City Council

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Political campaigning in council chambers? I've never seen the like

Posted By and on Wed, May 11, 2011 at 2:10 PM

Jeff Koch's political campaign took its ethics allegations against city councilor Bruce Kraus right into council chambers today -- a move Kraus dismissed as a "stunt."

Tim Brinton, who is the campaign manager for Koch's effort to replace Kraus in the May primary, presented council with a petition with 25 signatures, requesting a hearing on the city's campaign-finance law. Brinton used the meeting's public-comment period to accuse Kraus of violating the law -- and of "hypocrisy" -- for accepting contributions in larger than what a candidate can recieve in a single election.

Kraus "campaigned as a progressive yet he does not follow the laws that he, himself, wrote," Brinton said. "If our legislators don't follow the law, how do they expect the citizens of this city to follow the law?"

By contrast, Brinton lauded Councilor Ricky Burgess, a mayoral ally who proposed legislation to overturn the limits -- and who is refusing to release his own campaign finance reports, which he says is a gesture of protest.  Burgess, said Brinton, is "the only one on this council who stood up to the hypocrisy." (Brinton's admiration comes a little late: He previously issued a statement naming Burgess among incumbent scofflaws ... on account of the fact that Burgess hadn't filed his report.)

Dawn Jones King, the president of the Beltzhoover Neighborhood Council, also took Kraus to task for his campaign contributions -- and for other perceived shortcomings.

During her own public comment, she said she had a good working relationship with the district's past council representative. But since Kraus took office, she said, "I have not received that type of respect" -- and her neighborhood had been losing funding.

Later in the meeting, Kraus called the appearances a "campaign stunt." Brinton's salary, he said, "is being paid for by Luke Ravenstahl and Charlie Zappala." That's a reference to the fact, first reported here last week, that Ravenstahl and Zappala -- who featured prominently in a Post-Gazette series about alleged backroom dealings -- have contributed to Koch's campaign.

Kraus also cast aspersions on Dawn Jones King, who he said wanted city workers to clean a privately-owned lot -- something Kraus charged that Koch did, but that Kraus was not willing to do. (As an aside, King's Beltzhoover Neighborhood Council has been the target of some concern regarding the money it does get. We wrote about its travails last fall.) As if to demonstrate that he was too busy to worry about such paltry accusations, Kraus then moved to a (somewhat unnecessary, it seemed to me) discussion of plans to demolish a building that had recently caught fire. 

And then he wished good luck to everyone running for election next week.

At this point, the major question here is: What the hell is happening to this family? We hope to have some thoughts on that by the end of the day.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In city council district 3, Jeff Koch speaks out

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 9:22 PM

Let's get right to it. If you live in city council district 3 and you love politics -- which you probably do, or else you wouldn't have read past the headline -- you've heard the rumor about Jeff Koch.

That rumor, for those who love politics but don't live in district 3, is this: Koch is supposedly running for the seat only because if he doesn't ... Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will fire him from his job as program supervisor in the city's Public Works Department.

Koch's heard the rumor too. And he says there is "absolutely no truth at all" to it.

For one thing, although Koch is a non-union employee, he says he'd still be protected by civil-service laws -- and such laws typically frown on punishing employees for failing to engage in political campaigns. 

And Koch is proud of the work he's been doing. In the wake of last year's "Snowmageddon," he helped devise the city's "snow route" system, which designates and marks top-priority roads for snow clearance. He's also enhanced road-salting efforts even as the number of drivers has shrunk. It's safe to say the results have clearly not pleased everybody. But Koch says that even when people complain to him, "No one says it isn't better than it used to be." 

In any case, Koch wants to be in this race. He served an abbreviated council term after winning a 2006 special election, but was replaced by Bruce Kraus, the current incumbent, the following year. But being a councilor, Koch says, "was fun. I enjoyed getting stuff done for people." 

His highest-profile initiative was passing a zoning measure to restrict the number of bars that could open in the South Side and neighborhoods like it. The measure was a point of contention between Koch and Kraus back in 2007, and clearly it didn't clear up the wretched excess of the Carson Street scene. If it had, the South Side bar scene wouldn't be an issue in this campaign.

By the same logic, of course, nothing Bruce Kraus has done has solved the problem either. And Koch, like fellow challengers Jason Phillips and Gavin Robb, says a big part of the problem now is Kraus' "style," which he says is divisive. 

Koch says part of the reason he got into the race, in fact, was because "I could barely walk down Carson Street without people approaching me and saying 'something's wrong.'"

And there's no doubt that Koch has a vastly different style. He is a disarmingly plain-spoken guy. Ask him about the losing 2007 campaign, for example, and he says, "I wouldn't even have voted for myself that time, with all the shit that came out."

Indeed, Koch was faulted for a variety of sins back in 2007. City employees were seen wearing pro-Koch T-shirts on the job, a Koch staffer was caught making political phone calls from an office phone, and Koch's campaign accepted political donations from local businesses.

Koch is quick to point out that those contributions came from neighborhood businesses: "I wasn't taking money from US Steel," he says. (Koch did return offending contributions -- and in at least one case the business owner pointedly contributed an even larger sum to Koch -- this time from his own pockets.)

As for those phone calls made from his office -- the goings-on were revealed by another candidate running in this year's race, Jason Phillips. But Koch genially waves aside questions about hard feelings: "Jason's got great intentions," he says. "It's water under the bridge."

Still, Koch has learned some lessons from 2007. When we set up my interview, he made a show of pulling out a personal cell phone, and giving me the number from it.

What would Koch do if he regained his council seat? 

Among other things, he supports creativing more flexible parking solutions for the South Side. Those plans, which he says he began working on during his previous council term, include special parking rates at publicly owned garages at the SouthSideWorks development, and using parking near a now-idle school building on Carson Street. He'd also press for a portion of the county's drink tax money to be earmarked for the South Side -- where a lot of the revenue is being created in the first place. 

In any case, Koch is unimpressed by Kraus' record since taking office. Kraus frequently touts his support of a bill to limit the size of campaign-contributions, for example. But Koch notes that Kraus won his office with contributions in amounts that would have run afoul of those rules. "It's do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do," Koch says. (Koch adds, however, that he wouldn't try to remove the rules. For one thing, he says, "They never affected me -- no one was throwing 5 grand at my campaign.") 

Koch also questions Kraus' support of an off-leash dog park slated for the South Side. Spending money "on a dog park in the South Side doesn't resonate well in the hilltop communities," Koch says. 

If that sounds like Koch, who lives in Arlington, is playing on district resentment of the glamorous Flats ... it's not a bad strategy. District 3's hilltop communities include neighborhoods like Beltzhoover, Arlington, and Knoxville -- where blight is a real problem and crime fears go beyond puking frat boys. And as noted in this space before, Koch is the only candidate in district 3 who doesn't live on the Flats. It's no accident that when you ask him what the election is about, Koch says, "I'm hoping it's about representation for the entire district."

But for the next few days, at least, the main part of Koch's strategy involves winning the Democratic Party endorsement.

The endorsement vote takes place March 6. And winning the backing of party leaders, says Koch, is "my sole intention right now." Koch has been a member of the Democratic committee for more than two decades, and he currently chairs the city's 16th ward.

Does that mean Koch will drop out if he doesn't get the endorsement, as candidates in other council races have pledged to do? Koch pauses for a moment.

"Not 100 percent, no. It's something I kick around every day. It's going to be a difficult decision, I can guarantee that." 

In District 1, political match-up could be over next week

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 4:30 PM

A key political battle City Council District 1 could be over just a few days from now -- more than two months before the Democratic primary itself.

During last night's 27th Ward Candidates Night, in Brighton Heights, candidate Vince Pallus announced that if he failed to win the Democratic Party endorsement -- which will be made March 6 -- he would drop out of the race to unseat incumbent Darlene Harris.

Pallus, widely considered Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chosen candidate, has been getting endorsement support from politically active mayoral allies like Kevin Quigley, who chairs the 27th Ward. But it's not going to be easy to beat Harris for the endorsement.

Harris is well-known in the North Side political scene, having served on the Pittsburgh Public Schools board for eight years before earning a seat on city council in 2006. But Pallas had an advatange of his own last night: As a product of Brighton Heights, the candidate was speaking on his home turf. And it showed.

Compared to Pallus' Feb. 17 appearance at the Young Democrats of Allegheny County endorsement forum, the 33-year-old candidate looked a little more relaxed and polished. At the earlier gathering, Pallus spoke briefly, and vaguely about the need to help the city's youth. Harris won that round -- and the Young Democrat endorsement. At the 27th Ward forum, though still thin on specifics, Pallus noted the city's need tackle the problem of abandoned and blighted homes.

However, he told the 15 committe members in attendance, "The main reason I'm running is communication. We need to work with community leaders, all of city council and the mayor's office."

After Harris and Pallus spoke for five minutes, Quigley asked each candidate two questions: "How do you plan to better communicate with communities, city council as a whole and the administration?"; and "If you do not win the Democratic endorsement, will you still run for election?"

Answering the former question -- which seemed pointed directly at her -- Harris said, "I don't know how much more I could work with the community." She also said that she regularly speaks with council members.

Harris has butted heads with the mayor since becomiong council president last year -- especially on the mayor's controverisal plan to lease public garages. Still, she said, "I have worked with the administration for the last four years ... I call every Monday to have a meeting with the mayor."

Unlike Pallus, who firmly rejected the idea of running without the endorsement, Harris said she has yet to decide whether she'd drop out. She wasn't alone: Out of roughly one dozen candidates who appeared at the gathering, only three committed to dropping out if they lose the March 6 endorsement. 

(The third candidate in the District 1 race, Bobby Wilson, did not attend last night's event. But he tells City Paper that he will continue his bid with or without the endorsement.) 

For his part, Pallus provided little detail about how he would work cooperatively with other officials. "I feel that everyone needs to come together," he said. "You can't shut something down just because you don't like a certain person. We need an open mind."

After the forum, Quigley addressed his committee. "I would hope that everybody in this ward supports the endorsed candidate," he said. "Whoever wins the endorsement, we support that individual 100 percent."

After the meeting, Quigley told CP he is frustrated by Harris' refusal to commit to dropping out. "That is disappointing to me," he said. "It just doesn't make sense. If you don't receive the endorsement, drop out."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Party-switching allegations in city council district 3

Posted By on Wed, Feb 23, 2011 at 11:45 AM

A couple developments this week in the race for City Council District 3. 

First up is a strongly worded letter in the current South Pittsburgh Reporter. The letter notes that one of the challengers in the race, Gavin Robb, registered as a Republican in 2001. The letter accuses Robb of having then "conveniently ... switched to the Democratic Party so he could run for Pittsburgh City Council." The letter continues:

Hence, our Republican turncoat, Gavin Robb, voted in Republican Primaries supporting Republicans that in turn ran against our Democratic candidates in the General Elections ...

Do we want to elect a turncoat? Does the party of George W. Bush, Rich Santorum and Sarah Palin have a place in Pittsburgh city government?

I have verified that Robb originally registered as a Republican here 10 years ago. He switched party registration in early 2009 -- roughly two years back. 

"I'm flattered to get so much attention," Robb told me. "It's good to know someone is that concerned."

Robb noted that his party switch wasn't that recent, and says that "I've always been a moderate, but I found myself aligning more with the Democrats -- thanks in part to the people identified in that letter."

In any case, Robb says,  "I had no inkling that I would be running for City Council at the time I changed my party affiliation." The move "was based solely on a change in my feelings towards both political parties and the evolution of my overall political philosophy."

Indeed, Robb has previously told me that he began weighing a run for office nine months ago. 

What's more, Robb says, "I don't think voters are really concerned about this sort of thing. I don't plan on stooping to that level."

Robb will be responding to the allegations directly, however: He plans to write a rebuttal for an upcoming issue of the Reporter.

Meanwhile, distrct 3's incumbent councilor, Bruce Kraus, took some time during Tuesday's council meeting to address some of the campaign talking points being tossed his way.

The topic on the floor was a city council proclamation honoring public employees -- timed to provide support for the ongoing labor protests in Wisconsin. But it also provided an occasion for councilors to defend their opposition to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to lease out publicly-owned parking garages -- a plan they likened to an anti-union privatization scheme. (Though proceeds from the lease would have been used to shore up union pension funds.)

Kraus noted that he and other councilors -- including council President Darlene Harris -- were facing election-year challengers, and he tied that opposition to the lease vote. 

After nothing that he's been accused of taking an anti-business approach to bar-related problems on the South Side, Kraus asserted that "not selling our parking assets to private bankers was the best pro-business decision this council has made." Council's position, he argued, protected neighborhood business districts from seeing steep parking-rate hikes. 

Yet a price was being paid on council, Kraus added: "If anybody out there thinks that this administration is not coming after sitting council members" because of the lease vote, "I've got news for you -- they are."

In any case, on balance you'd have to say Kraus is having a good week. As noted here earlier today, he also got the backing of the Young Democrats of Allegheny County. And in a statement circulated by the Kraus campaign, YDAC president Michael Phillips lauded Kraus as a "model of how to be truly engaged in the betterment [of] neighborhoods and the city." The statement backed Kraus on a variety of issues, ranging from a ban on drilling for natural gas in city limits to opposing the tuition tax. But it singled Kraus out for "his efforts to rid the city of litter and graffiti, and his plans for maintaining a safe and vibrant nightlife in the South Side and Oakland neighborhoods."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In city council district 3, Bruce Kraus ain't backing down

Posted By on Thu, Feb 10, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Five years ago, when Bruce Kraus first ran for city council in a special election to replace Gene Ricciardi, I often felt he was campaigning by saying as little as possible. During one interview, I recall, he objected to my use of the phrase "bully pulpit" -- because he thought the word "bully" had negative connotations. 

Things have changed since then. Kraus lost that race, but won a regular election the following year. And now, three years into that term and facing re-election, no one can fault him for not speaking his mind. 

"Love me or hate me, no one will ever accuse me of not taking a position," he says. 

Indeed, Kraus now faces three rivals. And two of them, Gavin Robb and Jason Phillips, have complained already that he's been too divisive, that his strong advocacy has contributed to a communication breakdown among city leadership.

On one level, Kraus acknolwedges that he is "an independent voice, and I relish that independence." That stand has often put him at odds with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Even so, he says, "Part of the role we have as councilors is to advocate for our neighborhoods. So when I see things that aren't in the best interest of my constitutents, do I speak up? Yes, I do."

Moreover, Kraus can point to a series of accomplishments on council.

Kraus has been a core member of a council majority -- which includes Bill Pedtuo, Doug Shields, Natalia Rudiak, and president Darlene Harris -- that often lines up against the mayor. But that majority hasn't just sought to thwart Ravensthal's agenda; it's successfully pushed an agenda of its own.

Citywide, Kraus helped press the case for a campaign finance reform law, which limits the size of campaign contributions to city office-seekers. He also joined with the council majority to pass a prevailing-wage bill applying to grocery, hotel, and other workers whose employers get local tax subsidies. He's backed a citywide ban on drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, and a measure requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms. 

Kraus says more than a third of the shootings that take place in the county happen in the poorer "hilltop" communities of his district. "It was huge for this council to take a public stand" in the face of opposition for gun-rights groups, he says.  (Though he stresses his own position was not about curtailing those rights, but insisting on "responsible gun ownership.")

Some of these measures may be more effective than others. As we've previously reported, for example, the gun ordinance has yet to be used by police. Kraus' opponents, meanwhile, seem likely to try tarring him with the council majority's less-than-inspiring performance on another issue -- financing the city's depleted pension fund. Council, which rejected Ravenstahl's plan to fund the pension with proceeds from leasing city parking garages, came up with its own solution: Fund the pension with a promise to devote future tax revenues to it. Essentially, council's plan is the equivalent of writing an IOU, and hoping the state will accept it as a cashier's check.

It remains to be seen if the plan will work -- and in any case, council's effort involved a series of 11th-hour machinations that ended only hours before a state-imposed deadline on New Year's Eve. But Kraus -- who notes that he played a comparatively quiet role in that debate -- bridles at criticism of council's handling of this issue.

"What you saw was a council that was dotting it's i's and crossing the t's to make sure what we were doign was 100 percent responsible," he says.

But ... wouldn't the responsible thing have been to complete all that due diligence before the final days of 2010? 

"It's an imperfect world," Kraus acknowledges. But he says his rivals have little grounds for criticism: "We had 19 public meetings on the pension issue, and there was ample opportunity to e-mail or call in to the offices of city council. Neither of the [rival candidates] you've talked to chose to do that." 

On the neighborhood level, Kraus also touts a series of initiatives, including a satellite office in Arlington to address neighborhood concerns. And new initiatives will be bearing fruit in the months ahead, he says -- like a "spray park" for summer use at the Warrington Recreation Center, and an off-leash area for dogs in the South Side's Riverfront park. 

But the issue getting all the attention, of course, is Kraus' ongong effort to clean up the Carson Street bar scene. 

Kraus has pursued a variety of solutions, including passing an ordinance prohibiting public urination and defaction -- and adding a seperate fine for those who "fail to clean or remove the material deposited immediately." 

It's not clear what impact such measures have had -- Kraus was unsure about whether anyone has been cited under the urination/defecation ordinance since the measure was passed in 2009. But at the very least, he says, "The positions I've taken have sparked a broader conversation about responsible behavior in the public space." 

And while rival Gavin Robb acknowledges not having a "silver bullet" to solve the problem,  Kraus boasts "I do have a silver bullet" -- and tosses a copy of an 88-page 2009 proposal onto the table.

Titled "Inviting, Safe and Cohesive," the document makes a host of recommendations, ranging from disount "sleep it off" rates for drunken partiers at area hotels to Breathalyzers in bars, police "party patrols," and the creation of a "community covenant" that bars and other businesses will agree to, in consultation with residents.

Kraus plans to continue pushing that initiative. Nor is he cowed by facing no less than three challengers in the May primary. His predeccessor, Gene Ricciardi, once gave him a bit of advice, he says: "Gene told me that if you aren't making a wave or two, you aren't doing your job." 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The seat ain't cold -- it ain't even empty -- but Flaherty hopes to fill it

Posted By on Thu, Jan 13, 2011 at 4:43 PM

Even as county excecutive Dan Onorato is holding a press conference to discuss his future plans, county controller Mark Patrick Flaherty is announcing his plans to seek Onorato's job. Moments ago, Flaherty released the following statement:

"Dan Onorato has served the people of Allegheny County with distinction over the past 30 years. First, as a member of Pittsburgh City Council, then as Allegheny County Controller and finally as Allegheny County’s Chief Executive, Dan has been a dedicated public servant. He now prepares to move to the next stage of his career and whether it be in the public or private sector, I wish Dan and his family well."

Flaherty's statement added that he plans to run for county exec himself, and will "formally announce" his candidacy on the morning of Wednesday, January 19. (This statement, then, would be the formal announcement of his plans to formally announce his campaign.)

Not insignificantly, Flaherty also boasted of having $450,000 on hand to finance his campaign. He's already spent $300,000, the statement spends -- much of which no doubt went to those highly useful ads about the importance of weights and measures.

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