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Shedding light on local government

"Just because you can't see a process," URA Executive Director Pat Ford was saying, "doesn't mean it's not transparent."

After a while in this business, you learn to appreciate statements like that. They are like passages from the Tao Te Ching, or riddles about trees falling in empty forests. Ponder them enough, and you may achieve a form of enlightenment.

In fact, I'm mystified by criticisms that the actions of Ford, and other members of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration, lack transparency. If anything, the motives and methods seem only too transparent.

Take the subject Ford and I were talking about: a 1,200-square-foot electronic billboard, which the mayor's office has approved for a parking lot/Greyhound station being built Downtown.

The city zoning code doesn't permit electronic billboards that large. So ordinarily, installing them requires the approval of the city's zoning board, planning commission and city council. Not this time, however: Administration officials signed off on it without seeking approval.

Ford, who was formerly a city zoning administrator, notes that such signs had been approved in the past without review, even before Ravenstahl came into office. Moreover, he'd always sought support from neighborhood groups -- hence Ford's mystical assertion that a process can be transparent even if you don't see it.

This billboard is different, partly because it's being built Downtown, and partly because previous electronic billboards merely replaced older signs at the same locations. But Ford says there's still no need to go through the formal review process. Lamar Advertising, which wants to install the new billboard, has pledged to remove several other non-conforming billboards elsewhere. That results in a net decrease of non-conforming billboard space … and since zoning law is "silent" on such swaps, Ford contends, there's no reason city officials can't permit them.

Ford admits that Lamar could get a formal exemption to the zoning codes. (An electronic sign mounted on the Downtown CAPA High School, in fact, was permitted that way.) But that process, Ford says, "could take anywhere from six months to two years" of meetings and "probably end up with the same result. So why do it?"

I'll say this: There's something bracing about that kind of candor.

Back in the days of Mayor Tom Murphy's administration, when the city wanted to bring controversial developments Downtown, we did go through the painstaking formal process. New department stores were carefully weighed by numerous boards and commissions … with the result that Murphy almost always got his way. Which was hardly surprising: The board members were mayoral appointees.

Ravenstahl's innovation is to make things so much more obvious. Sure, a mayor can often take a commission's approval for granted. But only Ravenstahl would demonstrate the fact by bypassing the commission entirely. Only in the Ravenstahl administration would a planning commissioner actually leave a controversial meeting to, say, watch a college basketball game, returning to vote as debate was wrapping up.

That's what planning commissioner Todd Reidbord did during a Jan. 14 meeting, when the commission approved a master plan for a new Penguins arena. His departure has become grounds for a lawsuit filed by Hill District residents, who worry the new arena will do as little to help their community as the last one did. But look at things from his perspective: Reidbord is a developer himself, and everyone knew how he'd vote before the meeting even started. As Ford might say, if nothing anyone said would make a difference, why not take in a game? Just because a process is transparent doesn't mean you need to see it.

True, cutting corners doesn't necessarily make things easier, as the Hill District lawsuit attests. As for the billboard, city council will weigh in on the matter at a Feb. 27 special hearing, and perhaps conduct a full-blown investigation.

"These short cuts are really the long way home," city council President Doug Shields says. The administration's handling of the billboard has "opened up the door to a host of new issues, when all they had to do was bring it to council." If the sign is halted now, Shields frets, Lamar could sue the city for reversing itself. But if the sign goes up, someone else could sue, charging that the city ignored proper procedures.

In the meantime, let's note the upside for Ravenstahl's critics. Lots of administrations try to bully their agenda through … but not all of them are kind enough to put it up in lights.

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