Friday, February 10, 2012

Redistricting claims first victim (joke content)

Posted By on Fri, Feb 10, 2012 at 1:11 PM

Thought this was amusing. By now, you've heard about how proposed legislative redistricting, prompted by the 2010 Census, would move legislative districts from Pittsburgh to the east? The courts have tossed out a Republican-crafted redistricting map already ... but for a brief period today, state Democrats moved one of our legislators, state Rep. Dom Costa, from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.

In a press release headlined, "Costa disappointed with Marcellus plan," the House Democratic Communications Office told us of Costa's concerns about HB 1950, a measure highly favorable to the gas-drilling industry. (More about which anon, we hope.) Here's how the release began:

HARRISBURG, Feb. 10 – State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Phila., said he voted against a plan that fails to adequately address the issues that face the Marcellus Shale drilling industry.

C'mon, Harrisburg: "D-Phila"? It hurts that you're seeking to take away some of our legislative districts. And it's even worse that you've passed a bill stripping local municipalities of the right to regulate many aspects of drilling. As Costa says, HB 1950 "takes away local government officials' power to regulate what is right for municipalities." But don't try to take away the local government officials themselves!

Members of the Costa family are one of Western Pennsylvania's most important natural resources! (And unlike natural gas, they are renewable!) Hell, Costas are one of the few things we still manufacture around here.

Happily, this crisis in representation appears to have been averted: A short time ago, the House Democratic press office sent out a corrected version of the release:

State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Allegheny., said he voted against a plan that fails to adequately address the issues that face the Marcellus Shale drilling industry.

That's more like it. It may be true, as Costa says in his release, that "Many of the jobs in [the gas-drilling] industry are filled with workers from out of state." But once we start exporting Costas, all is lost.

Now if we can just figure out what is happening to House Districts 22 and 45 ...

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Occupy Pittsburgh declares victory, departs the field

Posted By and on Wed, Feb 8, 2012 at 7:10 PM

Declaring a victory, members of Occupy Pittsburgh left Mellon Green where they had been camping for nearly four months.

Occupiers had been camping in the space since Oct. 15 and were evicted by an Allegheny County judge on Feb. 2. The fact they remained nearly two days after a judge ruled Monday for the Sheriff's department to enforce the eviction, campers said, signified a victory.

"We leave this space with our heads held high," said Occupy member Nathaniel Glosser. "We brought a giant spotlight on the problem and who has caused those problems."

One held a sign that read "Victory;" another said "Thank you Sheriff Mullen." As a handful of police watched from Ross Street, Occupy supporters shared their stories for getting involved and decried the court order that evicted them.

"What we learned," said Paul O'Hanlon, "is there is no place to peacefully assemble in this country."

A black flag, dented steel garbage can, lawn chairs and tiny pine tree were left atop a concrete fountain fenced off in the center of the park. Most personal possessions appeared to be gone and among items that remained were stacks of wooden pallets, and posters bearing "99%" scattered in bushes. A Trojan horse, made of wooden pallets and standing nearly 20-feet high, was decked in signs that read "Rise Up."

A dozen tents were left on the muddied parklet owned by banking giant BNY Mellon, and will remain, said Occupier Nigel Parry, to force BNY Mellon "to have to contract someone to tear them down with their bare hands. They symbolize the homes and families that have been foreclosed on by the bank."

As the press conference ended, about 30 protestors marched from the park chanting "out of the park and into the streets."

They meant that literally.

Upon leaving Mellon Green, roughly 30 Occupiers began marching south in the middle of Grant Street, slowing late rush-hour traffic to a crawl and prompting numerous horn blows from drivers trying to get home for dinner.

After the protesters turned right onto the Boulevard of the Allies, the inevitable police sirens sounded. One police car, lights flashing, quickly pulled up behind a group of about 20 Occupiers still marching in the middle of the road. "Get out of the street!" the officer announced.

Most of the protesters immediately heeded the command, but it took a few more additional calls from the officer -- and a verbal threat of arrest -- to convince the last couple of remaining holdouts to get onto the sidewalk.

As the march continued along the Boulevard of the Allies, police presence grew. A few more officers arrived -- a couple in police cars and one on a motorcycle -- to follow the protesters.

At about 6:30 p.m., the demonstration ended quietly at the heart of Market Square. One protester announced that Occupy would be convening at 7 p.m. inside the United Steelworkers building to discuss the future of the movement, including upcoming actions.

As the protesters began to disperse, one Occupier turned to a City Paper reporter and asked, confusedly, "Is that it?"

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Op-ed: In Occupy Pittsburgh coverage, I think I smell a rat

Posted By on Tue, Feb 7, 2012 at 11:10 AM

As we settle in for the denouement in the Occupation of Mellon Green, this might be a good time to look at preview footage of the kind of media coverage we can expect. And probably the best place to go is KDKA-TV's Marty Griffin.

On Friday night, Griffin aired a report alleging that the Occupation site was frequently almost completely empty. Griffin backed up this claim with a series of visits to the camp, where he squealed at the site of a rat scampering across a path, and deployed a thermal imaging camera to demonstrate that there were no heat signatures coming from the tents still on the site. In a follow-up story, Griffin also reported that one high-visibility Occupier, who went by the name "Jimmy Blue Thunder," was in fact a convicted sex offender.

As if that wasn't enough, Griffin had this surprising disclosure: "[H]undreds of reinforcements may be called in from Washington, D.C. to repopulate the camp." Goodness me. Griffin quoted a worried Mayor Luke Ravenstahl: "If a large number of people all of a sudden show up, I think it really shows you what the Occupy folks are all about." And his report was prefaced by this assertion from anchor Susan Koeppen: "KDKA investigators have learned hundreds of Occupy reinforcements are expected here by Valentine's Day."

Well, maybe. But ... learned from whom? Expected by whom? Griffin never cites a source for this explosive allegation. And here's a good rule of thumb for media consumers: Beware passive-voice constructions like "we have learned" -- as opposed to "the police tell us." That kind of language is often a sign that the reporter doesn't have the goods.

I'm especially suspicious where Griffin is concerned, because he has a track record of issuing thinly-sourced allegations in which outside agitators are supposed to descend upon our fair city at any moment, seizing our streets and corrupting our daughters. As City Paper previously documented, Griffin was a leading voice in fomenting pre-G20 hysteria. More recently, he warned us that busloads of atheists were set to descend on Ellwood City, in a dispute about a nativity scene. Nothing of the sort happened, of course. In fact, just typing that out seems so comical that I can't believe that the story actually aired ... and I haven't even mentioned the part where rival motorcycle gangs were supposedly ready to rev their engines and drown out the atheists. Given that these stories feel like they originated in '60s biker flicks -- marauding outsiders prey on hapless townfolk -- I guess bike gangs had to play a role somehow.

Continue reading »

Monday, February 6, 2012

Occupy Pittsburgh waiting for the end

Posted By on Mon, Feb 6, 2012 at 7:54 PM

An Allegheny County judged ruled today that the sheriff's department must remove all protesters, tents and other equipment from Occupy Pittsburgh's camp at BNY Mellon's downtown parklet.

When that will happen, however, is still anyone's guess.

As of 7 p.m. this evening, about a dozen tents remained on Mellon Green and about two dozen Occupy Pittsburgh supporters milled around. Some played Frisbee and ate dinner.

There was no visible police presence.

Earlier today, attorneys of BNY Mellon requested an emergency injunction after several dozen protesters, tents and other belongings remained on site this afternoon, which judge Christine Ward ruled must be vacated by 11:56 a.m. today.

"Certain Defendants also continue to occupy and camp on BNY Mellon Green, thereby preventing BNY Mellon from closing BNY Mellon Green as permitted by the order," Ward wrote.

Her order asks that the sheriff "promptly enforce" her Feb. 2 order to "remove all Defendants remaining in violation of the Court's Feb. 2 order, and shall promptly remove, or facilitate and assist Plaintiff's in removing, all tents, camping equipment and stored personal items from Plaintiff's property known as BNY Mellon Green…"

"This probably means the end is near. We're just not sure how near," said Marvin Fein, an attorney representing Occupy Pittsburgh, after Ward's ruling.

"This was an issue between the sheriff and the bank," said Mike Healey, another attorney for Occupy. "We're not surprised."

We have a call into Sheriff William Mullen's office and will update when we hear back. During the hearing, the sheriff's department attorney, Lisa Michel, said it would be up the department's discretion as to when they would oust the campers.

Earlier in the day, as the deadline drew near, about 100 occupiers held a press conference to declare the occupation a victory.

"It's 11:56! We're still here!" announced Jeff Cech, who, along with many other campers, said he planned to peaceably disperse. "You cannot evict an idea whose time has come."

"Just because we're losing this camp doesn't mean we're giving up. We're not going away," said Samey Lee, a Point Park student who said she had been camping regularly since Occupy took over the park on Oct. 15. "There are so many issues out there bigger than this camp. [W]e can do good without this camp. The symbol isn't 100 percent necessary anymore."

Lee and other protesters pointed out other causes they planned to rally behind — transit and health care rallies are already scheduled for later today and next week.

Others seemed intent on staying; in the middle of the park's chained-in fountain, a group of protesters sat with a tent. Others built a massive Trojan horse out of wooden pallets bearing signs like "This is only the beginning."

Reporting contributed by Chris Young.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Transit supporter begins online advocacy on behalf of Port Authority

Posted By on Fri, Feb 3, 2012 at 11:23 AM

Since the Port Authority of Allegheny County announced a possible 35 percent service reduction earlier this month, transit advocates have been trying to mobilize riders to save their transit service.

Among them is Andrew Twigg, who is circulating an online petition asking state lawmakers and Gov. Tom Corbett to commit to state funding for transportation.

"There's just a lot of talking going in the media. I thought this would be a simple first step to more formally say, 'Hey Gov. Corbett ... this isn't just about a handful of people. This is something that people rely on,'" says the graphic designer from Lawrenceville.

The Port Authority has been facing financial woes since Act 44, the state's mechanism for funding mass transit, collapsed. That state law anticipated tolling Interstate 80 to provide money for transit and roads around the state; after the federal government rejected the toll proposal, the agency has been seeking a steady funding source to replace the lost revenue. Last year, PAT implemented a 15 percent service reduction and layoffs; this year, the agency is preparing to eliminate nearly half of its routes, lay off 500 and raise fares due a $64 million budget deficit.

Twigg's petition outlines PAT's funding crisis, and calls on the state to address it.

"Even though Governor Corbett has stated that he will release a funding plan in February," the petition states, "he has not committed to the funding necessary to maintain the level of service we have today."

Twigg says he uses transit "rarely," but believes "it's an absolute critical part of the community and economy." He has also started a companion project, Because of the Port Authority, to collect transit users' experiences to send to Harrisburg with the petition.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Judge gives Occupy Pittsburgh three days to vacate Mellon Green

Posted By on Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 3:14 PM

Judge Christine Ward has issued a ruling affirming Bank of New York Mellon's right to evict Occupy Pittsburgh from Mellon Green. Her ruling gives Occupiers three days to remove all their belongings from the site, though it acknowledges that they are not likely to do so willingly.

"The Occupy Pittsburgh movement ... has effectively communicated their message of wealth disparity and corporate greed through the expressive technique of encampment at selected locations," the ruling begins. "Nonetheless, despite the diversity and populist nature of the Occupiers' message, the notion of a permanent encampment on either public or private property ... is untenable and has been rejected by every court which has ruled upon it."

And for the Occupiers, it pretty much goes downhill from there. Ward essentially sided with BNY Mellon, which owns the Mellon Green parklet, on almost every argument. Which is, in fact, what she had to do in order for Mellon to prevail. As previously noted in this space, Mellon was seeking a preliminary injunction -- an expedited court review in lieu of a full trial. The standard for granting an injunction is high: A judge must feel that the plaintiff is likely to prevail in the end, and that it will suffer irreparable harm while the trial process churns along. The fact that Ward has sided with BNY Mellon now means its unlikely Occupy would prevail in her courtroom in a full trial. And while Occupy can appeal the ruling, it's a tough hill to climb.

"There is a chance to appeal," says Mike Healey, one of the attorneys representing Occupy Pittsburgh. But because the whole point of an injunction is to provide an expedited review of a case, "Appeals courts tend to defer to trial judges, with very few exceptions." Healey cautioned that he had not had a chance to review the ruling, nor to speak with Occupiers about potential future strategy. He expects to do so by week's end.

During a two-day hearing in January, the Occupiers were essentially playing for time. With Mellon seeking an injunction to remove them immediately, the defense amounted to "What's the rush?" While there was testimony about a handful of incidents involving drug use and physical altercations on Mellon Green, for example, the Occupiers demonstrated that such occurrences were isolated, and that the camp was orderly.

Ward didn't deny that, but in her ruling, she sided with BNY Mellon attorneys who argued that the very presence of the Occupiers was harming the bank. BNY Mellon usually ropes off the Green in the winter: Denying them the ability to do so not only infringed on their property rights, she wrote, but exposed them to potential liability should something go wrong on the site:

"[T]he record shows evidence of present dangers and potential risks created by trespass and nuisance. As long as the occupation is allowed to continue, BNY Mellon remains unable to manage the risk of serious harms to people using its property.

"Defendant argue that they have corrected any dangerous conditions in their encampment and, therefore, there is no irreparable harm to BNY Mellon. However, ... liability exposure in and of itself coupled with BNY Mellon's inability to be aware of or manage that risk is irreparable harm. No property owner should be forced to wait until some liability-producing event or other harm happens on its property."

And if something did happen, Ward continued, Occupy Pittsburgh would likely be unable to compensate BNY Mellon for the damages: Occupy had only about $4,200 on hand ... whereas Mellon officials had testified that the occupation was costing them $24,000 a week in extra security costs alone.

Ward did allow that the Occupiers had raised some interesting points about whether Mellon Green was public or private property ... at least during times when it's not roped off: "[A] legitimate issue exists as to whether Mellon Green may be a public forum for constitutional purposes during the non-winter months." (Occupiers also raised an argument during the hearing about whether a portion of the Green violated handicap-accessibility laws; while those concerns appear valid, Ward determined that they weren't germane to the eviction.) But ultimately, she decided that the public/private distinction didn't matter. For one thing, she noted, it was winter, a time when the Green has long been closed to the public. And in any case, groups of people aren't allowed to squat indefinitely in public spaces either: "[T]here is simply no history of protection under either the United State or the Pennsylvania Constitution for the indefinite occupation of property, even property that is government-owned and designated as a public forum."

The news wasn't all bad for the Occupiers, though. As Ward pointed out in a brief aside: "BNY Mellon's eviction of the encampment will certainly draw publicity and may even assist in communicating the Occupiers' message."

We'll have more details as they arise.

In wake of layoffs, EDMC reports weaker earnings; stock drops

Posted By on Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 1:19 PM

Officials at Education Management Corp. may want to consider expanding their stock repurchase program: The stock price plummeted nearly 20 percent this morning after being traded "more heavily than usual," according to CBS Marketwatch.

The stock price closed at $25.60 per share Wednesday afternoon -- right around the time the company released its second-quarter earnings statement announcing that both revenues and enrollment had dropped. This morning, the stock price dropped to$20.55 before rebounding slightly. As this post went up, it was trading at around $21.20 per share.

EDMC CEO Todd Nelson and Chief Financial Officer Ed West held a conference call with investors Thursday morning. They reported earnings for the quarter were $737.2 million -- down from $771.9 million from the same quarter a year ago. West also reported that enrollment fell 4.5 percent.

Nelson attributed a lot of the school's problems to the country's still struggling economy while also mentioning that the current regulatory climate isn't helping matters either.

While fielding questions from analysts, Nelson was asked a couple of times about EDMC's recent layoffs ... and whether current EDMC employees should feel comfortable with their positions in the company.

"The goal is to always be efficient," Nelson said. "If there are opportunities to streamline the organization, we want to do that. Given the economy and the enrollment trends, that impacted what we wanted to do with online [employees, who were targeted in last week's layoffs].

"Going forward it's hard to predict, but at this point in time we feel comfortable where we are," Nelson added. "But to say we know exactly what the future is going to bring is difficult. One of the things we've always done here is try to come up with ways to become more efficient in our operations and sometimes, unfortunately, that results in employee reductions. But you need people to take care of our students."

County workers will be waiting a little longer for domestic-partner benefits, commission told

Posted By on Thu, Feb 2, 2012 at 11:17 AM

Last month, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told the county's Human Relations Commission that he would implement domestic-partner benefits for county employees by the time of the Commission's next meeting. That meeting was held today, and Fitzgerald still has not issued the promised executive order. But representatives from Fitzgerald's office did tell the HRC that they have "begun the process" of offering the benefit.

While there's no order yet, Fitzgerald's chief of staff, Jennifer Liptak, said the executive's office has been meeting with the human resources department and county manager to determine how to best offer the benefit. Since the county has union-represented and non-represented employees, Liptak said "We have to properly communicate this to the unions ... there are processes we have to follow to make sure we are compliant with the law."

County officials said it's likely they will have a proposed timeline at the HRC's March meeting; Liptak said the administration "hopes to have this done very, very soon and roll out this plan."

Domestic partner benefits have been the banner issue for the HRC, which recommended the county offer the benefits nearly two years ago.

"We don't expect scores of enrollees. The important effect of this policy is that it's an invaluable improvement to the work culture of LGBT employees in the county," said commissioner Hugh McGough. "Any delay in the roll-out plan date would be unfortunate, given the long delay we experienced under the previous administration."

Liptak said the administration was sensitive to that concern. "Rich is committed to following through on the process," she said. "We're doing what we can."

The HRC next meets on March 1.

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