Thursday, March 3, 2011

A chance to shape the future of our city -- while still wearing your jammies

Posted By on Thu, Mar 3, 2011 at 2:31 PM

Hey, a special offer from Slag Heap Central here. It's not as good as the freebies you can sometimes get from That's Church, I admit. But I'm hoping that if you care about the future of this city, it'll be an offer you can't refuse. 

This weekend, City Paper is joining with Democratic committee leaders from Shadyside and Squirrel Hill to help moderate a political form. 

The event is running this Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. -- meaning it will actually take slightly less time than the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. The location? The auditorium of Winchester Thurston School, at 555 Morewood Ave. (Use the Ellsworth Avenue entrance.)

Candidates expected to appear include those running for:

  • City Council District 5
  • City Council District 9
  • County executive
  • County controller
  • County treasurer

... plus some county council aspirants and judicial candidates. Among the contestants we hope to hear from are those seeking to the local magistrate post in district 05-2-35. That's where City Councilor Doug Shields is going toe-to-toe with Hugh McGough and Dan Butler.

(See the flier here.)

The goal here is to minimize the political pabulum and get right to the issues that matter. As Shadyside Democratic Chair Jeanne Clark puts it, the motto here is "no stump speeches -- just straight answers."

As for the questions? That's where you come in.

In addition to taking questions from the floor, we're also soliciting suggestions online ... starting right now. 

Want to ask Rich Fitzgerald how he justifies his favorable stance on Marcellus Shale drilling? Let me know. Confused about whether Mark Patrick Flaherty has a stance on Marcellus Shale drilling? Hit me up. Ask Shields to explain the hearsay rule, or demand to know whose side Corey O'Connor is really on.

Questions can be submitted in the comments section of this blog post, hitting us up at our Twitter account, or by sending me an email.

I and the other moderators will blend these in with questions from the audience, and we'll use as many as we can. 

If you miss the event, the Shadyside Democrats will be posting video of it online at their web site. For those of you who don't have 4-plus hours of your life to spare watching online video, either ... I'll be posting highlights of the transcripts in a future post. 

Put simply: It couldn't be easier for you to participate in the political dialogue. You can take part in a political debate without canceling your Saturday-night plans. You can ask questions of future leaders -- and get the answers -- without ever putting on a pair of pants. And that, my friend, is what America is all about.

The lines are open. Let me hear from you. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In city council district 3, Jeff Koch speaks out

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 9:22 PM

Let's get right to it. If you live in city council district 3 and you love politics -- which you probably do, or else you wouldn't have read past the headline -- you've heard the rumor about Jeff Koch.

That rumor, for those who love politics but don't live in district 3, is this: Koch is supposedly running for the seat only because if he doesn't ... Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will fire him from his job as program supervisor in the city's Public Works Department.

Koch's heard the rumor too. And he says there is "absolutely no truth at all" to it.

For one thing, although Koch is a non-union employee, he says he'd still be protected by civil-service laws -- and such laws typically frown on punishing employees for failing to engage in political campaigns. 

And Koch is proud of the work he's been doing. In the wake of last year's "Snowmageddon," he helped devise the city's "snow route" system, which designates and marks top-priority roads for snow clearance. He's also enhanced road-salting efforts even as the number of drivers has shrunk. It's safe to say the results have clearly not pleased everybody. But Koch says that even when people complain to him, "No one says it isn't better than it used to be." 

In any case, Koch wants to be in this race. He served an abbreviated council term after winning a 2006 special election, but was replaced by Bruce Kraus, the current incumbent, the following year. But being a councilor, Koch says, "was fun. I enjoyed getting stuff done for people." 

His highest-profile initiative was passing a zoning measure to restrict the number of bars that could open in the South Side and neighborhoods like it. The measure was a point of contention between Koch and Kraus back in 2007, and clearly it didn't clear up the wretched excess of the Carson Street scene. If it had, the South Side bar scene wouldn't be an issue in this campaign.

By the same logic, of course, nothing Bruce Kraus has done has solved the problem either. And Koch, like fellow challengers Jason Phillips and Gavin Robb, says a big part of the problem now is Kraus' "style," which he says is divisive. 

Koch says part of the reason he got into the race, in fact, was because "I could barely walk down Carson Street without people approaching me and saying 'something's wrong.'"

And there's no doubt that Koch has a vastly different style. He is a disarmingly plain-spoken guy. Ask him about the losing 2007 campaign, for example, and he says, "I wouldn't even have voted for myself that time, with all the shit that came out."

Indeed, Koch was faulted for a variety of sins back in 2007. City employees were seen wearing pro-Koch T-shirts on the job, a Koch staffer was caught making political phone calls from an office phone, and Koch's campaign accepted political donations from local businesses.

Koch is quick to point out that those contributions came from neighborhood businesses: "I wasn't taking money from US Steel," he says. (Koch did return offending contributions -- and in at least one case the business owner pointedly contributed an even larger sum to Koch -- this time from his own pockets.)

As for those phone calls made from his office -- the goings-on were revealed by another candidate running in this year's race, Jason Phillips. But Koch genially waves aside questions about hard feelings: "Jason's got great intentions," he says. "It's water under the bridge."

Still, Koch has learned some lessons from 2007. When we set up my interview, he made a show of pulling out a personal cell phone, and giving me the number from it.

What would Koch do if he regained his council seat? 

Among other things, he supports creativing more flexible parking solutions for the South Side. Those plans, which he says he began working on during his previous council term, include special parking rates at publicly owned garages at the SouthSideWorks development, and using parking near a now-idle school building on Carson Street. He'd also press for a portion of the county's drink tax money to be earmarked for the South Side -- where a lot of the revenue is being created in the first place. 

In any case, Koch is unimpressed by Kraus' record since taking office. Kraus frequently touts his support of a bill to limit the size of campaign-contributions, for example. But Koch notes that Kraus won his office with contributions in amounts that would have run afoul of those rules. "It's do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do," Koch says. (Koch adds, however, that he wouldn't try to remove the rules. For one thing, he says, "They never affected me -- no one was throwing 5 grand at my campaign.") 

Koch also questions Kraus' support of an off-leash dog park slated for the South Side. Spending money "on a dog park in the South Side doesn't resonate well in the hilltop communities," Koch says. 

If that sounds like Koch, who lives in Arlington, is playing on district resentment of the glamorous Flats ... it's not a bad strategy. District 3's hilltop communities include neighborhoods like Beltzhoover, Arlington, and Knoxville -- where blight is a real problem and crime fears go beyond puking frat boys. And as noted in this space before, Koch is the only candidate in district 3 who doesn't live on the Flats. It's no accident that when you ask him what the election is about, Koch says, "I'm hoping it's about representation for the entire district."

But for the next few days, at least, the main part of Koch's strategy involves winning the Democratic Party endorsement.

The endorsement vote takes place March 6. And winning the backing of party leaders, says Koch, is "my sole intention right now." Koch has been a member of the Democratic committee for more than two decades, and he currently chairs the city's 16th ward.

Does that mean Koch will drop out if he doesn't get the endorsement, as candidates in other council races have pledged to do? Koch pauses for a moment.

"Not 100 percent, no. It's something I kick around every day. It's going to be a difficult decision, I can guarantee that." 

In District 1, political match-up could be over next week

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 4:30 PM

A key political battle City Council District 1 could be over just a few days from now -- more than two months before the Democratic primary itself.

During last night's 27th Ward Candidates Night, in Brighton Heights, candidate Vince Pallus announced that if he failed to win the Democratic Party endorsement -- which will be made March 6 -- he would drop out of the race to unseat incumbent Darlene Harris.

Pallus, widely considered Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chosen candidate, has been getting endorsement support from politically active mayoral allies like Kevin Quigley, who chairs the 27th Ward. But it's not going to be easy to beat Harris for the endorsement.

Harris is well-known in the North Side political scene, having served on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board for eight years before earning a seat on city council in 2006. But Pallas had an advatange of his own last night: As a product of Brighton Heights, the candidate was speaking on his home turf. And it showed.

Compared to Pallus' Feb. 17 appearance at the Young Democrats of Allegheny County endorsement forum, the 33-year-old candidate looked a little more relaxed and polished. At the earlier gathering, Pallus spoke briefly, and vaguely about the need to help the city's youth. Harris won that round -- and the Young Democrat endorsement. At the 27th Ward forum, though still thin on specifics, Pallus noted the city's need tackle the problem of abandoned and blighted homes.

However, he told the 15 committe members in attendance, "The main reason I'm running is communication. We need to work with community leaders, all of city council and the mayor's office."

After Harris and Pallus spoke for five minutes, Quigley asked each candidate two questions: "How do you plan to better communicate with communities, city council as a whole and the administration?"; and "If you do not win the Democratic endorsement, will you still run for election?"

Answering the former question -- which seemed pointed directly at her -- Harris said, "I don't know how much more I could work with the community." She also said that she regularly speaks with council members.

Harris has butted heads with the mayor since becomiong council president last year -- especially on the mayor's controverisal plan to lease public garages. Still, she said, "I have worked with the administration for the last four years ... I call every Monday to have a meeting with the mayor."

Unlike Pallus, who firmly rejected the idea of running without the endorsement, Harris said she has yet to decide whether she'd drop out. She wasn't alone: Out of roughly one dozen candidates who appeared at the gathering, only three committed to dropping out if they lose the March 6 endorsement. 

(The third candidate in the District 1 race, Bobby Wilson, did not attend last night's event. But he tells City Paper that he will continue his bid with or without the endorsement.) 

For his part, Pallus provided little detail about how he would work cooperatively with other officials. "I feel that everyone needs to come together," he said. "You can't shut something down just because you don't like a certain person. We need an open mind."

After the forum, Quigley addressed his committee. "I would hope that everybody in this ward supports the endorsed candidate," he said. "Whoever wins the endorsement, we support that individual 100 percent."

After the meeting, Quigley told CP he is frustrated by Harris' refusal to commit to dropping out. "That is disappointing to me," he said. "It just doesn't make sense. If you don't receive the endorsement, drop out."

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