Thursday, March 31, 2011

Diver Down: Trib editorial on Carnegie exhibit reaches new depths

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 7:01 PM

I've often thought of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's editorial page as a form of performance art: Reading it is like watching a performance by Karen Finley ... except when it's time to simulate the smearing around of fecal matter, the creators use newspaper ink instead of chocolate.

Even so, I never thought of the Trib's editorial page as a place to find art criticism. Until today, with the publication of this rather singular piece of journalism.

Headlined "A slip and a slap at the Carnegie," the unsigned editorial denounces the Carnegie for the marketing of its current exhibit, Paul Thek: Diver

With this exhibit, the editorial argues, "The Carnegie Museum of Art obviously has forgotten who bakes its biscotti and caffes its cappuccino, so to speak. For the shot-and-beer crowd, that means Pittsburgh's supposedly pre-eminent gallery for all things art has forgotten who butters its bread."

Once you're done being dazzled by the Joycean wordplay here -- "caffes its cappuccino"? -- you'll note the characterisitcally Tribbish tone. On the one hand, it affects to be speaking for us dumb yinzers, who just like art if it's got pretty "kellers" n'at. On the other hand, the paper's real gripe is with cultural institutions who ignore the demands of wealthy elites -- the people who "butter its bread."

Because after a couple paragraphs of mocking the concept of "avant-garde art" ("sane people would call it 'rank,'" we're told), we get to what really bugs the Trib about the exhibit: 

[W]hat's even more tasteless is that for one of the billboards used to promote the retrospective, the Carnegie chose a Thek work that features the phrase "Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted" in yellow paint surrounded by a sea of purple.

Wait a minute ... yellow and purple ...  that sounds familiar ... where have I seen that combination of colors together before? Hmmm ...


Oh, noes! Somebody get Glenn Beck on the line pronto.

But of course, the Trib doesn't need a chalkboard to see the dread hand of socialism here. 

Thek created this particular work in the latter years of his life, as he was dying of AIDS. But the expression "Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted," the Trib duly notifies us, has its origins in a saying by a humorist Finley Dunne. It was intended, the Trib says, to warn "against some newspapers' proclivity to misuse their power."

The Trib then adds: "[T]he phrase has been roundly misemployed -- interpreted literally -- by liberal media types and their oftentimes socialist acolytes."

Hmmm ... newspapers that abuse their own power? You don't say. I can see why a paper owned by Richard Mellon Scaife wouldn't want me to interpret such a warning literally. If you did that, after all, you might suspect that the publisher could be using his paper's editorial page to settle a personal grievance.

For lo! That "afflict the comfortable" business is, it seems, disrespecting wealthy benefactors ... like the ancestors of Mr. Scaife himself!

The editorial denounces the museum for an ad campaign that "arrogantly backhand[s] the very benefactors who make the Carnegie Museum of Art possible today."

"Museum managment should feign no surprise if Mr. Carnegie's philanthropic heirs slap back," the editorial concludes.

Whew! Lucky thing the Thek exhibit isn't housed in the museum's Scaife galleries! (It's housed in the Heinz galleries instead -- where it can be better appreciated, one presumes, by a certain pickle heiress and other freedom-haters.) 

In any case, the Carnegie, to its credit, is standing firm. It has already plastered the Trib's editorial on its Facebook page, and tweeted about it repeatedly today.

And the Trib's own art critic wrote a straight-ahead preview of the show, noting that Thek's work can be disturbing, but exploring the artist's intentions. (This would be a good place to say that many rank-and-file Tribune-Review staffers are honest souls and good reporters. Embarrassing editorials like this are not their fault. This is me, comforting the afflicted.) 

But what's really interesting about this editorial is not what it says about the museum ... but what it suggests about the Trib's ideas of philanthrophy. Apparently, the Trib believes that once you take money from a rich person, you are to consider yourself bought and sold. You are never to say anything that your benefactor -- or his heirs -- might disapprove of. When you take a check from a guy with a lot of money, in other words, you are supposed to be his bitch, forever. 

That, I'm guessing, is what it means to be Dick Scaife's editorial writer. Similar rules may apply to the numerous think tanks that have been bankrolled with Scaife's money. Whether such rules should apply to a museum, however, is a matter for debate. 

Online only: A Conversation with Dan Savage

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 1:22 PM

Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage -- whose column of course appears in City Paper every week --  was in town last night, giving a talk at the University of Pittsburgh. Savage was on hand to talk about the It Gets Better Project, an online outreach effort directed at gay teens. Savage and his partner Terry Miller launched the project after a spate of suicides involving LGBT youth. The website now hosts thousands of online videos posted by LGBT adults, as well as their friends and allies -- all encouraging young teens that, yes, life can indeed get better after high school.

I met with Savage before his Pitt appearance, and we talked about the project ... and about a certain former US Senator from Pennsylvania whose name -- thanks to a Savage-led Google bomb -- has become a synonym for the "frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex."

The idea behind It Gets Better was to use social media to talk to kids directly. So why do a book?

I think books are magic. I've heard so many instances where somebody stumbled across a book at a time when they really needed to read that particular book. We're also trying to be sensitive to the fact that not all kids are online, not all kids can risk an incriminating browser history. And it's a way to call schools out and say, "All right, you say you're doing what you can to let the queer kids in the school -- out or not out -- know that they're supported by the administration. So shelve this book in the library."

For a lot of us -- particularly guys my age -- our first encounters with any writing about homosexuality was to go to a library, find the gay books, and sneak off to another part of the library and read them.

We want to call schools on their bluff. There are a lot of schools out there that are hostile environments for gay kids, that don't have GSAs [gay-straight alliances], where bullying is unchecked. And they're all pretending that butter can't melt in their mouth right now. So we want to say, "Where's your GSA, where's your anti-bullying program? Shelve this book." The President of the United States has an essay: What's controversial about that?

Well, last year the school district I grew up in refused to air Obama's speech about studying hard. So in some places, that might make things worse.

Oh my God.

So, what were the gay books in the library when you were a kid?

Oh, they were horrible. They were like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) by David Ruben. It was just this horrible book: "The relationships are short-lived and violent, and they can never be totally satisfied with each other -- blah blah blah." Unlike those 100 percent satisfying, never-violent straight relationships.

In selecting stories for the "It Gets Better" book, you had thousands of videos to choose from. What criteria did you use?

We really looked for a spread. There's only about 100 pieces in the book, and we wanted the book to represent the breadth of the LGBT experience. We have pieces by folks from all faiths, and religious traditions, people of all races, classes, trans people, bi people.

One of the early criticisms -- very early, like practically when our video was the only one up –-- of the project was that it was just gay white men talking. That made me psychotic because the project was open-sourced. Anybody could contribute. If there isn't something in there, or you don't feel represented, make the fucking video that represents you. Take some responsibility to participate.

And really -- at the end of the first week, when we had about 1,000 videos, everybody was in there. You can find everybody. There's tons of African Americans, tons of trans people, tons of white people, tons of other people of color.

The story I like to tell about that aspect of it is early on, we got an e-mail from a professor at Gallaudet University, the school for the deaf, scolding us for not having closed-captioned our video. And sending us the software so we could do it. Terry dropped everything and spent I think 12 hours one day closed-captioning our video. We wrote back to her and said, very proudly, "OK, our video is closed-captioned!" And she wrote back and said, "Now do the rest." There were like 1,000 videos on there, and we didn't have the 12,000 hours.

So we wrote her back and said, "You're right -- gay, deaf kids are isolated twice, and they need to get the message too. You're a professor at Gallaudet -- make some videos. There are gay people on your campus who speak ASL." Now there's lots of ASL videos on the site.

Were there videos that really surprised you, whose experience you just never expected to hear?

I've been around, and I've heard so much. So I can't say there's anything that leapt out and me and I went, "That's a life experience that shocks me." There were videos that really touched me, though. Gabrielle Rivera's video -- she's the lesbian poet from the Bronx who says, "It doesn't get better; you get stronger." I love that video.

And I've been really touched by the videos by straight people. It's great that people feel such a sense of ownership over the whole project, but early on people were like, "Why are their videos from straight people here -- that's not what the project is about. Take those down! How dare you!" they were writing to the straight people themselves, scolding them, after Terry and I -- who founded the project -- had posted the videos to our fucking project. And for me, I think a lot of the straight videos -- even Ezra Klein did a video, and he talks about having been bullied and how he got through it. He doesn't talk about LGBT issues at all, he just talks about coping. For me, the subtext of those videos for gay kids is, not all straight people are your enemies. And that's an important lesson for them to learn. So I love the videos by straight people.

But doesn't invite the argument that "your blues aren't like mine," and that straights are wrong to think that they know what gay kids go through?

Bullying is bullying, but there are unique and particular aspects to anti-gay bullying that account for gay teens being at four to eight times greater risk for suicide. So to address that, I think it's legitimate to have a gay-specific anti-gay bullying campaign. But that doesn't stop anyone else from doing a general one.

[According to University of Illinois researchers,] there are 67 anti-bullying programs designed for middle-schools and high schools. Only five of them even address anti-gay bullying. So it's a little straight-privileged for folks to turn around and say, "This one anti-bullying program doesn't talk about straight bullying," when of the 67 programs, 62 are entirely about straight-bullying. Even though anti-gay bullying in the schools is 50 percent of the bullying problem.

Were you surprised to get a video from President Obama?

We were blown away. It's not like Terry and I were sitting in a bar, having a cocktail telling oral-sex jokes about the night we met, thinking, "Oh yeah, in three weeks the President of the United States is going to make a video for this project." That kinda took us by surprise.

We launched the project after Billy Lucas' suicide in early September. It was Tyler Clementi's suicide at Rutgers that touched on race, and class, and technology -- it hit so many buttons. And that was the suicide that sort of exploded the issue into the national conversation. It was the shark attack that was so gruesome we started looking at all the other shark attacks ... it just felt like something has to be done, and we had stepped up a few weeks before and said, "Here's something you can do." So when everyone wanted to jump in, we had already built up a structure and some momentum.

How did you hear that Obama was going to be contributing a video? Did they just e-mail you the link?

No, the White House called. It was the second time I'd gotten a call from the White House in a few weeks.

What was the first one?

In the first week of the project, [White House advisor] Valerie Jarrett gave a speech to the [Human Rights Campaign]'s annual fundraising dinner titled, "It Gets Better." And I wrote a typical-of-me, measured, even-handed blog post. I said they had no right to promise kids, to give them hope, and to say "it gets better," because they can actually make it better, they can deliver, and they weren't. And I was really angered by the attempt of the White House to co-opt a campaign from a place of powerlessness about giving kids hope, by people who had a tremendous amount of power and could deliver more for these kids, and for all LGBT people -- stop enforcing Don't Ask/Don't Tell, stop appealing DOMA decisions that are going in our favor. Both of which things they have now done.

That must have been a hell of a blog post.

I don't take total credit. I actually think it was the mid-term elections, where they saw the total cratering of money from gay donors and the 33 percent of the gay vote [going] for Republicans. They went, "Now we've got to actually deliver, and not just promise."

Were you concerned that Obama's video was itself an attempt at co-optation?

We were worried going in, because what we'd gotten from Obama up to that point was him saying all the right things: Every speech he gave about gays was beautiful, and every cocktail party where he made remarks was very moving. But he wasn't delivering. He'd give these speeches as if he weren't the president of the United States -- like he was just some guy who thought gay people were nifty and shouldn't be discriminated against.

But then we watched this video. And even if he hadn't acted on DADT, or taken action on DOMA, and now the White House anti-bullying initiatives ... he not just said the right thing, but said something that was so powerful that it was doing something. He looked right into the camera and said, "There's nothing wrong with you. There's something wrong with the people who are telling you there's something wrong with you." For many gay kids, those people are their parents, and their faith leaders. So the president of the United States is taking sides in a battle between a 14-year-old and his parents about his sexuality -- and siding with the kid -- that's powerful.

And Obama has to know that what he could get for that is conservatives saying, "This is Big Government intruding in the family, and standing between kids and their religious leaders!"

But nobody's said that. It's been six months since his video came out, and there has been no blowback. That's one of the things -- you don't ever want to find a silver lining in the deaths of teenagers. But at least it's harder now to claim that being gay is a choice. It's harder now to deny that there is such a thing as gay children, and that they are suffering -- in part because of the people who insist that being gay is a choice. So Tony Perkins is rattling around the country, and Rick Santorum, insisting that being gay is a choice and a sin. But it was easier for Asher Brown, at age 13, to choose to put a bullet in his own head than to choose to be straight. If it's easier to choose to blow your own brains out, it's not a choice.

There has been some political blowback created by It Gets Better. [Mayor] Michael Bloomberg in New York City made a video where he said to LGBT kids, "If you're living in a small town, and they reject you, come to New York. New York's great, we welcome everybody." At the same time, his budget was zeroing out monies for the only homeless shelter in New York for LGBT teenagers. And 40 percent of homeless teenagers are LGBT; they wind up in big cities and, if there aren't services, they turn to things like survival prostitution.

And people were able to beat Michael Bloomberg up with this video, and he restored funding.

You've brought up Santorum now. What was your reaction when you heard he was in the mix of Republican presidential candidates?

You know, I honestly believe that barring some catastrophe, Barack Obama is going to be a two-term president. And I think the Republicans all know it, which is why you're not seeing any serious R's step up. You're seeing Huckabee, and Bachmann, and Palin, and now Santorum. You're seeing the jokes. And they're not running for president, they're running for Fox News contracts. If they're the nominee, and they get all that exposure, then they will be on Fox News for the next four years, and they will make shitloads of money. That's what they're running for.

So what's Rick Santorum doing? He's not running for president. He's reapplying for the job of being a Fox News talking head.

So if that's the case, why try to restart the "Spreading Santorum" website? Which, by the way –

-- Which I keep talking about and then not doing.

Yeah. What's going on there?

I'm just in denial that this asshole is actually running. And I'm a little conflicted because he's trying to play the Sarah Palin victim card and saying [in weepy voice] "Look how they attacked me. I'm just a poor defenseless US Senator who was trying to take this man's child from him, and make sure gay sex and straight masturbation remain illegal ... and they made fun of me." So I'm a little hesitant to get that going again. And his "Google problem" remains whether I write another blog post about him or not.

But you promised my readers new content on the site!

I know, I know, I know. And I have had people say, "I will blog every day." ... I want to get my picture with him, but now I think it's too late. Because they're building this campaign whining about Spreading Santorum, if I show up at a Santorum event, they're going to be all over me.

They're waiting for you to lick doorknobs [as Savage famously did during the 2000 election season to give conservative presidential candidates the flu].

No, I've aged out of the licking-doorknob stage of my writing career.

Hemingway went through the same phase, I understand

I know -- Vonnegut was still at it in his 80s, but I can't keep it up. There's too much residual Purell on everything these days. Now the doorknobs burn.

Rick Santorum's career took off here. Do we have an obligation to do something about his presidential bid?

I think you've done enough. You've handed him an 18-point defeat, and elected that empty suit, Casey, in his place. And he's really made a mark, hasn't he?

I'm sorry. It was the best we could do.

No, I'm totally for your anti-choice Democrat over your anti-choice Republican. And you handed Santorum his ass. There are two things he has to answer for in running for President: You lost your home state by 18 points -- what the fuck are you thinking? And your name is a swear word.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sneak Preview: Multiple Allegations Against Pittsburgh Police Officer

Posted By on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 8:54 AM

One of City Paper's charming little quirks is that while our print edition comes out Wednesday, its contents aren't uploaded to the website until Thursday. That's because we want people to pick up our print edition -- each copy of which is lovingly assembled by master craftsmen -- and we don't wish to scoop ourselves. 

But as fate would have it, today's Post-Gazette has a story about a police officer, Garrett Brown, who is also the subject of a story in our print edition this week. The P-G's Sadie Gurman discusses conflicting accounts of a late-night encounter between Brown and a pair of deliverymen last year, and reports that the incident is being reviewed by the city. 

City Paper's story, by our own Lauren Daley, also discusses the incident -- but in the context of a broader history. It's a history that involves previous complaints about Brown -- who was at the heart of a $150,000 legal settlement earlier this year -- and a decade-long debate over how to best handle officers who have been named in multiple civilian complaints. Because the P-G story is online today already, we thought our online readers might appreciate seeing our story as well.

And so here it is

After all, at this point, it's not like we can be scooped. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why We Can't Have Nice Things: chapter 3,104

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2011 at 11:41 PM

Yes, there's been another lapse of blogging here. I'll make up for it with an unreadably long post today, and the promise of shorter posts in the days to come. 

But first, some thoughts on the demise of the late, and not-very-lamented, line-warranty program offered by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. On paper, the program was sweetness and light -- created to protect Pittsburgh homeowners, whose city is plagued with aging infracture, from the steep cost of sewer and water-line repairs. But the program was distinguished by a controversial "opt out" provision, in which  customers were automatically enrolled in the program, and had to pay a $5 monthly fee. Worse, the firm retained to provide this warranty, Utility Line Services, was riddled with conflict-of-interest problems. 

The first reaction to the program's death, naturally, is celebration. Business-as-usual and special interests in Pittsburgh took it on the nose, thanks to Judge Stanton Wettick's deeming the plan illegal.

But although the bad guys may have lost, that doesn't mean the good guys -- or ratepayers -- have won. I actually think this is a sad story, one that says a lot about how truly fucked up this city is.  

Naturally, any story involving sewers suggests a metaphor for Pittsburgh's civic life. But the metaphors here are especially apt. Because the story of the line-insurance program, in all its promise and peril, sums up Pittsburgh's political scene right now. It's the story of a city whose populace is afraid of change, and whose leaders too often botch the job of delivering it.

There's a huge irony at the heart of Wettick's ruling. He didn't strike the line-warranty program down because of all the things that made it controversial. Instead, he said the line-insurance was a good, workable solution ... and that is why it had to die.

When news of the PWSA $5 charge first surfaced, city councilor Doug Shields and others objected vociferously to the the fact that customers were involuntarily enrolled in the program -- and had to take the time to un-enroll themselves from it. This was, Shields and other critics contended, against a city ordinance prohibiting "negative option billing." That ordinance prohibits providing "goods or services without any prior agreement of or a request from the recipient and then ... attempts to collect payment from the recipient."

Such a practice does seem blatantly unfair -- we expect to be asked if we want a service before being told to pay for it. And we assume that we, not some utility company or a government agency, know what's best for us. If we want line-insurance protection, then we'll buy it ourselves, thank you very much. 

Thing is, though, as I wrote a year ago, there's an ample body of reseach to say that we actually don't know what's best for us -- or, more precisely, that even when we know what's best for us, we may need encouragement to act on the knowledge. "Opt-out" provisions can provide that incentive, and many serious thinkers believe they should be used more often.

A good example is your employer's 401(k) program. Rates of participation in the retirement plans increase substantially when employees are enrolled automatically. And while they have the option of dropping out, few of them do so. We all know that saving for retirement is a good idea, but it's an abstract good. And some people have a hard time taking concrete steps in the here-and-now for an abstract benefit down the road. An opt-out retirement plan takes care of that for them. The net result? More people saving for their retirement, and fewer impoverished retirees burdening society.

Cass Sunstein, who serves as Barack Obama's regulatory czar, espouses just such approaches, as part of what he calls "choice architecture" -- creating polices that don't infringe on individual liberty, but do shape the context in which we decide how to exercise our freedom. (On the off chance you're interested -- this is the guy Glenn Beck likes to scream about -- Sunstein discusses this stuff in a book he co-authored, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.)

Sewer-line insurance, arguably, is a similar example of where a failure to act today can have catastrophic consequences in the future: It can cost many thousands of dollars to fix a sewer line. But because that possibility exists only in an abstract, theoretical future, it's easy to ignore.

By requiring customers to opt out, PWSA could plausibly say it was helping protect them against a danger that might otherwise deplete their savings. And because opt-out guarantees widespread participation, it would spread the risk out over the entire PWSA service area. That helps ensure a very low monthly premium. 

Wettick's ruling didn't consider that, exactly. He merely brushed aside concerns about "negative option billing" by noting that the city code applied to individuals and business entities -- not to government agencies. The code, he notes, specifically allows for taxes and fees levied by government.

Wettick did, however, acknowledge that the line-insurance program might well be serving the best interests of customers -- whether they recognized it or not. After all, he noted, the program "provides greater protection to the property owner and at less cost as compared to the warranty programs" of two competing firms. So much so, he argued, that "no PWSA customer is likely to continue in (or opt into) [private-sector] warranty programs because they offer less protection at a higher price."

In fact, it's obviously no coincidence that the two firms who offer those competing products, Dominion Products and Services and the Manchester Group, also sued the PWSA. And it was their complaint-- the complaint of self-interested for-profit entities, not ordinary ratepayers -- that overturned the law. 

Dominion and Manchester argued that by law, authorities aren't supposed to compete with private-sector business. An Wettick -- with what sounds like some reluctantance -- agreed.

As Wettick's ruling notes, the state's Municipality Authorities Act limits the kinds of services a government agency can provide. One portion of the law bars such entities from doing anything to "unnecssarily burden or interfere with existing business by the establishment of competitive enterprises." Another bars government agencies from "duplicat[ing] or compet[ing] with existing enterprises serving substanitally the same purposes."

From this, Wettick makes a somewhat surprising conclusion: Government can't be permitted to do things better than a private business. 

I recognize that it is likely that no business enterprise can provide the benefits to PWSA and to its customers that are provided by the PWSA Opt-Out Line Warranty Program. However, the apparent purpose of [state law] is to protect existing business enterprises from losing business to an enterprise created by a municipal authority. Or, in other words, the apparent purpose is to prevent a municipal authority from competing with existing business enterprises by providing a better service or a better product. (Emphasis mine)

We're all used to the claim that "government should be run more like a business." But by Wettick's reasoning, doing so might actually be against the law in some cases. After all, Wettick notes, state officials apparently believe in the goal of "keeping government small."

So if you liked the line program -- and believe it or not, some people did -- you have some consolation. Sure, you may have to spend more for private-sector line-insurance, and the insurance you get may not be as good. But at least you're being protected from socialism

And who can put a price on that?

OK, that was a cheap shot. Obviously, a government agency has access to a whole range of taxpayer support that a private enterprise can't rely on. (Unless it's a Downtown department store or a major-league sports team.) So, yes, a for-profit corporation indeed could have legitimate fear of government competition.

Except in Pittsburgh. Where government is its own worst enemy.

Because there's an obvious elephant in the room which Wecht's (editor's note: uh, I mean Wettick's) ruling-- and this blog post, so far -- have barely mentioned. And that is that while the idea of this program might be sound, the implementation was an absolute clusterfuck.

For starters, even a thinker like Sunstein -- who believes government can play a role in shaping our choices -- doesn't believe in being sneaky about it. Here he is in Nudge:

If government alters [rules] it should not be secretive about what it is doing ... [W]e need to be worried about incomptence and self-dealing on the part of Nudgers. If the Nudgers are incompetent, then they could easily do more harm than good by directing people's choices. And if the risk of self-dealing is high, then it is right to be wary of attempts to nudge. There are some who think that any decision made by a governmet official is likely to be incompetent and corrupt. 

A significant number of Pittsburghers fall into that camp -- and with good reason. The cases of "self-dealing" on the part of city officials are too numerous -- and too familiar to anyone reading this blog -- to go into.

The line-insurance program itself was a particularly egregious example. Of course ULS turns out to have personal and business ties to the PWSA's executive director. And of course the guy who gets the job of doing the repair work happens to be a Democratic committeeperson. That's just how we do things in Pittsburgh.

At this point, I wouldn't be suprised if the whole program turns out to have been some massive Ponzi set-up, with too little money being set aside for line repairs, and too much going into ULS's pockets. (I'm not alleging such a thing, just saying that given the troubling history here, it wouldn't surprise me at all.)

Making things worse: There was no notice on the front end about this program -- $5 charges just started popping up on people's bills. And on the back end, opting out was a cumbersome, months-long process. If the PWSA sought to antagonize its customers on purpose, it couldn't have done a better job. 

Add to that our city's (frequently deserved) reputation for fearing change, even with programs that aren't tainted by conflicts of interest. Well-intentioned programs too will meet with intense resistance. Just ask Alan Hertzberg, a former city councilor who tried to implement an innovative, but highly controversial program to fight "suburban flight."

The program, which had been used successfully in Chicago, enrolled homeowners in struggling communities in a kind of home-insurance program. Homeowners would have their homes assessed, and then be insured for the full value of the home -- even if neighborhood decline damaged property values in the years to come. 

The program carried a one-time fee for the assessment and a $20-a-year premium. In exchange for a small payment upfront, it offered residents protection from a catastrophic decline in the value of their property. By giving them a reason not to panic and flee to the suburbs, it helped shore up the community. But for his troubles, Hertzberg attracted a firestorm of criticism, and his program attracted a lawsuit.

You'd think the PWSA board might have learned from that example. Hertzberg was replaced on council for a time by Dan Deasy -- who as a state rep now chairs the PWSA board. Deasy is joined by city councilor Patrick Dowd. Not only is Dowd a former history teacher -- who should know what happens when you ignore the lessons of the past -- but he's also long been an advocate of by-the-book process and transparency.

I talked to Dowd this morning about the line-insurance program. On the on hand, he still thinks opt-out is "a great idea." On the other, he acknowledges he made mistakes in pursuing it. 

"The judge's ruling says that opting out is completely allowed -- and that it's a good program," Dowd notes. "The thing that's really distressing to me is that there are people living across the city who have no coverage now -- and the coverage they can get won't be as good."

But what about the total lack of notification? The fact that homewoners didn't know this program existed until $5 charges started appearing on their bills?

"If I made a mistake, it's that I was too anxious to get the program out of the box and solve the problem," Dowd admits. "I was listening to the people who were crying -- people all over my district were paying thousands of dollars to fix their lines. It's fair to say I moved too quickly because I thought the solution was the right one ... And obviously, I wasn't getting great advice from our executive director."

Indeed, Dowd says that once he and other board members learned of the conflicts of interest, "We agreed that the minute we had cause to terminate the contract, we would. And then we'd rebid it."

Wettick's ruling seems to preclude that possibilty, however. He writes that the line-insuarance program would still run afoul of state law even if the PWSA hired an existing business to cover and repair sewer lines. Such a move would "displace the status quo," he writes, in which such services are contracted directly by homeowners.

To address that, Dowd says, "I've asked Dan Deasy to look at [state law] and see if there is a possibility of exempting [Pittsburgh] so that we could offer that program. Then we could come back and try it again."

I won't hold my breath. This is a change-resistant city, and these are paranoid times. As we've seen, there are plenty of people lined up against the opt-out policy ... and the PWSA's ineptitude has ensured that there won't be many people lined up for it. "Opt-out" is now associated in people's minds with the worst kind of backroom dealing, though it need not have been that way at all. 

What's the result? Dominion and Friends stand to get some additional revenue, while customers may well end up with inferior coverage. To my mind, that isn't a defeat of the city's special interests ... that's  a victory of one set of special interests over another.

The rest of us just get an object lesson. Which is this: Even when Pittsburgh gets the right idea, we get the wrong execution.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

WDUQ general manager Hanley to leave station

Posted By on Tue, Mar 22, 2011 at 3:38 PM

WDUQ's sale to a non-profit joint venture has yet to be completed, but already there is a major personnel change at the station: General manager Scott Hanley will soon be signing off the air.

After 16 years in the position, Hanley announced on his blog yesterday that he accepted a job as the interim chief communications officer for the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit located  Downtown.

"It's a great opportunity," Hanley tells City Paper. "Change is both exciting and hard, but it's a way in which we grow."

Hanley's decision comes roughly three months after Duquesne University announced that the school would sell WDUQ's license to Essential Public Media, a joint venture of WYEP-FM and Public Media Company. As City Paper reported in February, the deal blindsided Hanley and other WDUQ employees who, as part of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Public Media, submitted a higher bid for the license.

Asked whether the career change was motivated by the uncertainty at WDUQ, Hanley said the foundation post "deserved consideration no matter what my status."

It's still uncertain exactly what format 90.5 will take under EPM, but it's widely believed that the new station will probably be lighter on jazz and heavier on local news. As for staffing at EPM, Hanley says it's uncertain how many, if any, WDUQ employees will transfer to the new station. But he says EPM is unlikely to make any decisions until after they hire a general manager, a position the new owner advertised shortly after the sale was announced. 

Hanley tells CP he’s going to miss WDUQ -- "even to some extent, I’ll miss the pledge drives,” he jokes.

"My 16 years at WDUQ have been a remarkable experience,” he wrote on his blog. "It's been an honor to work with such an amazing community of people."

Hanley will start his new job on April 1, but says he will remain involved with WDUQ until April 15. Once he departs, an interim general manager, who has yet to be named, will take over the station’s operations ... at least until WDUQ too signs off.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Court filing opens chapter #174,076 in the Great Electronic Billboard Debate

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2011 at 2:44 PM

Last week, we reported that Scenic Pittsburgh and Mike Dawida, its executive director, were planning  to compel the city to remove the unfinished electronic billboard at the Grant Street Transportation Center.

Today, the organization took the matter to Common Pleas court, filing a petition against the city and Lamar Outdoor Advertising, the company that started to construct the billboard in 2008.

The petition -- which you can view here -- is a mandamus action, which compels a government official to take actions he or she is legally obligated to take. And the sign must come down, the petition argues, since "there is no legal authority for the sign to remain on the site and its continued presence on the Property is illegal."

Scenic Pittsburgh's attorneys, Patricia McGrail and Isobel Storch, go on to write: "As a result of the Parking Authority and Lamar's continued violation of the Pittsburgh Zoning Code, the Plaintiffs have suffered substantial and special injury in that the enormous black sign is an eyesore, visually offensive and detrimental to the look of the urban landscape of the Golden Triangle of downtown Pittsburgh."

Back in 2008 and 2009, the billboard fight was one of the most contentious disputes between members of city council and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Zoning law would ordinarily have required the billboard to go through an extensive review process, with public hearings and approval by city council. But the Ravenstahl Administration, in particular then-Urban Redevelopment Authority Director Pat Ford, established a billboard-swapping deal in which Lamar could put up one new electronic sign for every six older billboards it took down. With that agreement in place, the administration issued a permit allowing the billboard without the usual public review.

City officials said the arrangement reduced blight from old signs. But it led city councilors to file two separate lawsuits against Lamar and the city. As a result of those suits, Lamar's permit was ruled invalid, and a belated review process denied its application for a new one -- even though construction of the billboard was already underway. That has left a big, partially built eyesore right a the end of Grant Street ... at least until Scenic Pittsburgh filed its suit.

"We at Scenic Pittsburgh support the public zoning process as the fair and equitable means to uphold the values and expectations of our citizens," says Dawida."This partially completed sign hanging at a prominent downtown intersection has remained an eyesore for more than three years now. It is time to finally resolve the issue once and for all."

Lamb: not sheerly running for controller?

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2011 at 1:41 PM

This will be the first of a handful of posts stemming from the political forum City Paper helped out with this past weekend. I'm making the somewhat counterintuitive choice to start with a race that is uncontested: city controller Michael Lamb's reelection bid.

I'm doing it for two reasons. First, as we've noted before, so much of this year's elections are really about Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and a referendum on the job he's doing -- and that's exactly what Lamb ended up talkign about. And second, the fact that this race has only one entrant made it really easy to transcribe the highlights.

Lamb spoke for a bit under 10 minutes, and most of his early remarks were responding to a question about city pensions from fellow moderator Jeanne Clark. But at around the five-minute mark, Lamb launched into a critique of the city's present leadership -- a critique that wasn't prompted by a question from the floor. Part of Lamb's message was that city finances are tipping into the red. But another part of it sounded like ... well ... it sounded like the first speech of the 2013 mayoral race.

Of course, maybe that's just me, since I'm on record as suspecting Lamb has mayoral ambitions anyway. But look his remarks over, and see what you think:

Let me just talk about one other thing. I’m glad to have the question about pensions; I was very involved in that debate last year, and I think in the end council did a great job in getting things done.

But I think most of you know me in this room know me to be kind of a glass-half-full kind of guy. I’m an optimist. I live by the old song "You Have to Accentuate the Positive." But I would be kidding myself if I didn’t tell you that I’m a little worried about Pittsburgh right now.

I’m worried about the direction we’re going. I worry when progress is halted by petty politics. I’m worried when our leadership is talking about people rather than about ideas. And so I worry about the direction we’re moving as a city ...

This year, later this year I will be releasing the financial report of 2010, and it will show for the first time that the city end of the year into the red -- the first time since I’ve been in office. We’ve got problems, and significant problems, that need serious consideration and serious proposals. Unfortunately, a lot of the proposals that we’ve seen to deal with some of the issues are either right-wing privatization schemes or proposals that seem to be more interested in what the pinstrip patronage is getting, rather than what ordinary taxpayers in the city are going to get.

So I am concerned about that, and so we work to be involved in those issues -- that's why I got so involved in the parking/pension issue. It's why I'm very involved in this issue with respect to [a proposed merger of city and county financial-management systems] that for some reason now has come to a halt. We really need to address these issues in a constructive way, and in a way that in the end really deals with what is necessary for the people who live here in the city of Pittsburgh.

I should also add that prior to these remarks, Lamb made a joke about how I never wear neckties. Deriding the sartorial choices of alt-weekly journalists has never harmed anyone's political aspirations. 

OK, I've beaten this horse twice now this election cycle, which means I've twice written headlines with painful puns on Lamb's last name. (Get it? Lamb? Shear?Eh? Eh?)Time to move ahead. Coming soon: highlights of the Fitzgerald/Flaherty county exec match-up.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Something is the Matta: Anonymous allegations in county controller race

Posted By on Tue, Mar 8, 2011 at 5:24 PM

There'll be plenty to say about this weekend's Democratic Party endorsements -- and I'll be posting excerpts from our Saturday night political forum over the next 24 hours.

But there was one other weekend development which didn't get quite as much attention. On Saturday -- the last mailing day before the party's endorsement vote was held -- Democratic committeepeople received an anonymous postcard targeting one of the candidates for county controller, George Matta.

Postmarked March 4, one side of the postcard asks five questions. They are, in order:

1) George Matta?

2) George Matta??

3) George Matta???

4) For County Controller????


The flip side of the card argues that "This Election Is Too Important to Kid About." It accuses Matta of "Pay to Play Politics," and notes that when Matta challenged Marc Gergely in a 2006 race for state representative, the Post-Gazette endorsed Gergely "based on Matta's Campaign Record of Lies And Deception." (Indeed, the P-G endorsement is plenty harsh.)

The postcard also notes that Matta was sued for racial discrimination when he was Allegheny County's Clerk of Courts. Among the allegations was the claim that Matta used racial epithets when discussing county employees. In a deposition stemming from that lawsuit, Matta denied using the word "nigger" in the conversation attributed to him. And while he acknowledged using the word in other contexts, he didn't do so "in a derogatory manner." (Matta denied the discrimination charges, and the case was later settled.)

That lawsuit was also brought up in an open letter sent out last week by another Democratic county controller candidate, Valerie McDonald Roberts. But while McDonald Roberts acknowledged sending the letter at the Saturday night forum, she denied having anything to do with the postcard.

"I did not send out the postcard," she said. "I am able to ... bring up issues that need to be brought up. But if I do, it will be my signature on it ... I do things above-board, and only above-board. " A spokesman for the third Democrat in the race, Chelsa Wagner, also denied any part in the mailing. 

"We've spent enough money putting out a positive message about our candidate," said J.J. Abbott, whose candidate actually won the party endorsement.

I spoke with Brad Matta, the candidate's son, who confirmed the Matta camp is aware of the postcard. And they aren't happy about it: "There's no place in Democratic politics for making charges you can't attach your name to," he said.

There are, in fact, rumors that Matta is taking the postcard to the District Attorney's office. Brad Matta would not confirm that, exactly, but he did note that according to state law, when money is paid for mailings or other advertisements "expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate," the ad is supposed to "clearly and conspicuously" identify "the [responsible person or organization] who made or financed the expenditure for the communication."

"At this time, we're looking at the appropriate channels to address" the mailing, says Matta. 

The campaign also sent us this response last week, when we asked about McDonald Roberts' letter. Since much of that response seems germane to the postcard's allegations too, we'll reprint it here:

Unfortunately, when some candidates find themselves facing almost certain defeat they panic and do things they might not normally do. Interjecting race into a political campaign in the desperate hope of gaining some advantage is not something we would have expected from Valerie McDonald Roberts.

What she alludes to in her mailing to Democratic Committee members as racial insensitivity on the part of my father are disproven allegations coming from an angry employee he dismissed while serving as Clerk of the Allegheny County Courts.

Attempting to elevate baseless allegations from an angry x-employee into a credible charge that George Matta made racist comments is a sorry act from a panicked candidate.

Dennis Roddy's words in Corbett's mouth?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 8, 2011 at 2:38 PM

In the near future, you'll be hearing lots of analysis about what Tom Corbett's budget address means for Pennsylvania. Some of it may be on this very blog (though I've got a bunch of local politics stuff in the pipeline first).

But while listening to Corbett's speech, I confess that one of the first questions I had was fairly trivial: How much of a hand did Dennis Roddy have in this?

Roddy, you may recall, recently left the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to do communications for Corbett. He was a little hazy on the job description, though speech writing was clearly going to be part of his duties. 

I haven't checked with Roddy on this yet -- and I have a strong feeling he won't be able to tell me anyway. But there's at least one part of this speech that bears his fingerprints: the part where Corbett invokes poet William Wordsworth. 

From the transcript of Corbett's speech:

Two hundred years ago a group of English poets talked of building a utopian community along the banks of the Susquehanna. It was their dream to come to Penn's Woods and flourish. They never made it here. Maybe they heard about our property taxes.

One of their friends was the poet William Wordsworth. He identified the dangers of a culture of spending. He wrote:

Getting and spending

We lay waste our powers

Note the subtlety there. It's not that we use up our powers. We lay them waste. We lose them outright. Getting and spending we lose track of our real purpose.

What makes me so sure that Dennis Roddy had a hand here? First off, who the hell else would invoke an English pre-Romantic poet in a discussion of fiscal policy? 

But more than that -- I happen to know that when Brian O'Neill wrote this column about Wordsworth's take on Pennsylvania fiscal misadventures, Roddy e-mailed him a scholarly note defending the poet.

O'Neill called the poem "To the Pennsylvanians" one of "the worst things Wordsworth ever wrote, and I'm including his grocery lists." Roddy, though, argued that Wordsworth's grievances were rooted in his belief that fiscal problems symbolized a deeper, more spiritual malaise. 

"Everyone else here was like, 'How did you even think of Wordsworth?'" O'Neill told me in an interview concerning Roddy's departure.  "Dennis was like,'I think you missed the point of his work.' He had very strong opinions about it." 

And he's obviously been sharing them with our governor. Let's just hope that we'll still be teaching Wordsworth after Corbett's guts education cuts take effect.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tony Ceoffe Jr.: Candidate of the future?

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2011 at 7:38 PM

How optimistic is city council candidate Tony Ceoffe Jr. about the upcoming March 6 party endorsement? 

Judging by a website we stumbled across -- -- he's pretty optimistic. And he's dreaming of support from some heavy-hitters in the community as well. 

Ceoffe's site -- which for reasons that will become clear, will be unavailable by the time you read this  -- popped up on the bottom of the first page of Google results when we searched the phrase "Tony Ceoffe for council."

(Update: as of Mar. 4, a cached version of the site was available.)

Ceoffe is challenging incumbent Patrick Dowd in City Council District 7, which includes Lawrenceville, Highland Park, and Stanton Heights. The party endorsement in that and other races will be held this Sunday. But the site already listed Ceoffe as being endorsed by the party committee.


In a section marked "community leaders," the site seems to anticipate backing from state Senator Jim Ferlo, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and Lauren Byrne -- who took the reins at community group Lawrenceville United from Ceoffe's father. All three sound a little tongue-tied: Each is quoted saying merely "blah blah blah."


Ceoffe is widely considered to be Ravenstahl's favored candidate in the race; Dowd has been a thorn in the mayor's side. But in January, Ceoffe told us that his "number-one goal is to be an advocate for the people of this district, not be a rubber stamp for one faction of council or another."

When City Paper called Ceoffe for comment this evening, he sounded genuinely surprised that the website was visible. He pledged to look into it and call us back -- which he did within 5 minutes. 

Ceoffe told his his younger brother had been "working over ideas on layout for a website, so when we did create one, we would have a running start." Ceoffe says the content was merely dreamt up by his brother for layout purposes, and that his brother thought the page  was being saved as a draft until they paid to register the domain. 

"He's trying to get that down because it really has no business being up there," Ceoffe says. "I haven't even been thinking too much about a website, because I've been concentrating on and working toward getting the [party] endorsement."

In any case, he says, he hasn't sought support from Ravenstahl or other officials, because the endorsement is still in the air. And he isn't taking the party's backing for granted. 

"That's my first step because without the endorsement, I'm not running."


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