this sort of thing doesn't make it right. For starters, the ethics board is a godawful model for appointments. Created 20 years ago, it has been moribund for much of its two-decade history. During the fleeting administration of Bob O'Connor, ethics board members were appointed, but didn't have their first meeting until a year later.

You could probably get council to agree on changing the rules going forward, such that this sort of thing won't happen again. I think it's pretty apparent to all concerned that the existing rules don't make much sense. The problem is that there is so much controversy about what is happening now, with the board members currently on the table. As Kail-Smith acknowledged, Ravenstahl's timing here has upped the ante considerably. And I don't see either side backing down. 

So what happens if a majority of council passes these nominations, but critics insist that the underlying nomination was improper? Will there be a court case about whether the review board can continue with its court case? Will we have a review-board-in-exile? All I know for sure is this. By summer's end, a majority of Ethics Hearing Board members will be serving on expired terms too. If council doesn't act more proactively in that case, it's time to give up hope entirely. 

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