Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Greenfield community group shuttered, reasons unclear (UPDATE)

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 at 1:36 PM

The Greenfield Organization recently announced that it is at least temporarily shutting down, but board members for the neighborhood group appear to be keeping quiet about the reason why. (UPDATE: After this blog post was published, Greenfield Organization president Dolores Hanna sent us a statement citing fiscal problems as the reason for the closure. See below.)

"We regret to inform the Greenfield Community that the Greenfield Organization is temporarily closed and without a staff person for a major re-organization due to circumstances beyond the control of the Board of Directors," neighborhood group's board of directors wrote in a Jan. 12 letter circulated in a Connect Greenfield community newsletter on Jan. 16.

"The Board of Directors is working diligently to have this loss of service to the community be short term," the letter continues. "[W]e apologize for any inconvenience this may cause our neighbors and look for us in the spring for future updates."

The Greenfield Organization, among other things, has offered residents free income tax assistance and publishes a community newspaper. But the group will no longer be providing those services, according to the letter from the organization's board. Nor will private groups be allowed to use the group's building, located on Greenfield Avenue.

The Greenfield Organization's president, Dolores Hanna, did not respond to a City Paper email. A handful of board members also did not respond to requests for comment. In an e-mail received after this post was originally published, GO president Dolores Hanna wrote:

The Greenfield Organization has closed temporarily due to financial issues. The Board of Directors eliminated all paid staff positions and are re-organizing. We can't offer VITA Income Tax Services this year to our residents but have spoken to Councilman [Corey] O'Connor to see if he can find a way to assist the senior citizens with their taxes possibly out of Magee Senior Center and we have suspended publication of the Greenfield Grapevine. Councilman O'Connor has scheduled a neighborhood meeting for January 26 and the temporary closing of the GO will most likely be one of the topics for discussion. All of that being said look for us to be back in the spring with another update.

O'Connor, who represents Greenfield, declined to go into specifics about the Greenfield Organization's troubles, since he's not a member of the group's board. But he said the community can learn more about the organization's decision to close during the Jan. 26 neighborhood meeting, which is being held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Magee Recreation Center (745 Greenfield Ave.).

"We're going to have someone from the Greenfield Organization make a statement about what went on there," he says, noting that lots of rumors have been swirling about the organization. "They're going to make a statement about why they're going to dissolve for a while."

O'Connor says he wants to make sure that the closing of the Greenfield Organization doesn't have a negative impact on the neighborhood. He says his council office is going to step up its neighborhood outreach to help ensure that positive trends in the community continue.

Greenfield has recently seen its business district on Greenfield Avenue bolstered by the addition of Szmidt's Old World Deli and Copper Kettle Brewing, a brew-it-yourself brewery operated by the owners of the popular neighborhood bar, Hough's. In addition, O'Connor says, more young people are moving to Greenfield.

"We don't want to lose that momentum," he says.

"The Greenfield Organization was a big foundation for the neighborhood," O'Connor adds, "and it still may be in the future."

But for now, he says, the neighborhood needs to figure out how to manage without it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

After slow start, can bus rapid transit get rolling?

Posted By on Mon, Jan 16, 2012 at 2:54 PM

Discussions of bus rapid transit have been in the works since at least 2010 and community groups are ready to take the next step.

Last Thursday, Get There PGH, a coalition of more than 30 community groups, began the public input process to get feedback on a proposed bus rapid transit plan for Pittsburgh.

Bus Rapid Transit, as the Port Authority describes it, is a "high-quality bus service that offers the limited stops and faster service of rail, but with the flexibility and lower capital costs associated with buses." It features many elements of rail: more direct and streamlined service, simpler route structure, dedicated lanes and real-time data at stops.

The initiative was born out of a 2010 forum on BRT that found a "groundswell of support in the community" for the effort, says Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh who presented Thursday's meeting. "This is the community saying to Port Authority, let's get on with it."

The Port Authority contracted Parsons Brinckerhoff to study offering BRT in Downtown, Uptown, the Hill District, Oakland and the city's eastern neighborhoods. But Gould stresses that the proposal is "not a predetermined plan. The public has to decide what they want."

The area being studied for the feature makes up a large portion of Port Authority's ridership, says Darryl Phillips with Parsons Brinckerhoff. The Oakland core alone has 46,000 daily riders -- mostly via the 61 and 71 bus routes -- accounting for 20 percent of the system's total ridership. The rest of the corridor routes have 78,000 daily riders, and, combined with Oakland, account for 33 percent of the system's ridership.

Those same areas, Phillips says, are also poised for significant growth in employment and population by 2040.

"The question is how do you accommodate that growth?" he says. "People need options for getting around."

Dedicated bus lanes in Pittsburgh aren't anything new. In fact, Phillips points out that the Port Authority was one of the first in the country to develop dedicated transit space with the Martin Luther King Busway and West Busway. And because BRT is a flexible technology, Phillips says such an endeavor doesn't have to be a "billion-dollar project that you have to build all of it or none of it. It's what you can afford." Considering the Port Authority's longstanding fiscal challenges, that's an important factor.

BRT has also spurred economic development in other cities. Cleveland's transit developments, through its HealthLine and other initiatives, have been credited for almost $5 billion new economic growth.

"Port Authority innovated [bus rapid transit] domestically," says Gould. "Other cities innovated it and took it farther and decided that instead of [transit] being a separate, fenced in thing, they guided it into the fabric of the community."

About 100 people turned out for the first of Thursday's two forums which featured a brief presentation on BRT and discussions with riders about their needs. Phillips said more meetings are on the horizon, and feedback is being accepted online.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Miles protest stymied at Zappala's door

Posted By on Thu, Jan 12, 2012 at 8:55 PM

Marking the two-year anniversary of the high-profile arrest and beating of Jordan Miles at the hands of three undercover police officers, more than a dozen Occupiers and police-accountability activists returned to the office of District Attorney Stephen Zappala this afternoon to demand that charges be filed against the officers.

Their demonstration, however, lasted only a few minutes before a large group of police officers nearly matching the number of protesters forced the peaceful demonstrators outside the Allegheny County Courthouse.

The protesters, led by Brandi Fisher, of the Alliance for Police Accountability, marched to the DA's third-floor office in hopes of meeting with Zappala to reiterate their call for the officers involved in the Miles arrest -- Richard Ewing, Michael Saldutte and David Sisak -- to be prosecuted for beating the Homewood teen. But when they approached the office, they were met by a handful of police officers blocking the doorway.

"Why can't we go into the doors?" activist Paradise Gray asked the officers, who responded that it was a "private office."

"Is DA Zappala here?" Fisher added.

After a couple of minutes, Mike Manko, the DA's spokesperson, came out to address the protesters.

"Zappala is not available," he said. "We're extremely appreciative of the issues important to you and the community." But, he added, there is nothing new to report on the DA's ongoing investigation into Miles' Jan. 12, 2010, arrest.

Before Manko could continue, protesters interrupted the spokesperson with an Occupy-inspired "mic check."

"We are supporters of Jordan Miles, an 18-year-old who was brutally beaten by three racist police officers two years ago today," they yelled, prompting a disgruntled Manko to turn around and return to the DA's office.

As the protesters continued their mic check, officers began forcing them to leave the building.

"It's a peaceful protest!" one demonstrator screamed, as officers ordered everyone down the stairs and out of the courthouse.

"The whole world is watching!" protesters screamed on their way out. "Justice for Jordan!"

Outside the courthouse, Fisher addressed the media.

"We were not welcome," she said. "They didn't even give a reason asking us to leave.

"It is very disheartening ... that we as a community can't even see the DA," Fisher added, noting that Zappala has not returned their phone calls or emails about the investigation. Zappala has shown "blatant disrespect for the law ... and for Jordan Miles and his family.

"At this point," she concluded, "our DA needs to step down."

As Fisher spoke with the media, officers started locking the nearest entrance to the courthouse, pulling the metal gate shut.

"That is not what democracy looks like!" Gray shouted at the officers. Then, indicating the actions of the protesters, he added, "This is what democracy looks like!"

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Wettick undercuts Fitzgerald on Reassessments

Posted By on Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 5:05 PM

Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald was not held in contempt of court Tuesday for defying a judge’s order and nullifying the 2012 reassessment numbers.

In fact, Judge Stanton Wettick indicated that nothing was likely to happen to Fitzgerald if he did it again. The same can’t be said, however, for any of his underlings who choose to follow the orders of Fitzgerald over those of the judge.

Wettick sent a stern message in form of an official court order to the Allegheny County Manager, the Chief Assessment Officer, the director of Administrative Services and the manager of the property assessor’s office that regardless of what order might come down from the chief executive’s office, the only order that matters is Wettick’s.

Wettick wrote that those officers "shall perform their duties professionally in implementing existing and future orders of the court regarding the reassessment and they shall not engage in or cause any actions to be taken that are inconsistent with the completion of the reassessment..."

Further Wettick wrote: "Noncompliance with this court order may result in contempt of court proceedings. In a contempt of court proceeding it will not be a defense that any Allegheny County Official gave instructions that would interfere with compliance..."

Wettick started off the hearing dealing with a motion by attorney Donald Driscoll to hold Fitzgerald in contempt of court for last week sending out certified tax valuations using the old reassessment data and not the new 2012 numbers.

The judge said he found no basis for contempt findings against Fitzgerald and said "the responsibility lies with me to closely define the responsibilities of the county officials" when it comes to administering the reassessment. He then issued his order which basically makes Fitzgerald powerless to make a decision about which numbers are to be used by municipalities to calculate their tax rates.

In other matters, Wettick heard a request from the Pittsburgh Public Schools to delay the reassessments until 2013, The district contends that a large number of assessments will be lowered following the appeals process and because state law restricts how much tax the district can levy, setting the tax rate before appeals are exhausted could leave a large hole in the district’s 2012 budget.

Wettick seemed sympathetic to the plight of the district, however he’s also a strong proponent of reassessment in Allegheny County because of the disparity in property values — the undervaluing of some homes and the over-valuing of others. Wettick says half of the property in Allegheny County is undervalued by 30 percent and half is overvalued by 30 percent.

"That is a huge difference," says Wettick. "What we have are smaller homes and probably people with smaller incomes are left paying more than their fair share and without property reassessment it creates more and more inequity.

UPDATE (5:20 p.m.): Fitzgerald has just issued a statement on Wettick's order, reprinted below the fold.

Continue reading »

A sneak preview of today's Occupy Pittsburgh hearing

Posted By on Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 7:34 AM

A programming note: This morning, attorneys for Bank of New York Mellon and Occupy Pittsburgh will be appearing in the courtroom of Christine Todd Ward to determine the fate of Mellon Green. I'll have coverage at my brand-spanking-new Twitter account, @CPotterPGH, where a solid handful of followers -- only half of whom are coworkers! -- are breathlessly awaiting my dispatches.

In the meantime, it's worth noting that BNY Mellon has issued a subpoena to city zoning administrator Susan Tymoczko; as I've noted here before, Occupy Pittsburgh has argued that the city's zoning law gives them the right to maintain a 24-hour campsite in the park. You can bet BNY Mellon will be calling on Tymoczko to contest that interpretation (which even civil libertarians have told me is weak).

Mellon has also fired a brief responding to Occupy Pittsburgh's legal rationale, which I wrote about late last week. Among other things, the Occupiers argue that they have a First Amendment right to their protest, and that BNY Mellon, by granting seemingly open-ended permission to remain in the park, have forfeited the right to evict them. BNY Mellon's response rejects those claims.

For starter, the bank notes that the First Amendment only applies to government action, not to private landowners. Occupy's lawyers, the pleading notes, "cite no case where [free speech] guarantees have been held to give anyone a right to put up tents and other structures and camp indefinitely on someone else's private property. Such a claim has no support in the history of American law and is completely untenable." Even if the parklet were public property, it continues, that wouldn't give the protesters the right to remain there indefinitely, any more than they have the right to permanently block a street.

Occupy has suggested that Mellon gave it a "license" to remain on the property, and that Occupiers bought winterizing equipment based on the assurance they could stay. Mellon's response tartly observes it is "absurd" to assert that Occupiers "acquired an irrevocable license to camp by soliciting donations or buying a small amount of equipment." What's more, BNY Mellon adds, permission to camp was "terminated when [Occupiers] violated the guidelines given to them." It's not clear what that violation consists of, though my guess would be that it has to do with the Occupiers' previous use of propane heaters and other equipment. (In their own legal brief, Occupiers have contended that no such heaters are being used ... but they have not denied previous use of such equipment.)

Expect these and other legal questions to get a fuller airing this morning. For the moment, if I were Occupy, I might hold off on buying any more winter supplies.

Friday, January 6, 2012

On assessments, won't somebody STOP THE MADNESS? Not until next week

Posted By on Fri, Jan 6, 2012 at 5:16 PM

Were you confused on Thursday, when Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told city property owners to disregard the assessment numbers they received in the mail just last week?

Well, brace yourself. Because things aren't any clearer today.

On Thursday, Fitzgerald defied a court order of Judge Stanton Wettick: He announced he was sending county school districts and municipalities property-tax valuations based on numbers compiled in 2002 -- not the numbers from the ongoing, and highly controversial, reassessment that Wettick has been presiding over. While residents of Pittsburgh and Mount Oliver have already received new values, Fitzgerald told them the numbers were "null and void." Taxing bodies there were supposed to use the old numbers once again, he said.

But at 12:15 p.m. Friday, Wettick issued an order telling them the opposite. The city and the school board were barred from using anything but the 2012 numbers, he wrote. At least for the time being.

"[U]nless and until this court modifies its prior orders of court, the City of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh School District are barred from ... calculating taxes for 2012 unless the millage and taxes are based on the 2012 assessed values," Wettick wrote.

Meanwhile, attorney Donald Driscoll-- who represents the plaintiffs in the original 2005 lawsuit against the county that led to the reassessments -- filed a motion asking for the county and Fitzgerald to be held in contempt of court for Thursday's actions. Those actions, the motion argues, are "in direct opposition to the oath taken by the county executive to follow the constitution."

Continue reading »

Occupy Pittsburgh files response to BNY Mellon suit

Posted By on Fri, Jan 6, 2012 at 2:20 PM

There's at least one group of Pittsburgh residents that hasn't been up in arms about the property reassessment: the Occupy Pittsburgh demonstrators who've been camped out on Mellon Green. And yet they too are fighting over the ground beneath their feet, opposing BNY Mellon's attempt to remove them from the Downtown parklet.

Yesterday, in fact, attorneys for Occupy Pittsburgh filed their response to BNY Mellon's lawsuit to evict them.

BNY Mellon is seeking a court injunction to oust the protesters. The bank argues that it could be held liable for any harm that the protesters cause or incur -- from attempts to keep warm during the winter, for example. (BNY Mellon cites online requests made for propane tanks and other heating equipment as the basis for its concern.) The bank also argues that while the space is typically open to the public, BNY Mellon maintains the right to close it off ... and that it typically does so during the winter.

Occupy Pittsburgh's response -- which refers to the site not as Mellon Green but the "People's Park" -- was submitted by Mike Healey and five other attorneys, among them University of Pittsburgh professor Jules Lobel, a scholar of Constitutional law. As you might expect, the response asserts that demonstrators have a First Amendment right to their protest. What's more, while it acknowledges that BNY Mellon owns the site, it rejects the idea that this "has any impact on [the Occupiers'] legal rights" to demonstrate there.

Much of the dispute centers on arguments over zoning provisions that apply to open spaces, and how much leeway a property owner has to close off public access to them. The Occupiers argue, as they have from the outset, that zoning rules governing "urban open space" bar Mellon from shuttering the site. (BNY Mellon's original complaint contends that most of the site is governed by a different set of rules for open space. More about this later, perhaps: The argument is too tedious for a Friday afternoon.)

In any case -- and here's where we get to the heart of the matter -- the response says BNY Mellon gave the Occupiers "a license to occupy and use and People's Park" ... and having done so, it can't remove them now.

Continue reading »

The G-20 documents the city doesn't want you to see! (And you won't)

Posted By on Fri, Jan 6, 2012 at 12:49 PM

The Citizen Police Review Board is expected to decide early next week whether or not it will appeal a recent Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision to deny the watchdog group access to unredacted documents concerning arrests and police tactics during the G-20 Summit in 2009.

Judge Johnny J. Butler's Dec. 28 ruling, which upholds a lower-court opinion issued last year, argues that the G-20 records sought by the board were protected from being released to non-law enforcement agencies under the state Criminal History Record Information Act. The judge did not buy the CPRB's argument that, because Pittsburgh abides by Home Rule Charter, the state act did not apply in the G-20 case.

"[T]he CHRIA supersedes the City's Home Rule Charter," Butler concluded in his opinion, "and the trial court did not err by denying the Board's request for intelligence, investigative and treatment information protected by the CHRIA."

The case dates back to November 2009, when the CPRB formally requested the G-20 reports from the city's Office of Municipal Investigations to investigate the city's handling of the high-profile G-20 Summit. After initially refusing to hand over the requested materials, the city eventually handed over some documents following a March 2010 court order.

The city, however, still withheld 309 pages of police reports. But when city officials finally handed them over in May 2010, after another legal threat from the CPRB, there was a problem: Their contents were covered in black ink, redactions that rendered most of the documents useless.

How useless? Well, you be the judge. Here are a few of the 309 disputed pages.

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Fitzgerald tosses out new property assessments

Posted By on Thu, Jan 5, 2012 at 5:56 PM

Honoring a campaign promise he made months ago, new County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is not sending out tax bills with 2012 reassessment numbers.

Flanked by nearly three dozen state, county and local elected officials, Fitzgerald defied a judge's order that new county reassessments be sent out this year. Fitzgerald's announcement came just a few hours after Common Pleas Judge Stanton Wettick said he would consider staying the reassessments until 2013, allowing time for residents to appeal the new values.

"I fully intend to follow state law when it comes to reassessments," Fitzgerald said Thursday. But state law, he added, requires that certified reassessment numbers be sent to all the county's taxing bodies -- its 130 municipalities and 43 school districts -- by Jan. 15. And since only the city and Mount Oliver have received new property assessments, he argued, it would be impossible for the county to comply with the deadline by using the new numbers.

And so, Fitzgerald said, "Today the certified assessments went out and they are the 2002 base year numbers" -- the same ones the county has been using for the past decade. As for city dwellers with the new values in hand, Fitzgerald said his decision "rescinds and makes null and void the numbers that went out a week ago. "

Continue reading »

Fitzgerald making good on domestic partner benefits promise

Posted By on Thu, Jan 5, 2012 at 2:40 PM

County executive Rich Fitzgerald announced today he will issue an executive order to implement same-sex benefits for county employees, as recommended nearly two years ago by the county's Human Relation Commission.

Fitzgerald, who took office on Tuesday, attended the commission's monthly meeting this morning and announced that he would follow up on a campaign promise.

"It's something I as council president advocated for but didn't have the authority. Now I do," he said. Fitzgerald said the order would be issued "in the next few weeks" and by the time of the commission's next meeting Feb. 2.

"We will stay consistent with the unions' collective bargaining agreement but it will be a countywide policy," he said.

The HRC has been pushing the recommendation since June 2010; but former executive Dan Onorato did not act on it and their frustration had been palpable as they continued to prod Onorato in the fall

"It's a very refreshing start to the new year with that kind of attitude from the county executive," said HRC chair Stephan Broadus. "It makes us feel that the work here we do is important."

"It's gratifying to have the full support of the county executive in our work. I feel like he's seriously committed to making sure the intent of the Human Relations ordinance is fulfilled," said Barbara Daly Danko, a commissioner and county councilor.

The Human Relations ordinance bans discrimination in employment, housing and public housing on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. The commission is charged to investigate allegations of discrimination and Onorato asked them to study implementing domestic partner benefits. 

In addition to the executive order, Fitzgerald promised that either he or a member of his staff would attend the commission's monthly meetings. 

Danko also announced today that for the first time, the county budget included $25,000 for the previously-unfunded commission to cover contracting investigations with the city, printing and distributing materials and conducting public hearings and mediation, among other things. 

Now that the commission's flagship issue of passing benefits appears in reach, Broadus said he hopes to focus on getting the word out that the body exists. 

"We handled 11 cases last year — most were sexual orientation. We know there is a lot of discrimination out there," he said. "Once we get the word out, we'll begin to see more cases in 2012."

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