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It's Luke's city ... we just live in it

Remember when the city was desperate for revenue a few years ago, and there was all that talk about selling "naming rights" to public assets, like parks and bus shelters?

Looks like Mayor Luke Ravenstahl beat us to it.

In the past week, Pittsburgh households started getting big postcards about garbage collection. There, beside the injunction to "Redd Up Pittsburgh," was a photo of Luke Ravenstahl, smiling like someone who didn't have to help sort the recyclables. Days later, KDKA-TV aired a report which noted that the city's 3-1-1 help line identifies itself as "Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's response line."

No surprise there. The service is identified the same way on the city's Web site (www.city.pittsburgh.pa.us), which might as well be Luke's MySpace page. The Web page features a slide show of 10 photos of Ravenstahl -- Ravenstahl posing with kids, Ravenstahl posing with a crossing guard, Ravenstahl doing a grip-and-grin with police. The photo featured at the page's center almost always depicts the mayor as well.

Ravenstahl didn't invent such practices, of course. The Web site's PR value was already being amped up during the late Bob O'Connor's brief tenure. And attaching your name to a clean-up campaign has long been one of the advantages of incumbency. Back in the 1970s, Pete Flaherty urged us to pick up trash "For Pete's Sake." Sophie Masloff emblazoned trash cans with the words "Sophie's Choice," apparently seeing some kind of connection between litter and the Holocaust. Even the fastidious Tom Murphy did it ... although to satisfy his ethical qualms, apparently, he came up with a slogan so boring no one remembers it.

And picking up trash is just the start. Every time a mayor greases the skids for a development, he puts his name up on a sign near the construction site. Every time he releases a budget, he makes sure to mention what a heckuva job he's doing watching your tax dollars. Hell, our county treasurer famously puts his name on dog licenses.

To some extent, this is the price we pay for representative democracy: When you elect people to act on your behalf, they'll use every act to point out why they're a good choice.

But at least people ignore ribbon-cuttings (as Murphy learned the hard way). Sticking your face on a mailing is much more intrusive. It literally brings home a key question: Is this a legitimate expense, or just more self-aggrandizement by elected officials?

Such questions matter more than they might otherwise, because if Ravenstahl wants to serve out O'Connor's full term, he has to win a special election next year. His most likely opponent is reform-minded City Councilor Bill Peduto, whose supporters will try hard to paint 26-year-old Ravenstahl as Pittsburgh's Youngest Living Old Boy.

Probably the only way Ravenstahl can lose this election, in fact, is by making us believe they're right. And ironically, Ravenstahl has done a sloppy job of cleaning up his own biggest mess.

That mess involves Dennis Regan, an O'Connor appointee and confidante whom Ravenstahl inherited -- and later tried to put in charge of public safety.

Regan's promotion was thwarted when police Commander Catherine McNeilly accused him of intervening in disciplinary matters. Initially, Ravenstahl neatly swept the matter under the rug: An investigation supposedly found no wrongdoing, but Regan resigned anyway.

But when McNeilly was demoted a few weeks later, the other shoe dropped -- into a pile of dog crap, and with Ravenstahl's foot still in it.

McNeilly's actions arguably pushed the envelope: She had passed along confidential information regarding an officer Regan allegedly tried to protect, and the law requires that such information be kept confidential. On the other hand, the law also prohibits retaliating against employees who disclose wrongdoing in government. So demoting McNeilly is pushing the envelope as well.

Don't be surprised if McNeilly sues the city, and don't be surprised if it happens soon. The state whistle-blower act has a six-month statute of limitations, so if McNeilly does file, it would have to be before the election. It would take a court much longer than that to determine the truth, of course, but the complaint alone may air all kinds of dirty laundry.

In any case, there's at least one mess that the mayor won't want to put his name on. But like it says in the Bible, "Mayor, redd up thyself."

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