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Monday, August 1, 2011

Anti-fracking referendum: not so fast

Posted By on Mon, Aug 1, 2011 at 3:45 PM

Pittsburgh City Council voted 6-3 in favor of putting an anti-fracking referendum on the ballot. That's a veto-proof majority ... and there was much rejoicing.

But advocates should remember: Mayor Luke Ravenstahl doesn't need a veto to kill it.

Sponsored by Doug Shields, the bill would give voters a chance to append a citywide ban on natural-gas drilling to the home rule charter. Much of today's debate reprised last week's preliminary discussion: Patrick Dowd again denounced referendum supporters for smearing those who didn't see things there way. Natalia Rudiak expressed dismay that the natural-gas industry itself hadn't seen fit to approach councilors for a discussion. And so on.

But last week's vote was 5-3, with the abstention of Councilor Ricky Burgess. This time, he voted in favor -- though not without a bit of hemming and hawing first.

Today, as last week, Burgess confessed to feeling "conflicted" about the bill. On the one hand, Burgess said today, "I have deep, deep concerns about the effects of drilling on water in our city, in our county." On the other, he reiterated concerns about the referendum itself, portions of which city attorneys have warned runs afoul of state and federal law.

Burgess actually went further in his criticism today. Terms of the law, he said, are "inappropriate to be in the charter." Including such language, he said, "cheapen[s] our guiding principles." Burgess also cast aspersions as to the motives behind the bill. He wondered openly whether the real purpose of the legislation was "to gain outside employment at some future time." (Bill opponents widely suspect Shields, whose council term ends this year, of seeking a job from an environmental group once he leaves public office.)

Nevertheless, Burgess said, he had "steadfastly supported voter referendums" in the past, and concluded, "My conscience says that the people have the right to make a choice."

In fact, Burgess revisited an argument he'd made last week, pointing out that some of the councilors who favored this referendum had opposed Burgess' own efforts to put questions on the ballot. Burgess said, with what I'm guessing was something less than total credulousness, that he was "look[ing] forward" to seeing his own measures brought back to the table "so that we are consistent" and "are not accused of hypocrisy or political pandering."

I've said this before: Burgess is really good at deploying jujitsu on his opponents' rhetoric -- taking their arguments and carrying them forward to a place they don't want to go. His double-edged support was a perfect example.

But council's majority has a more immediate problem.  As council supporters of the bill are pointing out, state law requires a ballot measure to be formally approved 13 weeks before the election. By my calendar, that means Mayor Luke Ravenstahl would either have to sign it, or council would have to overturn his veto, by August 9. Which is a problem, since by terms of the city charter itself, Ravenstahl can wait up to 10 days before taking any action. That would allow him to run out the clock if he wanted to.

Shades of the prevailing wage bill, anyone? 

I've got calls in to the mayor's office to see what his intentions are. I'll post any response here. Ravenstahl previously vetoed [CORRECTION: he returned the measure to council unsigned] a ban passed by council last year, and it's hard to see why he'd be any more enthusiastic about this bill. Still, more recently, Ravenstahl went out of his way to speedily veto a council alternative to his own pension-bailout plan. He could have run out the clock that time as well, had he wanted to. 

Even if he does, I'm not sure it matters. There is, after all, already a ban on drilling in city limits, and it has yet to be challenged by drillers. (By most accounts, there is little interest in, or need for, drilling inside city limits under current market conditions.) By vetoing the measure, Ravenstahl might accomplish little more than putting himself on the record as an opponent. Which some may suspect is the point. (Then again, some may wonder whether Burgess voted in favor of the bill precisely because he expects Ravenstahl to suffocate the measure.)

Even if the measure doesn't get on the ballot this time around, supporters of the ban could simply try again for next year's election -- either with another council bill, or by circulating petitions the old-fashioned way. At least one councilor, Robert Lavelle, said he thought that was a more fitting approach anyway. And at least it would spare environmentalists from having to worry about all the murky agendas being pursued by elected officials. Just because you're against natural-gas drilling, after all, doesn't mean you should be exposed to that much hot air. 

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