Thursday, June 30, 2011

Op-ed: Dialing up expectations for the new 90.5

Posted By on Thu, Jun 30, 2011 at 10:18 AM

First, a programming note: As you may have noticed recently, we've got more City Paper staffers contributing to the pile here at Slag Heap these days. What began as essentially an opinion-with-occasional-news blog, written almost entirely by me, is morphing into a news-with-occasional-opinions blog, with contributions from various folks.

Accordingly, I'll be flagging posts -- like this one -- that offer a more opinion-driven take on current events.

On to the business at hand. Tomorrow begins the new format at WDUQ, the jazz-and-NPR station long operated by Duquesne University. Starting July 1, the station will shift to a news-driven format run cooperatively by local station WYEP and Public Media Company, a new nonprofit affiliated with a Colorado public-radio enterprise. (CORRECTION: The entity running the station, Essential Public Media, is wholly owned by WYEP. While the local station has been acting in partnership with Public Media Company, WYEP General Manager Lee Ferraro stresses that PMC, which helped facilitate the acquisition, has no input on programming decisions or other operations.) And some bruised feelings are in evidence.

Read, for example, Charlie Humphrey's take on the transition here. Humphrey has been actively involved in this transition, and I think it's safe to say he's grown weary of hearing from jazz fans outraged at losing their platform. To wit:

A recent letter to the editor in the Post-Gazette about the sale of WDUQ states that "jazz [is] inarguably the most influential cultural innovation of the 20th century." Hum. Inarguably. Well, that pretty much ends the conversation.

But I'll argue it anyway. I think the crown of cultural innovation should go to the civil rights movement, or rock and roll, or penicillin or Pee Wee Herman. What about Prince, or the Hula Hoop? What about Shirley Temple, or the Wizard of Oz? What about Elvis? I think we need an all-Elvis radio station here, and I also think it is my God-given right to have one. Porky Chedwick, where are you?

Humphrey also asserts that "Jazz radio in Western Pennsylvania is unsustainable." The proof being that: a) WDUQ's ratings drop when NPR stops and jazz starts; b) Pittsburgh doesn't sustain a lot of jazz clubs; and c) Duquesne University had to subsidize WDUQ's operations. "How can jazz listeners actually believe they are entitled to that level of subsidy from a private university?" he asks.

I'm not sure Humphrey really wants to go there. First off, NPR isn't self-sustaining either -- it receives government subsidies. And as a look at recent headlines suggests, plenty of people don't think NPR's audience should feel "entitled" to that money either. 

In any case, Humphrey invites the rejoinder that his own organization, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, isn't sustainable either, since its operations depend on institutional support as well. To be honest, I'm not sure how fair that comparison is; the operative part of Humphrey's question is "from a private university." But once you start likening a decades-old musical heritage to the hula hoop, you really can't complain about the other side's unfair analogies.

A less argumentative take on the issue is provided by Katherine Fink, a former WDUQ staffer who has since moved on to grad school at Columbia, no less. Fink worked on WDUQ's news side; in fact, I suspect she'd fit in well at the station Humphrey hopes to have on the new 90.5. Even so, she expresses some misgivings about the change:

As a former news reporter and anchor at the station, it might surprise you that I’m against the loss of jazz programming at WDUQ. After all, the amount of local news content will apparently increase, according to Essential Public Media, the new owner. I appreciate that the station will have a local interview/call-in show, and a weekly program dedicated to local public affairs issues ... But it remains to be seen whether the changes EPM will bring will result in better community service.

Fink goes on to take issue with some of the claims being made by proponents of the new format. But the more interesting part of her argument is philosophical:

Some proponents of the new WDUQ have also argued that it makes sense to get rid of jazz because it has a smaller audience. Whether noncommercial broadcasting should try to appeal to mass audiences is a debate that’s older than the U.S. public broadcasting system itself. Personally, I side with the original Carnegie Commission, whose recommendations formed the basis of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The Commission believed that public broadcasting should promote diversity--that it should serve many niche audiences, the ones that commercial broadcasters tend to ignore. Bill Siemering, one of NPR’s founders, wrote in the organization’s original mission statement that public radio should "speak with many voices” and “celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied." It’s in that spirit that many public radio stations adopted “checkerboard” formats -- like news/jazz, or news/classical, with all kinds of other shows on weekends -- to serve multiple smaller audiences with varied interests.

The checkerboard format is on its way out; WDUQ’s is just the latest example.

For me, this gets at exactly what I think is at stake with the new station ... and why I'm not losing too much sleep over the old one. 

For my tastes, the problem with WDUQ is that it wasn't enough of a checkerboard. Even too much of the jazz sounded the same: You weren't likely to tune in and hear John Zorn or Sun Ra, for example, at 90.5. WDUQ did have some musical programming that wasn't mainstream jazz: For example, it sported a weekly Indian music broadcast (which will be included on the new station). But I'd be much more upset by WDUQ's disappearance, I think, if it'd served a whole bunch of different niches, as opposed to just a few. 

That said, Fink's post points up with the part of Humphrey's argument that gives me pause. That would be the part where he cites WDUQ's Arbitron ratings as evidence for the wisdom of a new format:

According to January 2010 Arbitron ratings (Arbitron is the company most used to monitor radio usage), WDUQ was ranked No. 5 among all local radio stations in the market during morning drive time, when NPR's Morning Edition is aired. During morning drive time, 90.5 is right up there with behemoths like WDVE and KDKA.

Now, what is WDUQ's ranking at 10 a.m., when jazz is in full swing? No. 15. You can practically hear radio receivers being turned off around Western Pennsylvania when jazz follows news and information.

Well, shit. If that's your standard, maybe the new WDUQ should adopt the BOB-FM format: Mixing Def Leppard and Sheryl Crow into the same playlist has done wonders for 96.9, which is owned by my corporate overlords here at Steel City Media.  

Yes, yes: Public radio should serve a broad swath of the public. But it can be a fine line between that and the market-driven logic that produces so much of the dreck on the rest of the radio dial. 

And let's face it: While we all love This American Life and Morning Edition, it's a little harder to make the case that airing, say, Car Talk or The Splendid Table is a sacred trust. Looking over the shows currently on the Essential Public Media program schedule, I can see several I'd happily jettison in favor of, say, Democracy Now.

Yeah, I'm an unrepentent lefty. So it's no surprise I'd prefer Amy Goodman to Lynn Rossetto Kasper. But if you believe, as Fink does, that public radio should try to serve a variety of niches, then it's sad to learn I'm only a little better off with EPM's latte-liberal programming than I was with WDUQ.

Of course, the new 90.5 doesn't even exist yet. I mean, the FCC hasn't yet actually approved the transfer of WDUQ's license to the new owners. It's way too soon to judge its effectiveness. 

Like Humphrey, I guess, I find it tiresome that the jazz-versus-not-jazz argument has sucked up all the oxygen in this debate. What's more, I've worked on projects with Humphrey before, and know him to be a bright, sincere guy. Hell, City Paper is a media partner with the PublicSource media initiative he's launching along with the new station. (More about that sometime soon.) It's true that the programming schedule is real light on local offerings -- most of what's there was already running on either WDUQ or WYEP. But that will change -- in large part because of PublicSource, which Humphrey is pledging will help deliver aggressive, long-form journalism.

Let's hope so. As Fink herself graciously concludes her blog post: 

I know there’s a lot of room for improvement at WDUQ. Despite my misgivings, I do wish EPM success. But please, let’s not define success in terms of how well the new WDUQ mimics the formats of other big-city NPR news stations, or how large its audience is.

Exactly. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pitching an anti-bullying effort to the Pirates

Posted By on Tue, Jun 28, 2011 at 7:54 PM

The anti-gay bullying "It Gets Better" Project has attracted the help of some big names: Lady Gaga, President Barack Obama even Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Could the Pittsburgh Pirates be next?

Local LGBT activists hope so, and one of them, Sue Kerr, has started an online petition directed to the ball club's president, Frank Coonelly, chairman Bob Nutting and manager of diversity initiatives, Chaz Kellem.

The letter cites other Major League teams that have participated in Dan Savage's project: the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants.

"When I saw the Giants video, I was very moved," Kerr, author of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, tells CP in an email. "I want the Pirates to be among the leaders of this movement because it will send a strong, positive message about Pittsburgh as [a] city that values all sports fans, including LGBTQ youth. It is important that LGBTQ youth experiences with bullying be heard and validated. It is equally important to know that they have many people in their corner."

The letter reiterates that message: "It is not controversial to stand up for all youth to grow up in an environment that is safe. Doing so can send a powerful message to the young fans of the Pirates," one section of it reads.

Judging by the Nutting family's political activity, Kerr's initiative might not seem to have much of a chance. Ogden Nutting, Bob Nutting's father, has contributed nearly $12,000 to conservatives nationwide, like Michele Bachmann and Pat Toomey. Bob Nutting has also donated $1,000 to conservative West Virginia congressman David McKinley.

But team spokesman Jim Trdinich says that participating in the video project is "something we are looking to take part in, [although] the organization is still working  on the most effective plan to assist everybody involved."

Kerr says the Pirates have been "receptive to the idea." As she notes on her blog, the team has held a Pride Night at PNC Park since 2004. 

Kerr's effort is also being supported by groups like like Equality PA, which made a similar pitch to Pirates and Phillies fans for the effort in its weekly newsletter, and on Twitter, two weeks ago. Ted Martin, executive director of Equality PA, says there's cause for optimism in both cities: The Phillies, he points out,  have annually hosted a "Gay Day Games" event for almost a decade. 

"Pennsylvania has two teams that have exhibited great friendliness to the LGBT community, so they should just take this important step," Martin says in an email. "I feel good that something will happen in each place."

For school budget math to add up, new seating charts needed

Posted By on Tue, Jun 28, 2011 at 3:16 PM

Small class sizes might be good for students and teachers, but they're bad for a school district struggling to solve a multimillion-dollar deficit. And if the Pittsburgh Public Schools is going to balance its budget, administrators say, all the district's classrooms must be filled to capacity.

During a community presentation last night, city school officials explained that empty classroom seats represent a huge financial burden for the district, which faces a projected $68 million deficit for its next fiscal year. The meeting, hosted by A+ Schools, featured presentations from Superintendent Linda Lane and Jeanine French, both of whom stressed that reducing under-enrolled classes could save the district up to $32 million per year.

Superintendent Linda Lane - PHOTOS BY CHRIS YOUNG

Right now, "We're running inefficiently," French, chief of school performance, told an audience of roughly 200 parents, teachers and community members inside the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers headquarters, on the South Side.

Last night's presentation was the second community meeting focused on how the district can solve its budget deficit, which could potentially climb to $100 million by 2015 if nothing is done. In May, Lane told community members that the district's financial woes would require a number of painful changes, including central office layoffs, school closings and course reductions.

The district took its first step toward tackling the deficit last week. In a move that is expected to save an estimated $11.5 million annually, the school board voted to eliminate 217 central office positions at its June 22 legislative meeting. But with tens of millions more to cut, the district must now look to its classrooms for relief.

According to the Pittsburgh Public Schools, 60 percent of the district's classrooms currently have a "significant number" of empty seats. Just 55 percent of students are in a full class.

The district's maximum class size varies by grade: for elementary schools, it's 25 students; for middle schools, it's 28; and for high schools, it's 30. But in both elementary and middle schools, the district's current average class size is just 22 students, while the high school average is 21.

Many classrooms holding even fewer students; the situation is worst at the high school level, where there are classes with less than 15 students in some schools.

"We do have some very small classes at the high schools," Lane said.

Historically, parents and teachers often cry foul when districts propose increasing class sizes, but French stressed at the meeting that larger class sizes don't necessarily translate to poorer student achievement. The district currently has high-performing schools with large class sizes, she said, and it also has low-performing schools with small class sizes.

Whether or not that explanation will placate parents and teachers has yet to be seen. But if the district is going "to get to a place where we're spending within our means," as Lane said last night, its going to have to start putting asses in the open seats.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A dispatch from Furry Nation

Posted By on Fri, Jun 24, 2011 at 3:54 PM

Since 2006, tail and fur-costumed folks have converged on the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for Anthrocon, a gathering of fans of anthropomorphic (human-like) animals.

Anthrocon 2011 has garnered the largest registration so far, says Dr. Samuel Conway, chairman and CEO of Anthrocon: Some 4,000 people registered in advance, with an estimated 500 additional attendees expected to register on-site. Conway says the event has brought an estimated $23 million to the local economy, and he estimates that the event will just get bigger.

But he has a warning that will no doubt cause consternation among city tourism officials: With the fanbase growing faster than the city's hotel-room supply, Anthrocon may have to consider relocating. "We've just hit our ceiling."

furrypic.JPG

Future plans aside, a lab-coat-wearing Conway (known as "Doc" by everyone who encountered him this morning, and "Uncle Kage" as his furry name) took some time to speak with City Paper. He was joined by a fellow furry, Seikhal.

Do you choose themes for Anthrocon?

Conway: Every year we try to have a playful theme. This year it's "The Anthromorphic Institute of Magic." What we do here, it is a brand of magic. What we do here is we create. The costumists create. The cartoonists, the writers, the dreamers who show up, they all create.

So why animals?

Conway: Why macramé? Why monster trucks? We like animals ... The furry fandom is the first fandom. We have been looking to animals to inspire us since there were stars in the ski. Animals have been our constant companions.

Around town, it's not uncommon to see stares or folks pull out their cell phones and snap photos of those walking with tails or full costumes. Is this bothersome?

Conway: I think people expect it. Some of us look forward to it. People say, "Why do you wear a tail?" Why do the Shriners wear a fez?

Seikhal (a grey husky): I wear a tail because its fun. When I wear my [full suit], I interact with people more playfully ... You're more confident and fun too.

You don't feel objectified or made fun of?

Conway: Think about a woman who just got off work, had a bad day, the boss yelled at her. On her way home she bumps into a 6-and-a-half-foot husky and pulls out her cell-phone camera. She walks away only feel better for that ... One or two people may give you a sour look, but they have no imagination. We're here to have fun.

Seikhal: I've gone to children's hospitals dressed in my fur suit to interact with kids, kids who are terminally ill ... They're stuck in the hospital and they see you walking around -- a big stuffed animal. It makes their day.

Conway: Back in my day, you'd join a fraternity and you'd get a weird nickname ... We're an extremely large, extended furry fraternity, basically.

How does being a furry work? Is it something you, like, wear to work during the week? Or just in your free time?

Conway: It's just like the guys in the stadium who are football fans. We probably have a few people who have cubicles full of stuffed animals and photos of them at Anthrocon. For the most part we're normal human beings. People occasionally do it around town or with other people. It's an entertainment thing. We are all, deep down, frustrated performers. It's a way of expressing themselves, and costumes just show it.

Some television shows or stories have portrayed furries as a kink -- people who dress up as animals and have sex. How do you respond to those perceptions?

Conway: I usually just roll my eyes when people say that … When the first furry convention started in Southern California, there were some overly imaginative people. News cameras just happened to tune in that. [After those truly interested in Anthrocon left], the convention dried up ... These are mostly young people, and young people have sex ... But we have very stringent codes of conduct here, and we want people to feel they can bring their kids. People portray us as we must all be about sex. But that's not us at all. We're all about self expression, but not in that way.

City Paper sales rep Justin Matase makes a new friend. (Matase is the one NOT wearing the costume. That's why he's in sales.)
  • City Paper sales rep Justin Matase makes a new friend. (Matase is the one NOT wearing the costume. That's why he's in sales.)

Pitt researchers continue study of AIDS-fighting gel for pregnant women

Posted By on Fri, Jun 24, 2011 at 11:07 AM

As we noted earlier this year, Pittsburgh has been the hub of research into microbicides -- topical substances that prevent the sexual transmission of HIV when applied vaginally or rectally.

And in a recently launched clinical trial, researchers are foraying into another area that's relatively new: determining if such substances are safe for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

The study is being conducted by the Microbicide Trials Network (MTN), funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and based at the University of Pittsburgh and Magee Women's Hospital Research Institute.

Early studies of one microbicide -- called tenofovir gel -- found HIV transmission risk was reduced by 39 percent among women who used it before and after vaginal sex (the gel is also being reformulated and studied for use rectally). The new clinical trial will determine if tenofovir is safe for pregnant or lactating women to use.

"Preventing HIV during pregnancy and lactation is a majorly important time,"Dr. Richard Beigi tells City Paper. Beigi is the principle investigator of the trial, and is also an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "Data suggests pregnant women may be more susceptible then non-pregnant women [to HIV]. Data also suggests if a woman gets a new [HIV] infection during pregnancy or while lactating, they are significantly more likely to pass that onto their baby."

As Beigi noted in an earlier press release from the MTN, the gel and other microbicides are intended to be used by sexually active women -- "the very women most likely to get pregnant, yet we have very little information about whether these products are safe for them to use."

In addition to Magee in Oakland, the trial is also being conducted at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Beigi says about eight women are enrolled at Magee so far, and he hopes to have up to 90 pregnant women and 15 lactating women to participate.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Police accountability bill put off again

Posted By on Wed, Jun 22, 2011 at 4:35 PM

City Council today once again postponed a preliminary vote on a much-debated police-accountability bill -- but not until after police union officials drew sharp criticism for warning that the bill would increase crime by taking officers off city streets.

Born out of the controversial arrest of Jordan Miles in January 2010, the legislation would, among other things, require the police department to release information about citizen complaints against officers. It would also require officers to complete written reports each time they exercise a use of force or conduct "stop and frisks."

"We as a union do not accept this bill as something we can live with," Dan O'Hara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, told council during public comment this morning. "You're going to handcuff [officers] ... There's going to be a lot more guns out there."

FOP Vice President Chuck Hanlon added that the legislation introduced by City Councilor Ricky Burgess was a "desperate bill" that would require "useless, redundant paperwork."

While he acknowledged that the FOP agrees with "90 percent" of the seven-page legislation, O'Hara charged that some of the reporting requirements would significantly burden officers with excessive paperwork. "Do you want police officers or clerks?" he asked. "When you create rules that handcuff us, you'll live with the consequences."

Community members who spoke after were quick to call foul on O'Hara's comments.

"For the FOP to practically threaten to stop doing their jobs ... is tragic," said Kenneth Houston, community liaison for the Black Political Empowerment Project. "What's being asked for is not unreasonable."

"I was disturbed by the FOP [official] that came up and made comments to the council," added Rev. James Earl Garmon Sr. "I would hope [council] would not feel threatened."

City councilors also took offense.

"I don't at all appreciate what Dan O'Hara from the FOP said to the public," said City Councilor Patrick Dowd.

Although a preliminary vote on the bill had already been postponed from last week, City Council decided to table the legislation for another four weeks once it became clear that city attorneys, needed more time to weigh the bill's legality, and other implications.

"Generally speaking," said city Solicitor Daniel Regan, "there are legal concerns and there are practical concerns that need to be discussed."

Chief among the concerns, Regan added, was that some provisions "may have an impact on [state] accreditation of the bureau." Regan said the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation, which accredits police departments, expects policy decisions "to come directly from the police [chief]."

Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson also echoed O'Hara's contention that some requirements in the bill would unnecessarily burden officers. For example, he said, making officers complete a written report each time they conduct a pat down would likely cause officers to stop the practice. "It would be burdensome to officers to mandate that they have to complete a report" for stop and frisks, Donaldson told council.

While postponing the vote was largely due to the need for further discussion, an emotional Dowd offered another reason: the ongoing high-profile trial of Richard Poplawski, accused of killing three police officers in 2009.

Choking up as he spoke, Dowd said it was "completely inappropriate that we are discussing this bill today" in light of the trial taking place in the courthouse across the street. "None of us should be having this conversation today."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Police accountability: those who don't learn from history ...

Posted By on Mon, Jun 20, 2011 at 1:29 PM

Last Wednesday's city council meeting had a little bit of everything: a citizen speaking on behalf of incandescent light bulbs ... Doug Shields urging that former Gov. Ed Rendell might be brought before council to discuss the Cvic Arena ... even a blogger wearing a suit.

But some aspects of the meeting sounded a little familiar, especially the parts concerning city councilor Ricky Burgess' legislation to monitor potential police misconduct.

Citizens came to testify about the need for stricter monitoring of police. Among them was Joy Sabl, a city resident who is active in progressive causes -- and who brought an anecdote about her own experience with police. 

"As several council members may know," she said, "my husband and I were pulled over ... a couple years ago by the officer who has since been profiled in City Paper for being the baddest of the bad apples."

That's a reference to Lauren Daley's March story on Garrett Brown, who has been the subject of multiple complaints ... though the "baddest of bad apples" language is Sabl's characterization, not ours. In any case, Sabl told council that during an encounter on the South Side, the officer

was upset that we were bicycling on the street. He apparently felt we should be bicycling on the sidewalk. And ... when he yelled at us from behind to get off the street on Carson Street, he apparently thought we could figure out that he was a police officer on a motorcycle, as opposed to assuming that he was one of the many drunks on Carson Street on a weekend night who yell at bicyclists to get off the street.

He wanted to arrest us for evading arrest. He wanted to arrest the other guy -- the other cyclist -- who stopped to see if everybody was OK. He threatened to bring him in and strip-search him. He threatened to bring us in and strip-search us. And the fact he could reasonably make these threats, and that it was something he could have done, that he could say "I will physically strip search you," while looking at me with a nasty look on his face -- that’s scary. OK?

The fact that he could look at the other cyclist and say "I'm going to arrest you for impeding an investigation if you don't start moving again; I’m gonna have you up against the wall in a minute." That’s scary.

Later in that meeting, meanwhile, Doug Shields cited a 1990s-era city controller's audit on police discipline -- an audit also discussed in our story on Brown. 

That audit, compiled by then-Controller Tom Flaherty, found that a disproportionately small number of officers accounted for a disproportionately large number of complaints. Shields noted that according to the audit, while most officers had either zero or one citizen complaint lodged against them, a small percentage of police were named in multiple complaints. "One officer had 34 complaints," Shields said. "That's the officer that I'm concerned about."

"This audit is instructive," Shields said. "It is a distant mirror for the council to look into" and understand the current situation.  Shields says that if a statistical breakdown was carried out on the current police force, he would "bet the house" that it would reveal a similar distribution -- with many complaints naming a small fraction of the force.

"As it was then, it is now," Shields says.

Burgess' legislation may be the means for finding out whether that's true. Last year, the bill started out as a requirement for statistics on policing: the number of officers on duty, the number named in citizen complaints or criminal charges, information on arrests ... all broken down by race and gender where appropriate. The bill has since been expanded: It now also seeks extensive information on the use of strip searches, car chases and other police procedure, for example.

The bill should come up for discussion this week: The city law department had reviewed an earlier version of the law, but solicitor Dan Regan told council he had not seen its expanded provisions and couldn't discuss them.

But in the best Pittsburgh City Council tradition, that didn't forestall a lengthy discussion of the matter. Shields, for one, pointed out another 1990s-era dynamic that should also be familiar to readers of this blog: That discipline problems were worsened by an exodus of officers taking advantage of an early-retirement offer in the early-to-mid 1990s. "We had huge turnover," Shields warned. And because of concerns about the city's pension fund, he predicted, "We're going to see the results of [a similar exodus] now." 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Strip-club bill could result in protracted court battle, lawyer warns

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2011 at 6:57 PM

While working on our story on strip club regulations, one of the people I spoke with was Florida-based First Amendment lawyer Larry Walters.

Walters specializes in such cases, along with Internet and media law: I first met him when he was defending Karen Fletcher, a Donora woman who was indicted on obscenity charges for running a website that posted stories depicting sexual abuse of children.

And as it turns out, he's previously challenged legislation very similar to the measures being proposed here in Pittsburgh by Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith. In fact, he says, the industry rarely backs down from a fight, no matter how long it takes.

Walters couldn't predict how a court battle would play out here: He says decisions in the cases he's seen usually run about "50/50." But win or lose, he adds, the battle will almost certainly cost money.

"If the City of Pittsburgh moves ahead with the ordinance," Walters says, "they'd better be ready for an expensive, long-haul battle involving over substantial and significant constitutional issues."

For example:.

Walters himself is currently defending strip clubs in Jacksonville, Florida over regulations enacted in 2005. "It's a real kitchen sink-type ordinance -- they threwin everything you could think of," he says.

As part of a zoning overhaul, the clubs were given five years to relocate, but there was no place inside the city where they could move. Any new location had to be approved by the sheriff, but he declined to issue any approval. In 2010 the city marked 91 spots where the clubs could move and, they ordered them to move immediately.

And while a federal appeals court has recently ruled that the clubs must move, Walters is hauling the city back in court, arguing that owners should get another five years to find a new spot since the new locations were only recently approved.

"These cases don't move quickly," Walters says.

In the 1990s, officials in Fulton County, Georgia enacted restrictive regulations including the sale of alcohol in strip clubs. That law was struck down in 1997 because the appeals court ruled that the county hadn't shown that the club showed any significant secondary effects (a increasing amount of crime, for example). Another law was enacted in 2001 and then in February 2010 the appeals court ruled the county could ban alcohol.

The county won that one, though it took more than a decade.

And the stakes of losing are high, since a club owner who triumphs in court can seek damages. A judge in Seattle, for example, struck down the city's 2005 licensing law for the second time, ruling it unconstitutional. And for the city, the cost of those defeats was steep.

Club owner Bob Davis sued the city of Seattle in 2005, which resulted in the first law being overturned. The judge in that case ruled that the city violated Davis' First Amendment rights; he eventually settled with the city for $500,000. Then in 2008, he filed a similar lawsuit against the town of Bothell, Wa., located northeast of Seattle and received a $350,000 settlement and another $120,000 off the nearby town of Kenmore.

Last year he had Seattle's new law struck down again. He opened his first strip club in four attempts, but the city is once again fighting to close him down.

"I've never lost a case," Davis told a Seattle-based alt-weekly, The Stranger. "And I'm not settling cheap this time."

Kail-Smith appears to be doign what she can to defuse such tensions. At Wednesday's city council standing committee meeting, she said she'd be meeting with some club owners, in hopes of finding  common ground.

Which might be the best thing, since trying to regulate women stripping off their clothes might well end up stripping the city of its cash.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Police accountability measure tabled

Posted By on Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 6:28 PM

After extensive discussion and public comment, City Council today postponed for one week a vote on a significantly beefed-up version of a police-accountability bill originally introduced more than a year ago.

In light of the controversial arrest of Jordan Miles, more than a dozen activists urged council to adopt Rev. Ricky Burgess' amended legislation, which would increase police transparency and accountability by, among other things, requiring the police department to release information about citizen complaints against officers. It would also require the chief of police to "prescribe the on-duty and off-duty conduct of Pittsburgh police officers," as well as stipulate how and when strip searches can be conducted by police.

"This bill is about rights that we all share. Human rights," Edwin Everhart, 24, of Shadyside, told council. "Freedom from fear, discrimination … [and] arbitrary punishment."

"This bill would give Chief [Nate] Harper the ability to restore power back to its proper use ... and make policing so much easier," added Darlene Durrwachter, 50, of Central Northside. "It will help the entire city move forward."

After hearing from the public and discussing some specifics of the bill with its authors and city officials, City Council decided to postpone voting on the bill after public-safety officials and the city's law department explained that they had only reviewed Burgess' original two-page bill, not the amended, seven-page measure introduced today.

The original legislation, introduced last March, would have only required the police department to expand its annual report to the public by including such information as the number of officers sued and the average response time to calls for each police zone. Burgess had been working with legal experts, including Pitt law professor David Harris, and community activists to amend the police-accountability bill. Their work produced a significantly more detailed piece of legislation.

If adopted, the new bill would require:

  • "all officers ... to complete a written report each time an officer exercises a use of force; performs a ... strip search; conducts any warrantless seizure of property; makes a traffic stop; makes a pedestrian stop that includes a field interview or a stop and frisk
  • Chief Harper "to prescribe the on-duty and off-duty conduct of Pittsburgh police officers"
  • the Bureau of Police "to permit police officers to conduct strip searches only when authorized by a supervisor and then only if the officer is specially trained to conduct strip searches."
  • police to publish in the dpeartment's annual report the "number of civilian complaints against Pittsburgh police officers received by the Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI) and the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, broken down by type of complaint , OMI finding status or the [Bureau's] internally recommended disposition, and the [Bureau's] actual disposition."

"We want Pittsburgh to be a national leader in police accountability," Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, told reporters before today's council meeting. "The formula for positive police/community relations is responsible policing."

In May, the police department published its latest annual report. To the satisfaction of advocates for increased transparency, the 2010 report included much more detailed information than in previous years, such as data on use-of-force incidents and traffic stops. It's unclear if the more detailed report was a result of the increased pressure from the members of the community, who in the last year have become frustrated with incidents like the Miles arrest and reports of legal settlements resulting from charges of police misconduct.

Addressing council today, Public Safety Director Michael Huss noted the latest annual report, which addresses some of the requirements stipulated in the legislation. But he and city solicitor Daniel Regan said they did have some concerns with Burgess' original legislation.

Public Safety Director Michael Huss (l) and police chief Nate Harper (r) speaking before council June 15 - CHRIS YOUNG
  • Chris Young
  • Public Safety Director Michael Huss (l) and police chief Nate Harper (r) speaking before council June 15

For example, Regan told council that the city is unable to include in the police department's annual report information about the disposition of OMI complaints, saying that it's part of city employees' personnel file. Thus, he said, "The city is precluded from making that public information."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Bike-sharing advocates peddle their vision in Market Square

Posted By on Fri, Jun 10, 2011 at 7:25 PM

The wheels are in motion.

Conversations about bringing a bike-sharing system to Pittsburgh officially began today, and a presentation by a Wisconsin-based company operating bike shares earned support from local officials. But it's still uncertain when, or if, Pittsburghers will take part in the increasingly popular transportation program.

Representatives of B-cycle, which conducted a bike-sharing demonstration in Market Square yesterday, met this afternoon with more than two-dozen biking advocates, city planners and local foundations at the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership to discuss how the short-term bike-rental system works ... and how it could help the city.

"This bike system will make your city more vibrant than an extra bus," said Jason McDowell, B-cycle's project and logistics manager. "It's easily accessible and really quick."

Popularized in Europe, bike sharing is touted as a way to ease traffic problems, cut pollution and improve health. The concept is straightforward: Bike-docking stations, stocked with roughly a half-dozen or more bikes, are located throughout part of a city -- say Downtown's Golden Triangle. To check out a bike, riders, who typically buy memberships (about $60 per year), swipe their credit card to check out a bike at one of the unattended dock stations.

Bikes lined up at a bike-docking station. This sight could become a regular feature of Pittsburgh streetscapes. - PHOTOS BY CHRIS YOUNG
  • Photos by Chris Young
  • Bikes lined up at a bike-docking station. This sight could become a regular feature of Pittsburgh streetscapes.

The first half-hour of riding is free, but additional charges kick in if riders use the bike past the 30-minute mark. When riders are finished with the bike, they simply check it into any nearby docking station.

Currently, bike sharing is available in more than 200 cities worldwide, including Boston, New York and Chicago in the U.S. B-cycle, one of a number of companies running systems nationwide, operates programs in Denver, Colo., (it's first, now one-year old), San Francisco, Calif., and San Antonio, Tx., among others.

During today's presentation, McDowell explained that bike sharing is most effective when docking stations are concentrated in a smaller area, rather than spread out. For example, Pittsburgh would be best served starting a network in the Downtown triangle. "You want a fairly dense network," said McDowell, noting that a radius anywhere from a half-mile to a mile-and-a-half works best.

Asked how many docking stations the Downtown area would need, McDowell estimated 15-20 stations, holding 100-150 bikes, would probably do the job.

Attendees also asked what would happen if a rider looking to check out a bike came to an empty station, as well as what would happen if someone trying to check a bike in approached a full station.

"It's gonna happen," McDowell admitted. However, he said, B-cycle employs a few maintenance workers in each city; part of their job is to "rebalance" the docking stations. "But lot of times, the system fixes itself," he added. "The frequency with which it replenishes itself is pretty incredible."

Part of today's discussion centered on the additional charges incurred for renting a bike past the half-hour mark. To the satisfaction of meeting attendees, McDowell noted that "There is nothing preventing you from riding 29 minutes, checking in and then checking out another bike" for another 30 minutes without incurring any extra fees. "We don't really care."

The main goal of the fees, he added, is simply "to keep people from taking a bike and locking it up at their work all day. You want those bikes to circulate."

The cost of renting a bike is one thing, but the cost of starting a bike-sharing program is another. According to McDowell, capital investment costs for bike-sharing programs usually equal about $3,500-4,500 per bike. "Funding is a huge hurdle," he told City Paper after the meeting.

Many cities, including Denver and Minneapolis, create nonprofits that use grant money to develop bike-sharing systems. As CP reported in January, Nice Ride Minnesota is a Minneapolis nonprofit that bought its 700 bikes and 100 stations with a $1.75 million federal grant and $1 million from corporate partner Blue Cross/Blue Shield (whose ads adorn the distinctive neon-green bikes).

Given the current economic climate, attendees said they're unsure whether bike-sharing will become a reality in Pittsburgh anytime soon. But they added they'd certainly embrace the program if a company like B-cycle rolled into town.

"It seems pretty cool," said Will Bernstein, a policy analyst for the Allegheny Conference, who attended yesterday's demonstration and gave one of the bikes a test run. "It's very easy to use."

"I think it's a really good idea," added Lucinda Beattie, vice president of transportation for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. "It's a good complement to other forms of transit, and it represents another choice for people that is affordable and environmentally friendly."

Beattie is unsure how a bike-sharing system could be financed here in Pittsburgh. But she says B-cycle's presentation "will spark a lot of conversation" between government and foundation officials.

"I don't really see how it couldn't work" in Pittsburgh, said Erok Boerer, of the bike-advocacy organization Bike Pittsburgh. "It's a pretty sexy thing."

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