Friday, June 18, 2010

Report: mayor plans review board putsch

Posted By on Fri, Jun 18, 2010 at 2:21 PM

The Post-Gazette is reporting that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl plans to replace all seven members of the Citizen Police Review Board. Reportedly, Ravenstahl is doing so in large part because -- surprise, surprise -- the board members are all serving on expired terms:

  • Marsha V. Hinton, Chair (Council) -- Term Expires 10.31.2009
  • Richard M. Carrington, Vice Chair (Council) -- Term Expires 10.31.2009
  • Malik G. Bankston (Mayor) -- Term Expires 10.31.2007
  • John H. Bingler, Jr., Esq. (Mayor) -- Law Enforcement Professional (LEP) --Term Expires 10.31.2007
  • Erin Dalton (Mayor) -- Term Expires 10.31.2009
  • Dr. Mary Jo Guercio (Council) -- Term Expires 10.31.2007
  • Deborah L. Walker (Council) -- Law Enforcement Professional (LEP) -- Term Expires 10.31.2009

Don't say you weren't warned, though honestly -- I'm kicking myself in the ass right now for not seeing this coming. After all, even as I type this the review board is pushing its investigation of the city's handling of G-20 security, even seeking to hold the police chief in contempt of court for allegedly withholding information the board is seeking.

But I'm actually not at all sure the mayor has the power to do what the Post-Gazette claims he is trying to pull off. As the story has it:

Mayor Ravenstahl is replacing the entire Citizen Police Review Board.

Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven confirmed that the mayor is naming new members to the board.

Yeah, well, let's see what the city code has to say about that, shall we? Under the law, four members of the board are appointed by council. And the code says that

In appointing Board members to fill vacancies, if the vacancy has been created by the departure, for whatever reason, of one (1) of the four (4) Board members appointed from City Council's nominations, the Mayor shall fill such vacancy by appointing the Board member from a new list of three (3) nominations submitted by Council.

So as I read this, in four out of seven cases, the mayor CANNOT unilaterally start naming board replacements. Council will have to weigh in on that.

In fact, I'm not even sure he can declare those positions vacant at all. No board members at all have "depart[ed]" from their post, after all. And the mayor's office has told City Paper before that there is nothing wrong with having board members serve on expired terms. Gabe Mazefsky has previously told us "the law permits board members to serve after their terms expire, until a replacement is named. 'There is no problem there,' he says.

So I'm not certain under what authority the mayor is pulling the trigger on the four board members outside his power to appoint. Apparently, Ravenstahl is claiming that at least some board members no longer live in the city, which would make their positions vacant. I'll be looking into that claim now. But unless all four of council's appointees have moved outside of city limits, he may well be overstepping himself. 

More details to come. 

Wheels come off on Mike Pintek's biking interview

Posted By on Fri, Jun 18, 2010 at 11:58 AM

Have you ever wanted to run somebody over? You know, just to teach them a lesson? I'm not saying kill them. Just roll over 'em with one tire, maybe. Two at the most.

OK, I've never thought of doing this either. But then, I'm not a talk-radio host. I don't even like steamrolling the people I interview. And that, apparently, is one of the things that separates me from KDKA Radio host Mike Pintek (along with a thick head of hair).

Pintek's June 17 broadcast featured Bill Nesper, whose League of American Bicyclists recently gave Pittsburgh a bronze medal for its bike friendliness. You can hear their conversation for yourself here. It proceeds smoothly enough -- Pintek claims to have done some cycling himself, and the two men discuss the city's topography -- until around the 6:30 mark.

By this point, Pintek has noted a recent spate of incidents in which local cyclists have been accosted in the East End. After observing that in some of these incidents, the cyclists were verbally taunted rather than robbed, Pintek wonders, "Isn't it kind of curious that -- berating, somebody knocked off the bike but not robbed -- the other guy is berated and taunted by several people who are on foot. Does that raise any question in your mind that maybe the bicyclists might have something to do with this themselves?"

"I don't think so," Nesper responds, sounding a bit like a person wondering just what he's signed up for.

You can't blame Nesper for being treading cautiously. In an incident where a bicyclist ended up in the hospital with a broken collarbone, Pintek's sympathies like with the attackers. This may be the first time in the history of talk radio that a host has sided with the assailant. Usually, it's us lefties who coddle the criminals, and talk about how tough life on the streets is.

"I can't speak to these incidents specifically: I wasn't there," Pintek concedes a moment later. But just before going to a commercial break, he warns Nesper that "I do want to talk about other things with bicycle riders that could prompt a belligerent response."

"If you've been driving on the roads, I'll bet you know where I might be going with this," he adds in an aside to the audience.

After coming back from the commercials -- we're at the 14:30 mark or so -- Pintek notes that often, cyclists seem to ignore road-safety laws. (Some of the examples he cites, however, are flawed: Cyclists actually DON'T have to stay on the far right-hand-side of the lane ... and there are plenty of reasons for why doing so can be dangerous. Like people opening car doors while parked along the curb.) But what REALLY pisses Pintek off is that -- like everyone else a talk-radio host doesn't like -- these cyclists are elitists

Or as Pintek puts it: "There are some bicyclists who are just these arrogant little dorks that think that they can do anything they want, because they're on a bicycle and, 'We're being green and environmentally friendly.'"

Still trying to be obliging, Nesper agrees that some cyclists, like some drivers, do scoff at traffic laws. More education is needed, he says, and --

But Pintek has now found that wellspring of outrage from which all radio-talk flows.

"I’m getting agitated now just thinking about it," he says. "I have been sorely tempted -- I gotta tell you this. I haven't done it, because I’m not going do it. I’m not that kind of person. [But] I have been so tempted to just bump them. I have been so tempted to pull up, you know, behind them when they're doing this -- you know spread out across the road. Put my car in neutral, and jam the accelerator down. Race the engine and scare the living crap out of 'em."

Somewhere in here is the strangled sound of Nesper's protest. But Pintek continues: "They’ve gotta stop being so arrogant about what they're doing ... They have to obey the rules, they gotta do the right thing, or else they're going to get killed."

Finally, Nesper says -- with the restraint of a therapist trying to find a way to connect with a psych-ward patient --  "It sounds like you're interested in the safety of other human beings. And that’s a good thing to hear ... I'm glad to hear that you fight those temptations."

The exchange wraps up soon after: Pintek wishes Nesper happy travels ... which is a nice sentiment coming from a guy who just fantasized about wanting to run Nesper's pals off the road. And in fact, the interview has drawn outrage from a local cycling advocacy group, whose members are contacting KDKA.

I hope they get some results, but you know ... wouldn't it be more effective to try running the guy over? I understand that can be an effective cure for arrogance.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Like a blog over troubled waters ...

Posted By on Thu, Jun 17, 2010 at 6:32 PM

So there've been some reports about the lingering resentment between the Democratic Party establishment and Joe Sestak, the party's nominee for Senate. And things don't seem likely to improve anytime soon, now that idiotic statements by the Dem's outgoing state committee chair are popping up in attacks by Sestak's GOP rival, former Congressman Pat Toomey.

Does this sort of thing worry me? Sure. Even before the May primary, I was curious about how Sestak and the Democratic establishment might get along. ("It'll be interesting to see how Sestak will adjust to representing a party whose leaders have taken such strong positions against him.") And I'm on record now as worrying that Sestak may not, by himself, have the ground game to win in November.

But on the other hand, Sestak seems to be doing OK on his own. Consider this little online commercial, which is timed to coincide with Toomey's visit to Erie today. Visually, the spot is nothing to write home about, but it raises a timely issue. In 2001, Toomey was one of 140 Republicans who voted against an amendment to prevent gas and oil drilling beneath the Great Lakes. The measure passed anyway, thanks to overwhelming support from Democrats and some Republicans.

Interestingly, among the GOPpers who voted in favor of a drilling ban was Phil English. English actually represented the Congressional district abutting Lake Erie. I'm gonna guess that even for a Republican, drilling for oil beneath Lake Erie didn't look like a winner in 2001 ... and looks even less like a winner now. 

If Dems can stop poisoning their own well, and focus on how Toomey's votes could poison everyone else's, there's a good shot here. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In promotional giveaway, Pirates survive unforced error

Posted By on Wed, Jun 16, 2010 at 5:37 PM

As Pirates boosters know all too well, their team has a tendency to cripple itself with errors. But a recent Pirates gaffe -- involving a promotional giveaway -- may for once be giving fans something to smile about.

As the team's June schedule boasts, fans attending the Pirates' June 18 home game against the Cleveland Indians will receive a "Bill Mazeroski Canvas Photo Wrap." The freebie features the iconic photograph of Mazeroski rounding the bases, waving his hat in jubilation after hitting the Game 7 home run that won the 1960 World Series. 

maz.jpg

Sounds like a great 50th anniversary giveaway, right? There's just one problem. The promotion is being underwritten by Trib Total Media, the Tribune-Review publisher who has lately been engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign. And while TTM's logo will appear on the wrap ... the picture itself was first published by its bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"You can imagine that there was some concern," P-G executive editor David Shribman says, somewhat drily.

The image was shot on October 13, 1960 by Jim Klingensmith, a legend in the P-G newsroom, where he spent more than 40 years. And in that newsroom, alarm bells went off that the Trib -- whose ad campaign insists it is the paper of the future -- was now being given a chance to annex the past. The paper has, after all, been a presence in the city for only 20 years. 

The irony goes deeper, of course. The Post-Gazette used to be a part-owner of the Pirates, and its editorial page ardently supported building PNC Park at taxpayer expense. Among that proposal's biggest opponents, meanwhile, was the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. (In fact, as the now-defunct Brill's Content reported, the Pirates were supposedly kept off the Trib's front page because publisher Richard Mellon Scaife disliked the team's ownership.)

As you might imagine, once word of the giveaway got out, discussions ensued between the paper and the Pirates, who claimed that Klingensmith's image was in the public domain.

The question is murkier than you might think: Whereas copyright law governing material published today is reasonably straightforward (this blog post, for example, is protected for 95 years) copyrights dating between 1923 and 1963 would have elapsed ... unless they were renewed 28 years after their initial publication. And the records of such renewal are spotty. In any case, by the time the P-G tumbled to what was going on, the wraps had already been printed -- complete with photo and the Trib Total Media logo.

Tracey DeAngelo, the P-G's marketing director, couldn't say for sure whether the paper had the legal leverage to, say, prevent the Pirates from distributing the wraps. Anyway, she says, "At the end of the day, you have to choose your issues."

So the P-G and the Pirates hit on a compromise. Klingensmith, who still lives in the South Hills, will be on hand with his family at the June 18 game, where he'll be publically recognized for shooting the image. That will both honor a great photographer and clear up any confusion about where the image actually came from. Fans, meanwhile, will get to bring home an iconic photo and thank the local legend who shot it.

"It's really no harm, no foul," says DeAngelo. 

In fact, DeAngelo plans to be at the game. But she also says she probably won't be taking one of the Trib Total Media wraps home.

"I can have all the copies of that photo I want," she points out. 

UPDATE: State backs off free-speech regulations at Point State Park

Posted By on Wed, Jun 16, 2010 at 1:30 PM

Late last week, I wrote about a potential confrontation between the ACLU and the state's Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, the agency that manages Point State Park.

But almost before the fight began, the state is suspending the regulations that attracted the ACLU's ire. According to a press release just issued by the ACL: 

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has agreed to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania's request that it immediately suspend enforcement of a statewide regulation that prohibits any "expression of views" or distribution of printed materials in state parks without first obtaining written permission.

Last week, ACLU legal director Vic Walczak told CP he was "flabbergasted" by the state regs, which resulted in city police and park rangers threatening two Green Party members -- and a balloon-twister -- with arrest. Turns out the regs have been in place for nearly 40 years ... but even the ACLU never noticed them:

Although the regulation has been in effect since 1971, apparently it has never been challenged before. One possible reason is that DCNR maintains only one urban park, which is Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh. Individual and small-group demonstrations are rare in rural parks. While the ACLU’s Pittsburgh office has received complaints over the past decade about restrictions on political activity at Point State Park, they were always were always resolved by working with the Pittsburgh police and city solicitor’s office. The regulation was never cited as a reason for the restriction.

The regulation isn't likely to be cited any time soon, either. Yesterday the DCNR's attorney sent the ACLU a letter saying that the agency "appreciates your concern regarding the constitutionality of DCNR's regulation with respect to ... individuals or small groups." While pledging to review the law, the agency agreed not to suspend the regulation where such small numbers are involved.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tossing Softballs to the Football Star

Posted By on Tue, Jun 15, 2010 at 11:13 PM

So I finally got around to watching Ben Roethlisberger's interviews with Sally Wiggin and Bob Pompeani this weekend. And I was shocked by the total lack of contrition, the blatant failure to learn anything from previous mistakes. 

Not on the part of Roethlisberger. On the part of local media. 

How bad were these interviews? Let's put it this way: Roethlisberger was only asked once, "If you had to do that all over again, would you change what you did?" And that question referred to Roethlisberger's haircut.

I've reprinted, pretty much verbatim, all the questions Pompeani and Wiggin asked at the end of this post. Look them over yourself. But to me, about the only questions that are even close to being hardballs involved whether Roethlisberger has a drinking problem. Otherwise, what leaps out at you is that the single most important question -- is it true? -- is the one question that never gets asked.

Of course, Roethlisberger wouldn't have answered questions about his alleged assault on a female college student anyway. (ADDED: And it should go without saying that he's always denied the rape allegations.) At the outset of his interview with Wiggin, he made it clear that his lawyers had advised him not to speak to the Milledgeville incident at all.

Pompeani, obligingly, didn't bother to ask a single question about what Roethlisberger did that evening. (Pompeani did briefly ask about the actions of Ben's posse, out of concern that they'd been "thrown under the bus at times, from a media point of view.") While Wiggin at least avoided seeming obsequious, asking her questions without apology, Pompeani's performance was a wince-inducing series of softballs. ("I was going to ask you: Is settling down -- is that something that's a good option down the road?")

Even without querying Roethlisberger on the criminal allegations, though, there were still plenty of questions that both reporters avoided.

Is it true -- as Sports Illustrated reported -- that Roethlisberger routinely rode his motorcycle without a helmet, even after an accident nearly ended his career, and after swearing to fans that he would always wear a helmet in the future? 

Is it true that Roethlisberger exposed himself to a third woman unconnected with other complaints, and later forced his hand up her skirt?

Hell, is it even true that Roethlisberger routinely "[threw] his weight around" at bars and restaurants, "asking those who got in his way, 'Do you know who I am?'" That he habitually treats waitstaff contemptuously? That he stiffed them on tips?

None of these questions came up, and in fact, neither interviewer made much of an effort to establish the facts of Roethlisberger's behavior. Wiggin did at least ask Roethlisberger whether "you have anything to say" about the Milledgeville incident. And she came the closest to actually pinning Roethlisberger down on specifics when she brought up the Sports Illustrated article, which "detail[s] behavior that was sometimes mean-spirited and rude."

Even there, though, the question wasn't "are the allegations true?" but "what would you say to fans in light of the allegations?"

In fact, both interviews almost completely avoided the topic of "what happened," shifting to the safer ground of "how did that make you/your family/your fans feel?" Pompeani's "question" about the SI story, for example, was this: "The [article] on Sports Illustrated -- that had to hurt."

The interviews were like therapy sessions, where the multiple allegations of sexual assault, and countless claims of boorish behavior, were really just part of a glorious journey of self-discovery. (Appropriately, the KDKA interview leads in with some tinkling music, reminiscent of a Hallmark special about heartache and redemption.) As Pompeani put it, "You seem to have grasped this whole thing and saying, 'It's an opportunity for me to move forward now -- a whole new chapter.'"

This grueling line of inquiry -- grueling for the audience, I mean -- set Roethlisberger up for a sort of bogus confessional, in which he vaguely admitted to various bad behaviors without ever having to describe what they were. We were told that he'd lost his way, that he'd allowed the fame to go to his head, that he hadn't always been a son his parents could be proud of. But where exactly he strayed? That's none of our business. We were assured, however, that he never meant to hurt anyone, and that if he did hurt someone's feelings somehow, somewhere, then he sure is sorry.

It was contrition without guilt, apology without acknowledgement. Roethlisberger confesses to everything and nothing; he asks our forgiveness without ever telling us what, exactly, we're forgiving him for. I mean, you could take copy-and-paste Roethlisberger's apology and use it in almost any situation, ranging from a bad break-up to second-degree murder:

I was lost for a couple years there, and I let some things go to my head and get the better of me. But I never set out to hurt anyone, and I'm just trying to close the door on my previous mistakes. I'm reconnecting with my family, my faith, and trying to be the person I know I can be.   

OK, well, so what, right? Who expects serious digging from the local TV news? Especially about a star athlete in a jock-sniffing town like this one?

I don't, and ordinarily, I wouldn't care either. But part of Roethlisberger's problem, it seems to me, is that so much of his behavior has been enabled by media and fans hell-bent on idolizing him.

What's most interesting about the allegation that Roethlisberger broke his promise to wear a helmet while motorcycling, for example, is that a KDKA news crew reportedly filmed him doing it. As SI reports, their footage "showed Roethlisberger giving them the finger as he sped away, but the video never aired. [S]ources believe the story was killed out of fear that it would damage KDKA's relationship with the Steelers."

Think about what this little anecdote says about Roethlisberger's attitude toward the fans, and towards the media those fans rely on for information. Even more, consider what it says about the media's willingness to roll over for that sort of treatment -- the guy can flip off your cameraman when caught in a flagrant deception, and yet you'll still cover up for him. Is it any wonder that so many of the allegations made against Roethlisberger -- from "do you know who I am?" behavior at bars on up -- have in common an apparent sense of entitlement?

We should note that KDKA management denies the cover-up allegation, but I'm willing to believe it's true, for a variety of reasons. One of them is Pompeani's interview, which of course didn't involve any questions that might implicate his own employer. (In fairness, Wiggin didn't ask about the incident either.)

So what are we left with? We have Roethlisberger's claims of contrition, but we've heard those before. He may or may not mean it this time. But one thing that hasn't changed, these interviews make clear, is the dysfunctional relationship between Roethlisberger and some local media outlets. They're still willing to work overtime to make him look good. Whether he deserves to or not. 

Questions posed by WTAE's Sally Wiggin to Ben Roethlisberger:

In your April 12th statement you said you were not going to talk about the incident on March 5 in Milledgevile, GA. But DVDs have now come out -- interviews with the accuser. Have you seen them?

Do you have anything to say now that this is all out?

You certainly have probably told your side of the story to your parents and your sister. How difficult has this been for them, going through all this?

What was the turning point with your father? I mean, they must have wondered who you were.

In that statement in April, you apologized to your family, and your teammates, the coaches, the Rooneys, the NFL. But what do you owe the fans right now? Because you know, the stories in Sports Illustrated -- there are stories that detail behavior that was sometimes mean-spirited and rude. What do you say to them?

Did alcohol play a role in this? Do you have an alcohol problem, Ben?

When you step on the field for the first time -- whether it’s four games or six games -- there are people who don’t buy this, they think it’s marketing. They think you’re doing it just so you can play football and make more money. They’re out there, they’re detractors, and they’re going to boo you. How do you play well and win for your teammates under those circumstances?

In the past, some of your teammates have been critical. Have they circled around you? Have they supported you in a way that has either surprised you or been something you expected?

Questions asked by Bob Pompeani, KDKA-TV: 

I guess -- I don’t know how I would describe the last several months, but what has it been like, the last three months of your life?

I remember down in the locker room, right after that, you had a little press announcement where you made a statement, and you apologized. And I’m just wondering what you specifically apologized for -- to fans, to teammates, your ownership.

Kind of dovetailing with what you just said, it seems like there kind of is a culture of athletic entitlement, or at least you’re built up to a certain level, and it may not even be your choosing, but you are. Did you yourself get caught up in maybe the big ben persona?

So you got caught up in that personally?

So you think as a result of that, things start happening too fast, things get out of control. Do you think you’re to the point where the reputation is a Big Ben -- but then you realize, after going through what you went through, that maybe the reputation has nothing to do with the Big Ben football player. My question would be then, did you hit rock bottom through this whole process, and if so, how you want to rebound from that?

I think you alluded to this earlier about people piling on. And it seems like it was open season on Ben Roethlisberger. I don’t think anyone could ever understand what that’s like until you’ve gone through it yourself. You have -- do you think people piled on? I mean, the media reports came out everywhere. It seems like everybody had an opinion and a comment about you. The hangover thing on Sports Illustrated -- that had to hurt.

How has this whole experience, Ben, affected your relationship with your mom and dad and sister?

Were there hard times in there when you first had to confront them?

Let me go back to when you were in the locker room. You were criticized for your appearance that night. The very next day you’re in New York, and you had a totally different look -- with a suit and clean-shaven look. If you had to do that all over again, would you change what you did?

They came out with a six-game suspension. Now, you’ve never been charged with anything. When you first heard it, your reaction was what?

You wanted to talk a little bit about Tony and Ed, your bodyguards. They’ve been kind of dragged under the coals here and thrown under the bus at times, from a media point of view. Can you talk about what they did, what they were supposed to do, and have they gotten an unfair rap in this whole thing?

So they did everything that night to help you?

Did you happen to hear what Terry Bradshaw came out and said about you?

He was critical, and I’m just wondering: Number one in his case, I remember you guys when you first met seemed to have a cool relationship. I don’t know what’s happened since. Have you reached out to anyone in particular in this whole process, whether it’s former players, coaches, people you know and trust for advice, for …

So you had a long conversation with Cowher?

[Was it] very helpful?

What can young boys and girls who idolize you learn from your experiences?

And you're totally committed to it [being the best person off the field he can be]?

With regard to the new Ben. I just want to get your response to -- alcohol seemed to play a role in incidents. Have you ever had an issue with alcohol, and will the new Ben make alcohol no priority?

Getting back to what you said about role models. Charles Barkley once was quoted saying, "We're not role models." So you disagree with that. You think people of high stature should be?

I was going to ask you: Is settling down -- is that something that's a good option down the road?

Aside from Cowher, who have been some of your closest confidantes during this whole situation?

Two other things, just real quick. Number one, we get suggestions just like I'm sure you do about having a wife. We've heard, maybe it would be good symbolically for you to change your number, to indicate a new Ben Roethlisberger. Have you ever thought about that?

The other thing we've seen a lot of, is that a lot of apparel stores have had a hard time selling number 7, which was once one of the top-selling things in the NFL. Do you reach out to any of those people, do you talk to them, do you try to make good? Because they've invested in you.

[While walking down a path outside the Roethlisberger home together] Nice to be out here, huh? How much do you need that, or have needed it?

You've been through a lot on the field. Would you say this is the hardest thing you've ever dealt with in your life?

You seem to have grasped this whole thing and saying, "it's an opportunity for me to move forward now -- a whole new chapter."

A lot of people look at big-time superstar athletes and will say, "It's important for them to give back to their own local communities." I would imagine you feel stronger about that now than ever.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

All these Democratic committee posts will end soon, I promise

Posted By on Sat, Jun 12, 2010 at 3:01 PM

This post contains a quick (?) update on the statewide ambitions of Jim Burn, the Allegheny County Democratic commtitee chair who wants to head up the party's statewide apparatus. It also discusses some potential rules changes that may be coming down the pike in the years to come ... and offers yet another installment of the 19th ward saga. 

As such, if you skip reading the rest of this thing, I'll understand. 

Anyway. Alex Roarty of PoliticsPa noted yesterday that Burn's effort to be the next state chair may be stumbling. County executive Dan Onorato, the party's gubernatorial nominee, is not endorsing Burn -- or anyone else. Onorato says he respects "the process" of having committee folk make their own choice.

My guess -- and that of some other party insiders -- is that Onorato is worried Burn doesn't help further Onorato's statewide ambitions. In order to win, Onorato is gonna need as many votes as he can get out of the Philly area ... and a fellow Allegheny Countian may not be much help with that. 

I asked Burn about this theory. He notes that Bob Brady, who chairs the Democratic committee in Philadelphia, is an avowed supporter. That, he says, should allay concern about Burn's reach. As for Onorato, Burn says he respects Onorato's desire to "respect the process."

"It's important to see what the rank-and-file thinks," Burn says.

In any case, the state commitee is set to meet on June 19. In the meantime, Burn will be seeking another term as county chair tomorrow, at a meeting of the Allegheny County committee. Oh, and among the items on the agenda? A survey about whether committee members have the stomach for another battle over endorsements.

You may recall that county Dems have previously argued over whether party endorsements should be binding in primaries. If, for example, Luke Ravenstahl is the endorsed Democrat in a mayoral race, should a Democratic committee person be barred from putting up a Bill Peduto sign before the spring primary? 

The last time the committee examined the matter, committee members decided to table the whole issue. So Burn is circulating a survey to gauge the party members' interest in dealing with this again. The survey asks a handful of questions, reprinted here: 

1.) Do you support the Party's current process of endorsing candidates in the spring primary?

2.) Do you support "open primaries"? i.e., no Party endorsements of any candidates in the Spring primary?

3.) Do you support modifying or amending our current endorsement process?

4.) If you answer to Number 3 is "yes", do you: A.) Prefer that endorsements require a majority(vs. a plurality) in multi candidate fields? __________ B.) Prefer the 2/3 endorsement requirement as utilized by the Pa State Democratic Committee? __________ C.) Prefer removing the requirement that endorsements are binding on all Party members? __________

Such matters will be taken up by a new bylaws committee, whose members will be chosen by Burn (or whoever the next county chair turns out to be).

Another topic Burn expects to have come up: the curious, if common, practice of allowing people to serve as ward chairs and other officers even if they are not on the committee. This is a longstanding pratice among local Democratic committees, both inside and outside the city, but Burn says "I've been hearing a lot of complaints about it in the past six months."

To take one example that's been much on my mind, the city's 19th ward has a commitee chair (Pete Wagner) who wasn't actually elected as committeepeople last month. And that's not very unusual. You can find similar examples all around the county. The only qualifications to serve as a ward officer are that you be a registered Democrat, and that you live in the district. 

Still, it is sort of a strange practice. As one would-be reformer told me, "It's like, 'You won't join our club, but we'll make you the president.'"

Such sentiments may soon get a thorough airing. Burn pledges that when he convenes the bylaws committee. "I'm going to put people on it that don't agree on anything."

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? With my luck, I'll end up having to cover it. 

Speaking of utterly intractable disputes, and the 19th ward ...  for anyone still following along at home -- as I know a few folks in Beechview certainly are -- I asked Burn about the latest on the Kimberly Cagni residency question. As of Friday, Burn said Cagni had yet to respond to a residency challenge filed as part of a battle for control of the 19th ward -- a fact which surprised him. Cagni has about two weeks left to reply; if she doesn't, Burn says he will have to remove her from the committee. "I would have expected somebody to send me some documentation by now," he says.

When I asked what kind of documentation would be germane, he indicated that a "consistent voting record in the 19th ward" would be one "compelling argument" for retaining her. Such information is publically available, but Burn says that in the event of a challenge like this one, he only considers evidence brought before him. 

I, of course, am under no such restriction. And I can tell you that according to county election records, Cagni has indeed consistently been listing the 19th ward as her home for voting purposes.

Of course, it is possible to vote in one place even if, for most intents and purposes, you live in another. (Just ask Dok Harris.) But Burn says that establishing residency often involves weighing various factors, since a person can have various residencies while having only one "domicile." A steady voting record would be "a significant factor" in Cagni's favor, he says.  

Friday, June 11, 2010

ACLU tussling with state over Point State Park regulations

Posted By on Fri, Jun 11, 2010 at 6:35 PM

The ACLU may be headed for a confrontation with the state's Department of Conservations and Natural Resources, thanks to the agency's policies regarding political activity at Point State Park. 

Vic Walczak, the ACLU's state legal director, tells CP that he has heard complaints from Green Party political activists who have been around the park in recent days, handing out literature and seeking petition signatures. The activists say they were approached by police, who told them to knock it off or face a citation or arrest. In a June 7 letter to park manager Frances Stein, Walczak charged that the ACLU

has recieved several complaints ... that you have called the Pittsburgh police and together with them threatened to cite and/or arrest people who are distributing literature or circulating petitions on the sidewalks surrounding and inside Point State Park. We write this letter to advise you that such a restriction on political activity, be it on a sidewalk or in the park, violates the First Amendment, and that if we receive even one more complaint we will immediately seek relief from a federal judge.

At first, the letter seemed to do the trick: Since sending it, Walczak says, he has heard no further complaints from activists. 

But then the state sent Walczak a reply ... and now he has a complaint of his own. 

On June 10, DCNR chief counsel Kimberly Hummel wrote back to Walczak, asserting that park officials had to juggle a wide number of divergent uses, and "the management of ... activities at urban parks such as Point State Park is particularly important." The letter went on to say that while leafletting and other such activitiy is permitted, the activists "did not comply with the regulations" because they 

did not provide an application to the park office for permission to carry out [their] planned activities or provide copies of the materials to be distributed. Given the nature of your client's activites, permission would have been granted for the activity [but] the State Park staff had not received any notice of the activites in which your client intended to engage.

Hummel gave the activists "permission to engage in the requested activity at Point State Park. However, your client should provide proper notice to the park office ... so the park staff has notification of the nature of the activities that will occur as well as their time and place." 

Hummel also thoughtfully included a copy of state regulations governing "organized events; public assemblies [and] distribution of printed matter." According to those regulations, "a copy of any printed material to be distributed shall be delivered to the park manager" in advance.

Walczak described himself as "flabbergasted" by the regulations, which he had not previously been aware of.

Sure, prior to the G20, the ACLU had fought with city officials on behalf of clients who wanted to use the park for political activity -- but those were organized, multi-day events. At issue here was a handful of activists engaging in one-on-one political discussion. 

And yeah, for many years, Point State Park could have served as the backdrop for a remake of Footloose: The park long had prohibitions against cycling, and other leisure activities.  But while those rules are merely "silly," Walczak says, "what we're talking about here is First Amendment activity" -- political speech. He objects especially to the provision requiring prior approval from park officials for activities like leafletting. "That's prior restraint -- 'you have to clear it with us first'," he says-- and Constitutional law does not look kindly on that. 

Walczak surmises that the Park enforces these regulations only when other events -- like the ongoing Arts Festival -- are taking place. But he says a 2008 federal court decision establishes that counterprotests or other political activity can be barred only if itconstitutes a disruption.

In that case, the Third Circuit Court held that Philadelphia police were right to prevent fundamentalist Christians from protesting at a gay-pride event -- but only because the protest was so disruptive that it infringed on the rights of gay people to speak.

"When protesters move from distributing literature and wearing signs to disruption of the permitted activities, the existence of a permit tilts the balance in favor of the permit-holders," wrote federal judge Dolores K. Sloviter.

Explicit in that reasoning, says Walczak, is the idea that distributing literature and wearing signs should be permitted unless it IS disruptive. In a case like this, he says, there's no reason an event like the Arts Fest should be able to squeeze out other non-disruptive activity. 

The Arts Festival ends this weekend, and Walczak says the ACLU is "on a hair-trigger" should it hear of future attempts to curtail free-speech activity. Even if nothing more happens, he says, "we will likely write back to the [DCNR] and advise them of the various ways their regulations violate the Constitution. And we'll suggest that they change it -- or we'll be happy to help them out with that ourselves."

More blanks fired in gun ordinance dispute

Posted By on Fri, Jun 11, 2010 at 10:56 AM

The playwright Anton Chekhov once said that if there's a gun on the mantlepiece in Act I, it must go off before the play ends. 

That may not be true of gun-control legislation, though. As we've previously reported, a city ordinance requiring that gun owners report lost-and-stolen firearms has yet to be enforced -- despite being passed two years ago.

A similarly unenforced Philadelphia law has been working its way through the courts. And yesterday, the state Supreme Court handled the law-that-has-never-been-used by declining to judge its merits.

Both sides of the gun-control debate declared victory. Which can only mean that each side is probably wrong.  

The Post-Gazette has a somewhat murky version of the story, with the headline "State high court upholds ordinance to report lost, stolen weapons."

Actually, that's sort of mistating matters.  As the text of the story itself suggests, the court's one-sentence decision said nothing about the merits of Philly's law. It merely upheld an earlier Commonwealth Court opinion, which found that none of the plaintiffs challenging the law -- local gun owners and advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association -- had any standing to oppose it. 

The lower court's position on the standing issue is spelled out on page 6: In order to challenge a law, you have to "allege a particularized, concrete injury ... which is causally traceable to the complained-of [law]." But because none of the Plaintiffs had been charged under the law, they "failed to establish any injury sufficient to confer standing with respect to these three Ordinances."

In other words, all the Supreme Court did was agree that a law can remain on the books ... at least until someone is charged under it. 

Pittsburgh's stolen-gun ordinance is much like Philly's, and is in the same limbo. That's because it, too, was challenged in court under a "shoot first, ask questions later" strategy. Once again, the NRA and its allies challenged the law before it was enforced, as Allegheny County Judge Stanton Wettick noted in a ruling of his own.

Wettick cited the Philly case as the governing precedent, noting that it presented "an almost identical fact situation." In Pittsburgh, the plaintiffs argued that their situation was different because one of them had lost a firearm previously -- though that was apparently before the ordinance was passed. Wettick shrugged that off.

Courts should only weigh in on a law's merits, he wrote, when presented with a "lawsuit ... brought by the persons who are actually being harmed" by it. Hypothetical harms don't count, and even if a plaintiff had lost a gun in the past, Wettick wrote, "I fail to see how this shows that there is a significant likelihood that this plaintiff will have another firearm stolen will fail to report the theft and will be prosecuted for his failure to report." 

It's worth noting, in fact, that none of the Pittsburgh plaintiffs said they would NOT report a stolen gun. Presumably, these are all responsible gun owners -- people who would report a firearm's disappearence, the same way they would report a missing car. So don't expect to see them back any time soon.

Still, Wettick's ruling, too, was appealed to the Commonwealth Court. I'm guessing that will just amount to firing blanks as well. There's a bizarre standoff taking place here: We've got a law that's never been enforced, being appealed by people who would never run afoul of it.

I don't know if anyone will be charged under Pittsburgh's law. But if that day comes, the defendant will almost certainly be  a lot less sympathetic and responsible than the plaintiffs we've heard from so far. It'll be interesting to see if the NRA rallies to their side. 

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Whistling past the graveyard ... and other news

Posted By on Thu, Jun 10, 2010 at 8:01 PM

A little follow-up on my column this week, about Marcellus Shale natural-gas leasing rights being sold in the city.

In recent days, there's been a spate of rumors that the historic Allegheny Cemetery to allow drilling beneath its grounds. The rumors were pervasive enough that yesterday, city councilor Patrick Dowd's office issued a statement to community groups in Lawrenceville, saying that

Our office has spent the last few days trying to confirm or deny the allegation that Allegheny Cemetery has signed a lease agreement with a Marcellus Shale drilling company.  After much online research and calls to the Department of Environment Protection and the Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds, it seems there is no easy way to find this information (however, our intern, Alicia Harris, is in the process of going record by record).  As a result, Councilman Dowd went right to the source -- the president of Allegheny Cemetery, who unequivocally stated that they have signed no such lease nor are they in negotiations with any Marcellus Shale interests.

I spoke with Tom Roberts, the cemetery's president, who confirmed that while "we've had inquiries many times" on drilling beneath the cemetery, there are no such offers currently under discussion. While he said the cemetery would seriously consider future offers, his impression was that drilling companies were "just going through property lists" rather than pursuing the cemetery in particular. 

In fact, Roberts seemed bemused by all the speculation. The Marcellus Shale is buried a mile in the ground, he notes, whereas "all of our inhabitants are six feet from the surface." 

In other news, you may have already known this-- word went out a couple days ago -- but county executive Dan Onorato will be speaking at the PrideFest opening ceremonies on June 13. I'm guessing he's got a little ways to go before he's as comfortable touring gay bars as, say, Ed Rendell. But combined with steps being taken by the county to provide domestic partner benefits, it's progress.

And finally, interesting post from Nate Silver here, wondering why Arlen Specter lost his seat while Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas retained hers. Both incumbents faced Democratic primary challengers backed by the "netroots" -- Lincoln had to fend off Bill Halter, while Specter lost to Joe Sestak. 

Both challengers were favorites of Web sites like Daily Kos. But part of the reason Specter met the harsher fate, Silver argues, is that progressive bloggers are more representative of Pennsylvania's Democratic base. Thus, the preference of bloggers matched primary voters here more closely than in Arkansas.  

Readers of major liberal blogs, who were active on behalf of both Sestak and Halter, are mostly white, college-educated, and liberal. Not all of the readers, by any means, but most -- that's the prevailing demographic for political and most any other type of blogs.

We can formulate a reasonable (although imperfect) estimation of how "bloggy" a Democratic primary electorate is by looking up its exit polls from 2008 and multiplying together the fraction of voters who were white, who were liberal, and who were college-educated. By this measure, Pennylvania ranks toward the upper half of the list, and Arkansas toward the bottom. Connecticut, where Ned LaMont was successful in his primary challenge against Joe Lieberman in 2006, also ranks highly by this metric.

Silver's smarter than me, but I'm not sure I buy this. Because for starters, a county-by-county breakdown suggests that Sestak also beat Specter in the parts of Pennsylvania that are most like, well, Arkansas.

Look at Sestak's margins in many rural counties like Somerset and Fayette -- not exactly bastions of effete liberalism. They were 14 and 17 points respectively. Those are big numbers ... and I guarantee you those voters weren't taking marching orders from the Daily Kos. (And if anything, actually, some Netroots support for Sestak seemed to drain away as Halter became the cause celebre of the liberal blogosphere.)

That points up part of the problem with Silver's metric: When calculating a state's affinity for netroots attitudes, it gives race exactly the same weight as college education and liberal-ness. Which is gonna seem messed up to just about anybody who actually lives here. (Hell, if local bloggers were characteristic of the Democratic electorate as a whole, it would have been Tim Tuinstra, not Adam Ravenstahl, who'd be representing the North Side in Harrisburg today. And Bill Peduto would be mayor.) 

Maybe all three of these factors track pretty closely in states like Connecticut, but unlike lots of other places, Pennsylvania is still a refuge for working-class Dems who skew conservative on social issues.

Not saying these folks don't read blogs. Just that the blogs they do read are as likely to be authored by Andrew Breitbart as Markos Moulitsas. And they, too, would have their own reasons for opposing Arlen Specter. 

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