Friday, July 29, 2011

Holy horseshit, Batman!

Posted By on Fri, Jul 29, 2011 at 2:11 PM

To hear politicians tell it, you'd almost think the real hero in attracting the new Batman film to Pittsburgh was a state tax credit. But notwithstanding remarks made at a press conference Thursday, public subsides are not the reason that portions of Dark Knight Rises will be shot here over the next month.

If anything, the credit may have been a bit of an empty (superhero's) suit.

During the presser, held at the Renaissance hotel Downtown, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Gov. Tom Corbett and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato spoke at length about the 25 percent film tax credit.

On a stage officials shared with director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale, Ravenstahl praised the Corbett administration "for their commitment to the film industry through the extension of the film tax credit ... The commitment the governor made is clearly helping the Pittsburgh economy and part of the reason we're standing here today."

Onorato, who lost the governors' mansion to Corbett in November, also praised his former rival.

"I do want to also lend my congratulations to Gov. Corbett for committing to the film tax credit. It's been great the last couple years," Onorato said. "If anyone has any doubts about the multiplier effects of those tax credits, I think today" ends those doubts.

Corbet too talked up the film tax credit. Noting fears earlier this year that the credit might be cut, he said, "There was never a doubt in my mind that we need to have the film tax credit." There was even some talk yesterday about expanding it.

A case could be made that the credit has helped develop home-grown movie-making expertise, which current and future productions can benefit from.  But for the record, Dark Knight Rises is not directly benefiting from the tax break at all.

To garner the credit, a film must spend 60 percent of its production budget inside the state. Given reports that the film will cost at least $250 million to make, that would amount to $150 million. But Pittsburgh is just one of a handful of locations being used in production, and Dark Knight Rises will be spending less than that.

When asked by City Paper about the tax credit, Dawn Keezer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, replied in an email that filmmakers "[d]id not apply [and] do not qualify" for it.

In fact, Keezer said, "no public money" at all is being used to lure the production. And Keezer, unlike the politicians beside her, barely mentioned the credit during yesterday's press conference. She spent most of her time talking up the film and the city's attributes.

Which, it appears, had far more to do with drawing the film here.

"I think the architecture of this city makes it a very beautiful city on a very impressive scale," Nolan told reporters. "The vibrancy and positive feeling that you get when you come here is incredibly impressive here and it's exciting to me to be filming the streets of downtown Pittsburgh for the next month."

Neither Nolan nor Bale gave away much in the way of plot -- though they confirmed the production is going to make it snow downtown and that there will be, as Bale says "fighting in the streets."

"We're very honored to be in your city," Nolan said.

Apparently so. The film, which will become part of a high-grossing franchise, will bring added exposure and revenue, without needing a taxpayer giveaway.

"I think we're really going to do some impressive and exciting things," Nolan added. "I'm confident that we're going to be able to leave the City of Pittsburgh liking us."

There's already reason to like the way they've arrived.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

City Paper story may lead to review-board investigation

Posted By on Thu, Jul 28, 2011 at 2:23 PM

A City Paper story about two feuding Pittsburgh Police officers could soon become the subject of a Citizen Police Review Board investigation.

In May, CP reported about an unusual dispute between two police officers. The officers, Chuck Bosetti and Lisa Luncinski, disagreed on how to handle the case of 59-year-old James Takos, who last September crashed his bicycle, allegedly while intoxicated, into a stop sign in Oakland.

Bosetti, the first-responding officer, wanted Takos to receive medical attention for his injuries, and decided against charging him. But Luncinski, who arrived on scene later, decided to pursue criminal charges, including DUI, against the bicyclist. Months later, the case made it to a courtroom, where the two officers testified against one another before a district judge.

"This article contains information that raises questions about police procedures and the effect on civilians, due process and the court system," Beth Pittinger, the CPRB's executive director, wrote in a May report seeking a board investigation. "The described situation also reinforces the importance of disclosing conviction rates as a measure of effective arrests."

CP's story highlighted a number of issues related to the Takos case. For one thing, Bosetti raised concerns that Luncinski's decision to file criminal charges against the bicyclist may have violated Takos' Miranda rights -- the right to be warned that anything a suspect says can be used against him. Bosetti told CP that Takos admitted he'd been drinking only after Bosetti told him he wouldn't be facing charges.

"Was there a potential Miranda violation pursuant to the dispute between the officers?" Pittinger's report to the board asks. "Who/what determines who will be the arresting officer? (Control unit's role vs. back-up or other officers' role)"

Another concern raised in the story was the concept of police discretion, an officer's right to make or forego an arrest. As Pittinger's report asks, "Was the ... arrest within the bounds of police discretion? ... What standards guide discretion?"

In the story, Bosetti also accused Luncinski -- whom he called a "bounty hunter -- of criminally charging Takos simply to "cash in on this guy's misery."

Police earn overtime pay for testifying against the people they arrest -- and few have earned as much as Luncinski, a 14-year veteran of the force often tasked with DUI details. According to city pay records, Luncinski, who makes roughly $60,000 in annual base pay, logged 449 court hours from Feb. 1, 2010, to Feb. 1, 2011, earning a total of $18,192.09 in court premium pay.

"Does a desire to earn court time pay influence arrest decisions? Pittinger asks in her report. "How do postponements affect officers' court pay? Can the postponement process be abused for profit? (How is court time and related activities monitored by supervisors?)"

Finally, there are questions about the contents of Luncinski's criminal complaint. The complaint never mentioned Bosetti's presence at the scene of the accident. Nor did it discuss his disagreement with Luncinski over the decision to arrest Takos.

Takos' defense attorney only learned that Bosetti was present on the scene after Bosetti took his concerns to the district attorney's office. An assistant DA later informed Takos' attorney about Bosetti's misgivings regarding the criminal charges. (Note: District Judge James Hanley Jr. dismissed the DUI charges against Takos on April 19, but found the bicyclist guilty of lesser charges of public intoxication and disorderly conduct.)

"Was there a material omission on the affidavit of probable cause?" Pittinger asks in her report. "(Is there a check system to validate factual content?)"

Pittinger's report asks the board to "initiate a study of the policies & procedures related to the arrest described in the [CP] article … and if appropriate, make recommendations to the Chief [of Police] for the purpose of improving public understanding of police procedures and enhancement of police efficiency."

In May, the board tabled Pittinger's recommendation for further study. They did the same again at their June meeting. The board was expected to act on the recommendation during their July meeting earlier this week, but the meeting was cancelled because the board did not have a quorum. The board's next meeting takes place in September.

Natural-gas referendum generates heat

Posted By on Thu, Jul 28, 2011 at 11:31 AM

City council took a preliminary vote in favor of placing a natural-gas-drilling ban on the November ballot. A final vote is due next week. But given the heat created by the debate this week, a ban on gas production might be superfluous ... even assuming it is legal. Which it may not be. 

The bill, proposed by outgoing councilor Doug Shields, would give voters a chance to approve a change to the city's Home Rule Charter. If city officials sign off on the legislation, and voters approve the ballot question, the charter will be amended to include a ban on natural-gas drilling in city limits. Council actually passed such a ban on its own last year. But this measure would incorporate a ban directly into the city's own constitution. And the new measure also features several stirring provisions asserting a "right to water," a "right to self-goverment," and other Jeffersonian nostrums.

Early on, though, the discussion has been somewhat less high-minded.

As first reported here on Monday (and later discussed further by the Post-Gazette), Shields has argued that drilling interests are applying "significant political pressure" to kill the measure. Shields revisited that allegation yesterday. During remarks that touched on everything from inalienable rights to fish that clean each other's teeth, he suggested that pro-drilling forces were "working feverishly behind the scenes" to stop the measure.

That drew a lengthy condemnation from Patrick Dowd, who voted against the measure and accused Shields of "launch[ing] a smear campaign. It's in the paper now: Anybody that votes against Mr. Shields' bill is a prostitute to the industry ... Councilman Shields might have a majority here, but he doesn’t have unanimity [so] he launches a smear campaign against anybody that would vote no ... I would ask my colleagues to turn away from that sort of ... demagoguery."

Shields' allegations of arm-twisting got little support even from those who were friendly to the bill. Natalia Rudiak acknowledged discussing the issue with Rich Fitzgerald, the Democratic nominee for county executive. But she characterized it as a mere exchange of views -- "done, end of story."

If anything, Rudiak almost sounded like she'd like to see a bit more lobbying: "I personally have never been contacted by a representative of the Marcellus Shale industry, ever." And the industry's failure to engage with local politicians, she charged, "sends the message that the industry .... feel that they're bigger than us. That they're more powerful than us, that they can ignore us. And I don’t appreciate that."

Of course, it may well be that the gas industry can ignore the measure. There's a very real chance that they could overturn it in the courts. 

Councilors yesterday had in hand a brief legal analysis of the bill from the city Law Department. While the department asked for more time to conduct a review, it goes at numerous provisions of Shields' bill. For openers, it refers to Pennsylvania state law's limitation on municipal powers. The key provision of that law asserts

a municipality shall not ... [e]nact or promulgate any ordinance or regulation with respect to ... the manufacture, processing, storage, distribution and sale of any foods, goods or services subject to any Commonwealth statutes and regulations unless the municipal ordinance or regulation is uniform in all respects with the Commonwealth statutes and regulations.

The Law Department analysis also notes that the state's Oil and Gas Act explicitly states that "all local ordinances and enactments purporting to regulate oil and gas well operations regulated by this act are hereby superseded." That language has been used to overturn local regulations that are far less sweeping than an outright ban.

At yesterday's meeting, Shields argued that no less a personage than Joe Scarnati, the Republican president pro tempore of the Senate, seems to envision communities saying "no" to drilling. In a May op-ed piece, Scarnati argued on behalf of establishing an "impact fee" for local communities that host drilling sites. "[C]ommunities that choose to ban drilling will not collect money from the impact fees," Scarnati wrote. To Shields, that suggests Scarnati agrees communities should be able to make that choice.

Shields also argued that while the state has jurisdiction over liquor laws, that doesn't preclude communities like Wilkinsburg from being "dry." I'm not sure that's a great analogy: State liquor law explicitly grants the possibility that communities may choose to remain "dry." Whereas the Oil and Gas Act seems to explicitly deny local governments the opportunity to say no.

In any case, there are other problems with Shields' bill. For example, it asserts:

Corporations in violation of the prohibition against natural gas extraction, or seeking to engage in natural gas extraction shall not ... be afforded the protections of the commerce or contracts clauses within the United States Constitution or corresponding sections of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

You can probably see the problem here, even if you don't work for the Law Department: The Shields ordinance appears to be revoking the state and US Constitution for industries that Pittsburgh doesn't like. And you can't even do that for strip clubs. Not surprisingly, the law department notes that other "[p]otential areas of concern relate to the Commerce Clause, Contracts Clause, Substantive & Procedural Due Process [clauses]."

During yesterday's council meeting, Dowd had some sport with a provision asserting that "[n]o permit, license, privilege, or charter issued by any State or federal agency ... to any person or any corporation ... which would violate the prohibitions of this Charter provision ... shall be deemed valid within the City of Pittsburgh." Dowd wondered whether truck drivers hauling frackwater would thus have their licenses suspended within city limits. How would police enforce such a measure, he wondered. 

Ricky Burgess, meanwhile, chose to have some fun at the expense of his council rivals. Burgess, who is perenially on the outs with Shields and the rest of council's majority, noted that he'd proposed two referenda in January which were both tabled. Councilors had argued that the initiative for those proposals could come from the voters, rather than from the councilors themselves.

"I am very humbled that they have been persuaded by me that this is something council should do," he said, remaining admirably straight-faced. 

But the preliminary vote went in Shields' favor 5-3 ... and Burgess himself abstained in yesterday's vote, saying he felt "conflicted." The law department opinion worried him, he said, but so did drilling's potential impact on community health.

"I do not think it’s appropriate for [drilling] to be in the city of Pittsburgh," he said. "I typically believe that people have the right to decide their own future."

For his part, Bill Peduto acknowledged that "The regulations that are in place at the state and federal level are skewed," and that the field is "not level." But "What do you do when you feel that way?" he asked. "You try what you can to put the field back" -- especially when the stakes for environmental and community health are so high.

Will a local referndum really change that balance of power? Probably not. Even some environmentalists I've spoken with privately admit that local drilling bans are unlikely to withstand court scrutiny. They tend to believe that the reason the existing council ban hasn't been challenged is that no drilling firms have any plans to come to Pittsburgh in the forseeable future. (Gas prices are quite low, and it's much easier and more cost-effective to drill in rural areas.) 

Still, supporters relish sending a strong message about the community's will. Some enjoy the prospect of a court battle, as a way of highlighting the issue and -- who knows? -- perhaps turning up something juicy in the discovery process.

But maybe the best reason to put this measure on the ballot is that the objections to it -- it violates state law, etc. -- are the same objections that apply to council's own ban. And all 9 council members voted in favor of that bill. Which raises the question: Once you've given yourself the opportunity to defy state law, how do you justify denying voters the same fun?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Library tax referendum moves forward

Posted By on Wed, Jul 27, 2011 at 10:34 AM

Activists want voters to decide how to fund the Carnegie Library system, and it looks like this November, city residents will get a say on whether to support the libraries or not.

Library activist group Our Library, Our Future yesterday presented nearly 11,000 petition signatures to City Council, asking for a ballot question in November. The requested referendum would ask for a 0.25 mil special tax on taxable real estate, and the funds generated would be earmarked only for the operation and maintenance of the Carnegie Library system. Under the state law that allows municipalities to levy library taxes, only 2,769 signatures were needed for a petition.

The petitions wrapped up and presented to council yesterday.
  • The petitions wrapped up and presented to council yesterday.

"It's clear city voters want to have a say in the future of their libraries," said David Malehorn, a volunteer with Our Library, Our Future, at a press conference Tuesday morning outside City Council Chambers. "We need to step up and shoulder responsibility for funding for our libraries."

The proposed tax would generate $3.25 million a year, according to city councilor Patrick Dowd. It would cost an additional $25 a year for taxpayers on properties with an assessed value of $100,000. By law, the tax proceeds must be used to support ongoing library operations, rather than capital expenses like new facilities. 

"It's not just an asset. It's a critical part of our infrastructure," Dowd, a library board member, told City Paper. "We have to have it. We need the neighborhood resources it provides. It is a necessity."

City Council will act as a pass-through for the petitions, which are being forwarded to the mayor's office for approval. They will then be forwarded to the Allegheny County Board of Elections, which will certify them before placing them on the November ballot.

"This is democracy in action. It's up to the people now," said council president Darlene Harris.

Dozens of library supporters came out to the press conference by the Our Library, Our Future -- an initiative launched in June born out of the recommendations of Public-Private Task Force on Sustainable Library Funding. The library's board approved the funding strategy in January.

It's all been part of an effort to solve the public library's long-standing financial woes.

A recently approved budget by the state government keeps funding roughly on par with last year's allotment for libraries statewide, which, while the Pennsylvania Library Association has noted is better than being anticipated cuts, it still is problematic for cash-strapped systems.

The Carnegie Library, for example, has lost about $2 million in state funding over the past few years. But it's not just state allocations to blame; other funding streams haven't increased. "Our funding has remained level," says library spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes. "It's not keeping up with expenditures."

City council approved a total of $1.2 million stop-gap funding for the library last year to be disbursed over two years. Thinnes said the library has received about half of that amount and "we haven't heard" anything about the release of the remaining funds.

The library has gotten a little help from the mayor's office on the tax initiative, at least. Ravenstahl is one of the 10,000 city residents to sign the petitions. But city spokeswoman Joanna Doven said he did so only to support "the public's right to vote on the issue. He will be voting 'no' because he believes the people of Pittsburgh already pay too much in property tax."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Shields alleges "significant political pressure" to kill drilling-ban referendum

Posted By on Mon, Jul 25, 2011 at 10:55 AM

City councilor Doug Shields, who is seeking a public referendum on banning natural-gas drilling in city limits, is alleging that civic leaders are pressuring council to kill the measure. Among those leaders: Democratic county executive candidate Rich Fitzgerald, and two members of the city's financial oversight board.

Council is set to debate the referendum measure this Wednesday. Voting in favor of the bill  would give city voters a chance to amend the Home Rule Charter this November, outlawing natural-gas drilling in Pittsburgh. If passed, the referendum would reinforce a drilling ban  already passed by council last year. 

But late Friday afternoon, Shields sent an e-mail to reporters arguing that  councilors were being pressured to keep the measure off the November ballot. The e-mail reads in part:

For those of you that have been asking. Yes, it is true. Rich Fitzgerald, candidate for County Executive and recipient of significant contributions from Shale Gas industry, Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference, Barbra McNees, ICA oversight board Chair and Member Rich Stinizzo, are putting significant political pressure on Council members to vote "NO" on legislation to place a referendum question on the November ballot amending the City Charter to ban gas drilling in the city. The ICA lobbying is completely inappropriate. That is neither their role nor their mandate in the affairs of the city.

The Council unanimously enacted an ordinance to do the very same last November 16th. The vote on the Charter question comes up this Wednesday.

All of this is being done at the direction of the Shale Gas industry. Publicly, shale gas industry spokes persons say, "who cares, we aren't drilling in the city anyway." Privately they seem to be singing a different song ...

Mr. Fitzgerald and his Shale Gas industry backroom friends want us to vote for him yet he doesn’t want the public to be allowed vote for themselves, for their health, for their safety and welfare. I put this question to Mr. Fitzgerald: What city neighborhood would you like to begin drilling operations in? 

Fitzgerald's county exec camaign, you may recall, stepped on a landmine when it turned out Fitzgerald was hitting up gas-industry execs for contributions -- even as he faulted his Democratic rival, Mark Patrick Flaherty, for being too tight with the business. (Shields' e-mail also revists that issue, blasting statements Fitzgerald made about Shields wife, also a gas-drilling opponent, in an e-mail to execs.)

But reached by phone this morning, Fitzgerald denies having "backroom friends" in the industry.  "I have asked the industry for support -- as people know -- but I've gotten very little," he says. And while Fitzgerald acknowledges opposing the ban, he says that's not a position being dictated by gas-industry execs. 

"My position on drilling is pretty clear," he points out: As his campaign website asserts, he favors imposing environmental regulations that allow drilling, subject to various environmental and infrastructure protections. 

Fitzgerald acknowledges that "I've seen a few council members, and I've told them I didn't think it was a good idea." But he denies that this constituted "political pressure ... My position on drilling is pretty clear."

Fitzgerald says he opposes a referendum partly as a "philosophical issue": He believes "even controversial decisions" should be made by elected officials. But he also says that a ban "sends a signal. And it hurts us when it comes to having a gas company headquartered Downtown. The big companies like Chevron are buying up smaller companies."

Fitzgerald Fitzgerald also reiterates that "there isn't going to be drilling in Pittsburgh for decades ... No gas company has told me, 'We really want to drill in Bloomfield.'"

City councilor Patrick Dowd, for one, acknowledges talking to Fitzgerald about the issue, but says the discussions were "informational -- about what was going on with the legislation."

"I know what his position his," says Dowd. "I don't need him to tell me."

Dowd -- who says he is currently undecided about putting the referendum on the ballot -- also says he's discussed the bill with McNees. That happened "at a ribbon-cutting for a natural-gas filling station in my district last week," he says.

Dowd said he and McNees talked generally about the growing impact of natural gas on the local economy, and that McNees did discuss some "technical concerns" about how the referendum would work. But "I don't think it was an inappropriate conversation," Dowd says. "It wasn't like 'You should vote no, or I'll put the screws to the city.'" In fact, he says, "This was the first conversation I've had with [an ICA member] about drilling. And they've had months and months to apply pressure if that's what they wanted to do." 

More on this story as further events warrant.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Santorum frothing at the mouth -- again

Posted By on Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 6:20 PM

Generally, this space has had very little to say about the presidential aspirations of former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Frothy Mix). While our pals at Early Returns follow Santorum almost religiously -- is there any other way? -- we've generally just tried to avert our eyes. Unlike Santorum, after all, we respect the privacy rights of masochists. 

But this is too good to pass up

Rick Santorum, down on money and lagging in the polls, is turning to an old foe, columnist Dan Savage, to help fill his coffers and grab some headlines ...

Santorum [is] calling out Savage, using the columnist's controversial appearance on last week's Real Time With Bill Maher as a springboard into some retro attacks on Savage and the LGBT-rights movement he represents ...

During a panel discussion about the GOP candidates -- more specifically, a round of speculation about the sex life of the Bachmanns -- Savage, who's made his career on graphic sexual talk, said this (in jest):

"I sometimes think about fucking the shit out of Rick Santorum......he needs it. So, it's not, it's not just women we're talking about fucking. Like, let's bone that Santorum boy."

Savage, of course, is the syndicated sex columnist who, in retaliation for Santorum's anti-gay positions, helped redefine the Senator's name as a synomym for "the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex."

"I'm up for whipping up some santorum in Santorum," he told Maher's audience. 

Santorum has now launched a counteroffensive, blasting Savage on a conservative radio show and on his blog:

Savage and his perverted sense of humor is the reason why my children cannot Google their father's name. I took the high road for nearly a decade by not dignifying these mindless attacks, then even defending his 1st Amendment right to spew this filth. And to this day, liberals like Rachel Maddow serve as Savage's lackeys on national television, pushing his smut.

Enough is enough, and I'll keep fighting these attacks to ensure that the extreme lest [sic] doesn't win.

Nothing too unexpected there: Santorum doesn't blanch at policies that would ruin the family lives of same-sex couples ... but treading on a child's Google rights? That goes too far!

Still, the only real surprising thing about this post appears at the very bottom of the page -- where Santorum's site offers a link to its "privacy policy." So he's in favor of privacy now? Sounds like a flip-flop, ol' buddy.  

Equally predictable was Savage's rejoinder to Talking Points Memo -- in which he suggested that Santorum enjoyed playing the martyr:

"The Google thing has been good for him -- it's allowed him to portray himself as a victim in the style of Sarah Palin ... [I]f you look at his press over the last 18 months, grousing about his Google problem is his chief talking point."

That echoes a concern Savage voiced to me in March:

"[H]e'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.'"

But if this really was an attempt by Santorum to gin up excitement about his campaign, it doesn't seem to be working. As I write this roughly 6 hours after the post was published, Santorum's blog post seems to have garnered exactly three responses -- one of which characterizes Santorum as a "mindless, robotic, right-wing zealot." The other urges Santorum to "keep fucking that chicken." 

(I should note that the author of that post -- a "Theo Potter" -- is no relation.)

I'm reprinting these responses below -- 

santorumpost.jpg

-- because I'm guessing they'll disappear sooner or later. But if anything says "campaign in disarray," it's a website that allows allegations of senatorial chicken-fucking to remain available for 5 hours after they are made. 

[ADDED (7/22/2011): Not only are these posts still visible on the site, but they've been joined by a handful of others, including one that calls him "pooplube," and another asserting that "the thought of you being Dan Savage's BITCH is pretty funny." Another commenter adds that "Who ever is managing your social media campaign is doing as great a job as you did as a senator." Which was sort of my point yesterday, of course ... only now, I wonder whether this is further proof of Savage's argument. If Santorum is trying hard to look like the victim here, leaving such posts up would be a good way to do it.]

Who is spreading online filth now, Senator?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New activist group One Pittsburgh takes the stage

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 11:36 AM

It's been a long time since anyone's accused Pittsburgh of being a hotbed of activism. While other cities may host public demonstrations, engaged electorates, and multiple political parties, Pittsburgh has ... the Steelers, the Pirates, and the Penguins.

But a fledgling group, One Pittsburgh, is trying to give Pittsburghers a greater voice in the debate -- even if that means taking on the sports teams themselves. And it will be interesting to see what kind of player the new entity becomes.

One Pittsburgh is a campaign of Pittsburgh United, an advocacy group which has agitated for progressive legislation on the city level, like recently-passed regulations concerning diesel emissions at work sites.

In fact, it can be hard to tell where Pittsburgh United ends and One Pittsburgh begins. The groups have offices just down the hall from each other, and they boast the same cast of supporters -- a coalition of environmental, labor, and left-of-center faith-based organizations.

But while Pittsburgh United has focused largely on passing legislation on Grant Street, One Pittsburgh is about changing the entire political climate.

According to Kyndall Mason, one of a dozen people working full-time for the organization, One Pittsburgh was founded on "a desire to focus on corporate accountability."

One Pittsburgh routinely calls on corporations to "pay their fair share"; for example, the group recently held a protest outside PNC Park to denounce the Pirates for being incorporated in Delaware. (It's a common tax-avoidance strategy for companies headquartered in other states to be chartered in Delaware, which doesn't charge corporate income tax on them.) More recently, One Pittsburgh members spoke out at a recent community meeting to discuss UPMC's decision to abandon construction of a much-ballyhooed vaccine plant in Hazelwood. 

Issues like the "Delaware loophole"are abstract, and often only discussed by public-policy gurus (and the reporters who love them). But such arcane matters can have real-world effects by depriving governments of revenue -- and One Pittsburgh is seeking to make those connections clear. 

"We're trying to connect the dots for people," Mason says. "People are trying so hard just to get by that they don't have time to realize why it is so hard. For a lot of people, there's the feeling of 'These problems are so much bigger than me that I don't know what to do.'"

One Pittsburgh began taking root last year, says Barney Oursler of Pittsburgh United: "A couple unions decided they wanted to try and change the message about what's wrong with the economy and what can be done about it." Those unions were SEIU and UFCW -- which have advocated strongly on issues like a citywide prevailing-wage ordinance.

Union concerns about the overall political climate deepened early this year, as Republicans launched high-profile attacks on workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Washington D.C. But while union backing was the impetus for One Pittsburgh, Oursler says, other Pittsburgh United members saw the need  to shape not just new legislation, but a new political message. In too many debates about hard times and budget deficits, he says, "We're still blaming workers and poor people for wanting too much."

One Pittsburgh offers a countervailing persepctive: that times are hard because "Corporations are not paying their fair share in taxes; they're not paying good wages, and they're not creating the jobs they're promised." 

If the message is clear, the group itself can seem a bit amorphous: It's a standalone campaign, but relies heavily on outside sources for support. Unions are contributing personnel and non-monetary resources. (Mason, for example, is on loan from SEIU.) Other Pittsburgh United members are pitching in too -- and suggesting which issues and tactics to engage in. "The decisionmaking table involves all of those involved in Pittsburgh United," Oursler says. 

Given all that, it's no wonder there's been some speculation that One Pittsburgh might get caught up in local political battles. 

Pittsburgh United's previous initiatives, after all, were supported by city council's progressive faction, whose members oppose Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Mason herself recently worked on the re-election campaign of city council president Darlene Harris, who narrowly survived a mayoral-backed effort to oust her. Too, One Pittsburgh is constituted as a 501(c)4 entity -- a nonprofit that is allowed to engage in lobbying and other political activities.

So could One Pittsburgh become part of an emerging local coalition of progressive politicians, funders, and advocacy groups?

"I can't tell you what we'll be doing in six months," Mason says -- let alone "what we'll be doing when Ravenstahl's up for reelection" in 2013. Mason says the 501(c)4 designation is just a way to give the organization lattitude for conducting, say, a voter-registration campaign sometime down the road. When organizers discuss initiatives these days, she says, "Honestly, Ravenstahl's name doesn't come up."

Indeed, One Pittsburgh has focused almost entirely on players in the private sector, rather than politicians. And the group has mostly been concerned with movement-building: In early summer, it carried on door-knocking campaigns around the city, talking about the sour economy and recruiting those who want to do something about it.

"Our focus is to create a groundswell, building support at a grassroots level," Mason says. "We can't just have [elected officials] say to us, 'You're just a handful of activist whackos.'"

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Jobs advocates lament frustrated dreams in East Liberty

Posted By on Tue, Jul 19, 2011 at 1:54 PM

The Speak Out for Good Jobs Now tour slogan is "rebuild the American Dream." And for two hours Monday night, congressional representatives heard from those whose dream, or that of someone they knew, had been shattered by lack of jobs.

"In every job I've ever worked at, it's been understaffed. It's stressful going to work every day knowing there's an infinite to-do list. But I'm considered one of the lucky ones," said Mike Heller. "Of my friends, only half of us are fortunate to have jobs. The other half are unemployed."

Of the 600 who packed the Kinglsey Center auditorium in East Liberty for the congressional listening tour sponsored by sponsored by ProgressiveCongress.org, many were less fortunate. And they let those who had come to listen -- Jackie Erickson, repping Sen. Bob Casey, and Corey O'Connor, representing Mike Doyle -- know it.

The discussion in Washington, O'Connor said, "shouldn't be on debt limits. It should be on getting good, quality jobs back to Western Pennsylvania."

Among those who spoke:

  • Terry Miale, of Bridgeville: A 30-year employee of Verizon, Miale says that the company dissolved its contract with U.S. Airways after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, dissolving her job. "I work an $8 an hour, part-time job at Macy's. I'm on food stamps, my boyfriend pays the rent," she said. "This is not the American dream I signed up for."
  • Georgeanne Koehler: In 2003, her brother Billy lost his job and health insurance, and access to health care for a heart condition. He was eventually hired as a pizza delivery driver, but unable to find a private health care plan; he was repeatedly denied for pre-existing conditions. On March 7, 2009, Billy died of cardiac arrest in his car on his way home from a shift. He was 57.
  • Benita Johnson, of the North Side: Dropped out of school at the age 14 and worked to support her family. Obtained her bachelor's degree and worked for the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000 and 2010. When her work there ended, "I thought 'I have a bachelor's degree and four years of government experience, I'd be OK," she said. "I couldn't find a job." She was eventually offered a job by the federal government -- but it was ultimately cut due to funding issues. She's currently on unemployment. "If my unemployment runs out, I'll have to sell everything I own and move in with my brother," she said. "I thought if my own ancestors could survive slavery, I could survive this. But this is a different kind of slavery."

More than 30 organizations and citizen groups were present, including the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, One Pittsburgh and Action United.

"We should not be here begging for health care, begging for jobs," said the Rev. Richard Freeman, president of PIIN. "We own this country!"

Pittsburgh was the listening tour's 14th stop, and it continues across the country. Visit here to share your story with the tour.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wheels turning on bike-sharing proposal

Posted By on Mon, Jul 18, 2011 at 2:10 PM

One month after local bicycling advocates, foundations and government officials began to discuss bringing a bike-sharing program to Pittsburgh, cycling advocates say they are teaming up with university researchers to figure out how a system might work here.

"It's exciting," says Scott Bricker, executive director of BikePGH, a local bike-advocacy group. "Now we're at step two. We're starting to figure out how this is going to happen."

Last month, representatives from B-cycle, a Wisconsin-based company that operates bike shares around the country, met with local officials to talk about how the short-term bike-rental systems function, and how launching one in Pittsburgh could benefit the city. The presentation earned high praise from the more than two dozen bicycling advocates, city planners and foundation officials who attended the meeting.

On July 8, Bricker sent a follow-up email to presentation attendees. The email announced that BikePGH is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University professor Robert Hampshire and a group of graduate students from CMU's Heinz College to develop a business plan for a Pittsburgh bike-sharing system. "Meanwhile," Bricker's message continued, "we are already exploring different business models and potential funding streams."

Hampshire could not be reached for comment. But Bricker tells City Paper that Hampshire and his students will be tasked with studying bike-sharing best practices around the world "to get more of a handle on how it can work" in Pittsburgh. Bricker says they will begin their research in the fall.

"There's still a lot of background work to do," says Bricker, noting that bike shares are very new. (The oldest one in the U.S. started slightly more than a year ago.) "There are a lot of question marks."

Especially when it comes to funding: How much money should come from local foundations? How much support should the city and county provide?

Bricker says no one knows the answers to those questions yet. But given last month's overwhelmingly positive reaction to the bike-sharing presentation, he's optimistic that enough people are motivated to make bike-sharing a reality here in Pittsburgh.

"It was surprising and refreshing that everybody got it and saw the value in it," Bricker says. "People after the meeting were saying, 'How do we make it happen?' rather than 'Why don't we put a stake in it?'"

Friday, July 15, 2011

Independent county exec hopeful opposes gas drilling

Posted By on Fri, Jul 15, 2011 at 5:26 PM

Hoping to cast a vote against Marcellus Shale drilling this November ... and disappointed that Dana Dolney is not the Democratic nominee in the county executive race? 

You have another option:Tom Kawczynski.

Kawczynski, who is seeking to launch an independent run for Allegheny County Executive, might seem an unlikely drilling opponent. He's a former Republican who I first met volunteering with the 2008 presidential campaign of libertarian hero Ron Paul. 

Even so, Kawczynski says he favors a two-year drilling ban in county limits. 

"I went to Pitt and I went to CMU and I talked to professors there and they told me, 'Tom, this is not safe and you should not support this,'" Kawczynski says. "Then I looked at the financial issue that everyone talks about, and the fact is our schools are in financial crisis and we're not seeing any money from the gas that's being taken out of the ground.

"So I think it's in the best interest of Allegheny County to stop this. Not permanently, but until we determine whether or not this can be done safely, and whether or not the people of Allegheny County will actually benefit."

That's not the only unorthodox part of Kawczynski's energy platform.  He also wants to invest county funds in alternative energy, specifically wind turbines. Installing wind turbines, he says, would allow the county to produce its own energy and make enough revenue to allow it to be "tax independent to have the ability to meet the needs of the people who live here."

And while he doesn't have concrete numbers, Kawczynski estimates that a $700 million investment based on current energy costs would yield roughly $55 to $60 million annually -- or about $2 billion over a 20-year period.

"You can do a lot with that extra revenue," Kawczynski says. "You can fund Port Authority, you can fund small business revitalization and community development projects.

Energy, he says, is "the best place for government to invest because it doesn't lose money."

On another hot-button issue, Kawczynski says he would move forward with the controversial property-tax reassessment process. However, he says, he would increase the homestead exemption to the first $20,000 of a home's value. (The current exemption is $15,000.)

Kawczynski says the increased exemption "will allow us to offset the impact to some folks" in lower- and middle-income bracks with higher property values -- "while forcing the guy whose $400,000 home is assessed at $150,000 to pay his fair share."

(For more on Kawczynski's plans, check out his intermittently-functioning website.)

He said he decided to get in the race before the primary because he didn't think either Democrat Rich Fitzgerald or Republican D. Raja, offered voters much of a choice.

"Whether Raja gets elected or whether Fitzgerald gets elected, the average voter in Allegheny County is not going to see a difference in terms of the policies that will be enacted or in how government operates," Kawczynski says.

While Kawczynski is ready to roll with a platform, he still needs signatures to win a spot on the ballot. The county requires him to compile election peittions with 2,990 signatures: He says he's reached about half that number, with just over two weeks until the August 1 deadline.

Kawczynski says he'd have an easier time collecting signatures -- and raising money -- if he hadn't taken a hard line on gas-drilling. That position alienated him from Tea Party sympathizers he once allied with. ("I thought the government bailout [of the banking industry] was a load of crap," he says.) But when he approached old friends, he says, his stance on Marcellus Shale "absolutely killed me."

Of course, his willingness to tax the rich, and to invest public money in wind energy, probably wouldn't help him gain Tea Party votes in November. But he says it's the gas drilling issue that hurt the most.

"They were yelling back at me, 'drill, baby, drill,'" says Kawczynski. "I guess I understand why they feel that way, because look, natural gas is a valuable commodity and it will probably become more so. But the process through which it's being extracted is bad.

"Getting people to hear that is hard because anytime you have trees or clean air or clean water vs. money, money is going to unfortunately win."

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