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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Council debates for hours, misses point entirely

Posted By on Tue, Jul 6, 2010 at 8:34 PM

If you're among the handful of people paying attention to the Great Review Board Saga, you probably know that council voted to delay a vote on replacing five out of seven new members to the Citizens Police Review Board. 

For the most part, though, council spent its day arguing over trivia, while the real issue went almost entirely ignored. Surprise!

I mean, sure ... there was a spirited argument over whether city council President Darlene Harris acted properly when she first took the nominations off the agenda. There was an equally spirited -- and by "spirited" I mean "painfully long" -- debate about whether the nominations should be "tabled," "postponed" or merely "held." The whole thing was a powerful reminder over just how much a marriage of convenience was Harris' ascension to council's presidency in the first place. Lots of bad mojo between Harris and the folks -- Bill Peduto, et al -- whose votes put her in that position.

But I'm going to ignore that debate because very little of it matters. Council did agree to clean up murky language governing review board appointments -- addressing some of the weaknesses first pointed out here last month. But on the five new appointments that precipitated the crisis? Council did nothing except kick the can down the road a couple weeks, deciding to postpone a vote until just before taking its customary August recess.

Harris' move seemed to cheer the board's supporters at council today -- and some bloggers too. Based on what I heard at today's meeting, though, a crisis is still likely on the way.

Here's the problem: Nearly two weeks ago, I wrote the following:

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 ... And I don't see either side backing down. 

Nothing that happened today seems to have changed that. Yeah, council may rewrite its appointment procedures going forward. But in the meantime ... there is still this controversy about the board members currently on the table. (Or rather off the table held postponed.) And fixing rules for future appointees doesn't fix the flawed process that produced the current group.

Harris spoke, somewhat plaintively, of her desire to "to get this council to work together instead of against each other." She said she'd hoped to delay a vote "until things are settled, questions are answered ... and everything appears to be legal."

That's a good idea. But the only way to live up to it, arguably, is to scrap the current appointees and start over from scratch. Council will need to come up with three nominees for each of the review board seats under its purview. (That's not to say that the current crop of nominees shouldn't be on the new list. They just need to have company next time around.)

Anything short of that means council risks a lawsuit from the ACLU, which has already engaged in some sabre-rattling.

"If council votes to confirm the nominees who have been appointed by the mayor, without going through any additional process, then that is problematic," says Sara Rose, of the ACLU. Changing the code for future appointments would be a good idea -- it's one of the things the ACLU has recommended -- but by itself, it won't keep the city out of a courtroom. 

"We are hoping that council will not confirm any individuals who have not been properly appointed," Rose added, "but have not yet decided what we will do if council does."

So unless these appointments are scrapped entirely, council may well be headed to court. Which would be ironic, since part of what seems to be motivating council is a desire to reduce the city's exposure to costly litigation

But from what I can tell, there are still at least 5 votes in favor of replacing the current review board -- Harris and council's mayor-friendly bloc. I didn't get any sense that they were changing their minds today. At one point, for example, councilor Patrick Dowd said, "One of the things that concerns me is that some of my colleagues have said they'd like to restart this process." [ADDED: I should probably clarify that Dowd was speaking about Peduto and Co. here -- so this remark restates the divisions on this issue, rather than suggesting some sort of softening.]


It's worth stating briefly here why this matters.The Pittsburgh Comet makes the fairly obvious point that, had it not been for the review board's G-20 investigation, no one would care so much about it now. Well, sure. On the other hand, had it not been for the review board's G-20 investigation, would council have issued a bizarre resolution urging it to go slow? Would any of this be happening in the first place?

The proposed new nominees came before council last week. They seemed like nice people. All testified that they'd never spoken to the mayor, or anyone on council, about whether they would drop the G-20 matter. Or about anything else, really.

That was reassuring to hear. Somewhat less reassuring, however, was how little the prospective members knew about anything else the board does. During questioning by Doug Shields, nominee Diana O'Brien Martini candidly acknowledged she had next to no sense of how the board actually worked. How did it decide what cases to pursue? she wondered. Did that require a unanimous vote? And so on.

Ordinarily, I'd be fine with a board gaining some fresh perspectives. Boards and commissions are staffed by regular citizens -- good hearted volunteers who are supposed to stand in for the rest of us. The trade-off for that is that there's often a pretty steep learning curve. 

Which is fine, except there has never been more pressure on the review board than there is right now. As Shields pointed out, these review board members are walking into a situation where the board is currently pressing to have the police chief, Nate Harper, found in contempt of court And we're talking about five brand-spanking new members -- on a seven-member board -- walking in with zero experience. Ordinarily, that would never happen: Board terms are staggered to ensure a mix of new blood and old hands. But in this case, council and the mayor allowed current board members to serve expired terms ... such that now they are all being replaced at once.

I don't want to sell Martini or the other nominees short. They seem like good people, and it's unfair to say -- as some members of the public nearly did today -- that appointing these folks is an effort to kill the investigation. I sure don't know what the potential new members are going to do. Based on what I saw last week, I'm not sure they do either. 

So this isn't an attempt to stack the deck, necessarily. But it IS going to shuffle the deck, halfway through the game. That ought to be against the rules.

But that point is getting lost. And I've got a feeling that before this is over, some city dollars will be lost with it.

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