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Annual Review 

As we prepare to head into a new year, it's hard to forget how much has happened locally in the past 12 months. Although not an all-encompassing list, what follows is a look back at the headlines of 2009 that will likely be the storylines for 2010, broken down into four distinct areas.

 

click to enlarge The relationship between the mayor, right, and council could swing on whether Council President Doug Shields (left) gets another term.
  • The relationship between the mayor, right, and council could swing on whether Council President Doug Shields (left) gets another term.

Politics 

For Mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- and his constituents -- perhaps the best thing to say about 2009 is that it should mark our last mayoral election for awhile. 

After a special election in 2007, Ravenstahl won this year's May primary and the general election with little trouble. (While his showing in November was a less-than-overwhelming 55 percent, he barely campaigned at all.) But that may have been the easy part. 

For starters, the city still faces serious financial problems: Ravenstahl scrapped a 1 percent tuition tax just before the close of 2009 ... but that leaves the city without a long-range solution for its massive pension debt. A plan to lease publicly owned parking garages is another crucial part of Ravenstahl's fiscal plan, and will likely be controversial in 2010.

And while Ravenstahl solidified his hold on the executive branch, he lost two key legislative allies: City Councilor Tonya Payne was voted out, while Jim Motznik left to become a district justice. Payne's replacement, Robert Daniel Lavelle, has strong ties to Councilor Bill Peduto, Ravenstahl's nemesis. (Peduto actively campaigned for Lavelle.) Motznik will be replaced by Natalia Rudiak -- who also had backing from Peduto's camp -- including his longtime campaign guru, Matt Merriman-Preston. 

So will Ravenstahl be confronting a hostile council? Not necessarily. Two years ago, there were three newly elected councilors: Ricky Burgess, Patrick Dowd and Bruce Kraus. Mayoral foes hoped they would join with Peduto and Doug Shields to form a five-member majority. It didn't happen. Kraus typically joins with Peduto and Shields, but Burgess has worked more closely with the mayor, especially on crime prevention. Dowd, meanwhile, ran against Ravenstahl in May, but the two men are showing signs of reconciling. Ravenstahl, for example, recently appointed Dowd's personal lawyer to the city's ethics board. And Dowd is at odds, to put it mildly, with Peduto and Shields.

An early sign of what life will be like on Grant Street comes next month, when council chooses a president. The president makes committee assignments, rewarding allies with responsibility for areas like finance and public works. But the choice is symbolic too. Current President Doug Shields is a longtime Ravenstahl critic, but his "cranky" (his word) demeanor has brought scorn on his head. Even Shields says he is "certainly open to new leadership."

As this issue goes to press, the presidency fight remains hard to handicap: Relationships are "goofy," as one insider puts it, and the outcome may be, too. 

Ravenstahl's best hope might lie with Burgess, who says council's next president should put aside "accusations, slander, and calling for criminal investigation." Clearly Ravenstahl would prefer that message to the one he's likely to hear if the presidency is assumed by Peduto. 

In any case, loyalties aren't set in stone. Rudiak won her race, for example, but her district voted more heavily for Ravenstahl than any other. West End Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith, meanwhile, was widely thought to be a solid vote for Ravenstahl after taking office in a special election this year. But she has walked a fine line on the tuition tax, acting as a bridge between Ravenstahl and the universities.

No matter what happens, though, 2009 has changed Pittsburgh politics. During the primary season, Ravenstahl signed a measure limiting individual campaign contributions to $1,000 per election cycle for council races, $2,000 for citywide races. The reform also requires increased disclosure of lobbying activities -- something not previously done at the local level.

 Those aren't the only steps taken toward more transparent government. Earlier this year, City Councilor Michael Lamb unveiled a Web site that logs campaign contributions, and also identifies those who receive city contracts. City council, meanwhile, is moving toward streaming video of its meetings online. 

In Pittsburgh's hidebound political culture, those are startling changes. Even if new actors assume familiar roles, the backdrop has changed. Things that once happened behind the scenes will now be more visible. For better or worse. 

-- Chris Potter

 

click to enlarge The G-20, and the out-of-town officers brought in to control it, will continue to be a storyline in 2010
  • The G-20, and the out-of-town officers brought in to control it, will continue to be a storyline in 2010

G-20

The G-20 summit lasted a mere two days in September, but the lawsuits, criminal cases, public hearings and fresh demonstrations should keep city officials and local activists busy through 2010 and beyond.

Of the 190 people arrested during public gatherings, half have already agreed to perform community service to have their minor charges erased; most of those were students caught in a police round-up on the University of Pittsburgh campus on the two nights following the summit. But at least eight conviction appeals, including students who fought their charges of failure to disperse and disorderly conduct, are set for March, and dozens of arrestees await initial trial dates, including those facing the most serious accusations of felony assaults on officers and property damage.

Hearings over the past three months have shown local prosecutors increasingly unable to produce the right officers to testify, often due to the large number of law-enforcement personnel imported from out of town for the international summit. In one of the latest cases, heard Dec. 7, the county District Attorney's office dropped two felony assaults and resisting-arrest charges against Nate Monkelien, an independent videographer from Minneapolis, who had spent six days in jail following his Sept. 25 arrest. 

click to enlarge Civil and criminal cases involving G-20 arrestees will continue into the new year.
  • Civil and criminal cases involving G-20 arrestees will continue into the new year.

"No cop stood up" to speak to the charges, Monkelien said afterward. "They have no grounds." He pled guilty to two summary disorderly conduct charges and received a sentence of time served. 

In another case, police testified on Dec. 3 that they were ordered to arrest people who had reached as far as Parkman Avenue, three blocks north of Schenley Plaza, after the initial dispersal order had been broadcast to a mostly student gathering in the Plaza, on Sept. 25.  

"How far did people have to go to be in compliance with the order?" lawyer Jon Pushinsky questioned city officer John Varner.

"I have no idea," Varner replied.

Although Michigan resident Max Kantar was fined $400 and convicted of two summary disorderly conduct charges from his Parkman arrest, the vagaries of such orders are likely to figure in both a civil lawsuit being prepared against city officials and police by the American Civil Liberties Union, and in public hearings to be set by the Citizen Police Review Board.

"There clearly is a serious constitutional problem with the arrests Friday night [Sept. 25], in the overreaction of the police [and] the violence that took place" as alleged by multiple arrestees, says Jules Lobel, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Lobel, who is helping to prepare the lawsuit, says it will be filed "some time within the next year."

On Dec. 11, Lobel, the ACLU and other lawyers expanded their pre-G-20 federal-court complaint that the city was harassing the Three Rivers Climate Convergence sustainability fair at Schenley Park, and also the Montana-based free-food distributors Seeds of Peace, preventing the fair and hampering the mobile kitchens trying to support it.

"Now we're seeking accountability" from police officials, Lobel says.

Neither police nor the mayor's office would address pending litigation.

Arrestees who will likely be party to future civil suits have been meeting with others who protested the G-20 to discuss possible claims, which may include false arrest, assault by officers, selective prosecution and mistreatment after arrest. 

Among the goals, group members said at their most recent meeting, on Nov. 3, would be to compel the police bureau to reveal its use of force policy and guarantee that officers are identifiable in the field, despite riot gear that can obscure identifying insignia.

"We don't understand the entirety of the situation," says Elizabeth Pittinger, the head of Pittsburgh's Citizen Police Review Board, which is trying to gather city and police documents concerning G-20 policies for review at a hearing. "The police are being accused of doing things. We don't know if they did or didn't" do them. The policies governing individual police actions are also unclear. 

By its Dec. 16 deadline, the CPRB had gotten no response to a subpoena issued Dec. 1 to Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper, asking for documents related to G-20 planning, training and deployment plans, and "a number of specific incident reports" on arrests, Pittinger says.

Assistant City Solicitor John Doherty would not explain the city's reaction to the subpoena. "I don't comment on any matter of litigation, or where litigation is possible," he said.

The CPRB will also likely have more than one hearing on the 77 pending and six sworn complaints spawned by G-20 so far.

Local activists, meanwhile, say they will continue to confront Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Executive Dan Onorato at public appearances, especially during the latter's run for governor. They are also debating other ways to continue focusing on the issues that brought them together against the G-20 -- economic and climate justice -- by planning a protest around World Environment Day, a U.N. event chosen for Pittsburgh next year on June 5. 

Later that month, the next G-20 hits Toronto. And if membership in the Facebook group "Resist Toronto G-20 Summit 2010" is any harbinger, the organizers of Pittsburgh's demonstrations will remain in the fray.

-- Marty Levine

 

Law and Order

It's hard to describe the crime, punishment and legal news of 2009 in a single word. It was shocking, tragic and, at times, political. And clearly much of what happened in 2009 will still be news as the calendar flips.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh City Police Officers Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo III were gunned down in April.
  • Pittsburgh City Police Officers Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo III were gunned down in April.

Homicides

There were several tragedies in 2009, despite Allegheny County homicide numbers being down considerably from 2008's near-record total of 120. Four police officers in Allegheny County were gunned down in the line of duty. In April, three city police officers, Eric Kelly, Paul Sciullo III and Stephen Mayhle, were killed while responding to a domestic-violence call in Stanton Heights. Their alleged killer, Richard Poplawski, is awaiting trial. 

Then, on Dec. 7, Penn Hills police officer Michael Crawshaw was shot while waiting for backup in his police cruiser, allegedly by Ronald Robinson, who had allegedly killed another man a short time before.

It would be hard to find a case as disturbing as the deaths of several police officers, but that's what happened when George Sodini, a tech employee for a large Downtown law firm who was bitter toward women, walked into a Bridgeville health club and opened fire. He killed three women -- Heidi Overmier, 46, of Carnegie; Jody Billingsley, 37, of Mount Lebanon; and Elizabeth Gannon, 49, of Pittsburgh -- in an exercise class before killing himself. In a blog that Sodini left behind, he wrote of planning his attack for months before he carried it out.

And while not all homicides make big headlines, the New Pittsburgh Courier spent the past year making sure that attention is drawn by every homicide in the city. In January, the newspaper began tracking all murders, making special note of the killings of African Americans.

"As part of an ongoing effort to heighten awareness about the effects of murder in the Black community, the New Pittsburgh Courier will compile a list of homicides in Allegheny County each month," the paper pledge each month. "It is our hope that as the list of victims grows, so will a true understanding of how these lost lives affect the mental health, economic well-being and self-images of the region's Black neighborhoods." As of Dec. 3, 53 of the city's 76 homicide victims were black.

Courting Politicians

It's been two years since the state Attorney General started handing down indictments against state officials in the now-infamous "Bonusgate" scandal. In 2009, the first of those cases went to trial, and 2010 will see several more of them on deck.

The charges against 25 state legislators, aides and government officials allege rampant abuse of power and misappropriation of funds by elected officials. The officials, ranging from former Republican Rep. John Perzel to Democratic legislator Bill DeWeese, are accused of providing bonuses and no-show jobs to staffers to primarily do campaign work.

The first trial, held in December against former state Rep. Sean Ramaley, ended in an acquittal. Ramaley was accused of collecting a paycheck from Veon while he campaigned for his seat in the state House. Ramaley was running for the state Senate when he was indicted and withdrew from that race.

On a more local level, Bush appointee Mary Beth Buchanan finally left the U.S. Attorney's post in November. 

Buchanan has undertaken a myriad of prosecutions over the years that were often labeled as political. No case was more scrutinized then the prosecution of former Allegheny County Medical Examiner Cyril Wecht. His 2008 trial, for allegedly doing private consulting work on county time, ended in a hung jury. 

With Wecht poised to go to trial again in 2009, a new judge was assigned to the case and promptly tossed out much of the prosecution's evidence, forcing Buchanan to drop the charges. And although she's gone, don't think you've necessarily seen the last of her. Rumor has it she is mulling a run for Congress next year against moderate Democrat Jason Altmire.

Who's Watching the System?

The criminal justice system itself took a couple of black eyes in 2009 that will linger through 2010. The first involves the aforementioned Ronald Robinson, the man who allegedly gunned down Penn Hills police officer Crawshaw. Not only was Robinson on probation when he allegedly killed Crawshaw, he was wearing an electronic monitor and makes it likely that probation officials knew he wasn't at home during the shooting.

But Allegheny County probation director Jim Rieland told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "It's not the equipment that does not work, it does what it is supposed to do. We know they're not at home, but we don't know where they are under this kind of system."

As Pennsylvania struggles to accommodate its growing prison population next year, it's likely that a lot more convicted felons will end up on home confinement, despite the system's potential shortcomings.

Then on Dec. 6, a Common Pleas Court judge set an accused rapist free because prosecutors violated the law and kept him incarcerated for more than 180 days without a trial. David Bradford was locked up for more than a year, in fact. Prosecutors say the case against him is strong, including DNA evidence allegedly proving him to be the attacker. District Attorney Stephen Zappala is appealing the case, and if he loses the appeal, Bradford will never stand trial on the charges due to a paperwork glitch in Zappala's office.

 -- Charlie Deitch

 

Environment

Because most environmental problems -- from climate change to deforestation -- are global, it can be hard to isolate "local" issues. But here are a few ways Pittsburgh and environs are likely to be a bellwether in 2010 for how the world does -- or doesn't -- address the threats facing the planet.

Marcellus Shale Gas. Apparently even fossil-fuels giant Exxon Mobil is entering the race to exploit Pennsylvania's deeply buried and highly lucrative deposits of natural gas. Land-leasing agents continue to roam the state -- with Southwestern Pennsylvania a special hot spot -- promising royalties to property-owners who'll give permission to drill. Look for such activity to skyrocket if the economy heats up. But with lawmakers leasing state parks to drillers to boost revenue, also watch whether regulators respond to the threats drilling poses to water supplies. Meanwhile, groups like Clean Water Action and PennEnvironment continue to challenge lawmakers to beef up oversight, and have challenged drilling operations in court. Marcellus Shale is a huge story in the region, and one with national implications.

Mon Valley Air Quality. Hearings are scheduled in January on Allegheny County's draft plan to reduce fine-particulate pollution in the Mon Valley, where it's linked to disease. The county is two years behind on this plan; air-quality advocates hope its adoption and implementation will at last move the region toward compliance with federal standards, by which measure our air ranks among the dirtiest in the nation.

Congressional Energy Legislation. Depending on whom you heed, December's global climate-change summit, in Copenhagen, either did or didn't herald significant progress toward reducing concentrations of greenhouse gasses. In any case, how much the U.S. contributes to the effort depends heavily on clean-energy legislation now before the Senate, and the subject of heavy lobbying by deep-pocketed fossil-fuel industries. And whether that legislation becomes law (and how good a law) depends partly on senators Bob Casey and Arlen Specter. Both Democrats support such legislation but Casey, for instance, has called for easing the emissions cuts it demands, and for giving more breaks to coal companies. In the House -- which must approve final legislation to send the president -- our delegation includes both Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pittsburgh), who's widely credited with co-engineering passage of the House climate bill, and Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Beaver), who voted against it.

Mountaintop-Removal Mining. The practice of blowing the tops off mountains and burying nearby streams in the rubble has accelerated in the coal industry in recent years. Some of the places it's most prevalent are a few hours' drive south, in West Virginia. Because mountaintop-removal is a cheap way to mine, the Obama administration's tentative steps to rein it in have been fiercely opposed by Big Coal. But coalfield residents and environmental advocates are fighting back. The battles over mining regulations that will continue next year might be decisive, and they have symbolic as well as practical implications. Stronger regs could: save irreplaceable biodiverse forests and mountain streams; suggest coal's political power is waning; and spur interest in alternatives to the fuel that's the world's single biggest source of carbon emissions.

World Environment Day. Post-G-20, prepare for even more yakety-yak about how green Pittsburgh's gotten as we prepare to host this annual United Nations Environment Programme event, in June (theme: "Biodiversity: Connecting with Nature"). Of course, laudable local efforts to reduce energy usage and generally clean things up aside, Pittsburgh is still fundamentally as un-green as every other city that's totally reliant on a strict regimen of fossil fuels, toxic petrochemicals and sprawl-happy land-use policies. But perhaps this international event -- and the six weeks of rallies, forums and performances preceding it -- will help Pittsburgh and its nonsustainable metropolitan brethren learn more about getting where we really need to go.

-- Bill O'Driscoll

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