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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Board Games

Posted By on Tue, Apr 1, 2008 at 4:17 PM

High drama in Pittsburgh City Council today, and for once it didn't have to do with billboards or who gets to drive city vehicles home from work. 

It came when -- in a gripping moment of political intrigue -- Councilor Patrick Dowd named a new member to the Pittsburgh Cable Communications Advisory Committee.

I know, I know. You're breathless with anticipation, right?  

True, the PCCAC, as its legions of admirers refer to it, is not the city's highest-profile body. The organization's purpose, as its Web page so lucidly explains, is to "promote and develop the best use by the community of the cable system as a tool for community communications." (Presumably, they achive their lofty goals by using the word "community" a lot.)

So Dowd's choice didn't exactly shake the very foundations of government. But it might have sent shivers up a couple of spines. His nominee, after all, was B.J. Leber.

Leber is an eminently qualified choice, of course: For many years, she was the spokesperson and public face of WQED Channel 13. But she was ALSO the chief of staff to Mayor Bob O'Connor -- until she was ousted in a 2006 putsch while O'Connor lay in the hospital.

Along with city solicitor Susan Malie and budget director Paul Leger, Leber was on the losing side of a power struggle that took place in O'Connor's absence, and that began reshaping city government even before he passed away. And who was the big winner in that battle? Yarone Zober, who is now the right-hand man of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

What makes this all very interesting -- or at least interesting for a PCCAC appointment -- is the timing. Dowd's move comes as some councilors are seeking the power to make appointments to other, more powerful, entities.

The PCCAC is one of the few appointed bodies with members chosen by council. (Each councilor gets to choose a representative; the mayor picks two other board members.) At most of the more powerful agencies, like the Urban Redevelopment Authority or the city's Planning Commission, the mayor alone makes appointments. 

That ability is one of the key powers that defines Pittsburgh's "strong mayor" form of government. While such entities are supposed to be independent, the ability to appoint their overseers means a mayor wields a significant amount of control. (It's worth noting, incidentally, that after Leber was ousted in 2006, she was compelled to resign her own position on the URA board.) As I've written elsewhere, almost every mayor has been tempted to use and abuse that power. But few mayors have done so quite as crudely as Ravensathl.

As a result, some councilors are suggesting they should be able to name appointees too. At the very least, they say, Ravenstahl should name Dowd and the two other rookie councilors to boards. It's customary for each city councilor to sit on at least one board, but Ravenstahl hasn't extended the courtesy to Dowd and his new colleagues.

Ravenstahl has responded by saying he would "potentially" be willing to appoint Dowd and Co., "but not if they're considering or calling me unethcial." If that's the criteria being applied, Mr. Mayor, you're going to start running short of qualified candidates any day now.

But look at it from the administration's point of view. Here's Patrick Dowd, who has been increasingly critical of the URA's budgeting and governance. And when Dowd uses the tiny bit of appointing power he has, who does he choose? The former rival of the mayor's closest advisor.

Zober's power play got Leber off the URA board once already. How likely is it that he'd give council the power to put her -- or anyone remotely similar -- back on it?

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