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Friday, May 28, 2010

Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 8:59 PM

The great biologist and author was in town yesterday to pick up his Rachel Carson Legacy Award, for six decades of scientific research and raising awareness on environmental issues.

The award, amusingly, was a Frabel-glass fire ant. (From the audience at the Carnegie Music Hall, the figurine looked about 10 inches long.)

On the one hand, the statuette is entirely appropriate, given that as a Mobile, Ala., teen-ager in 1942, Wilson basically discovered the species on American soil, and a few years later did the first major study of it; his research, shipped to Rachel Carson herself in the late 1950s, was among the bases for Silent Spring.

Of course, the gift, from the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, is also ironic, considering that invasive species like the fire ant (which emigrated on cargo coming through Mobile Bay) are among the main causes of the astounding rate of species extinction worldwide Wilson has dedicated his career to battling.

Wilson is probably the most famous biologist since Carson. If he's less of a household name, it might be because so many of the objects of his interest are either (a) six-legged or (b) too small for the naked eye. (If you want to get people interested in what you have to say about nature these days, it helps to wrestle crocodiles, or pretend to survive three nights in the desert with nothing but a buck knife and two sheets of Saran Wrap.)

Even the latest twist in Wilson's career, his novel Anthill, focuses upon such wee critters, if partly as an analogue of human civilization. (Here's my CP piece on Wilson and Anthill:

In his address capping the day's Celebration of Biodiversity program, Wilson made clear why he's so concerned about the organisms that dwell, often invisibly to us, in the soil and in the trees.

Things like bacteria, fungi, nematodes (roundworms), beetles and ants are incredibly numerous: It's estimated that our-fifths of all the animals in the world are nematodes, he said. And these creatures' role in keeping the air, water and soil healthy is incalculably valuable. 

Wilson ended with a plea to preserve these organisms -- which are concentrated in rainforests and other tropical ecosystems -- the only way that will work long-term: by preserving their rapidly disappearing habitats. 

Why is that necessary? Many organisms can't survive outside very specific habitats. And not only haven't we identified an estimated 90 percent of earth's species, but we're destroying countless numbers of them through heedless razing of forests, polluting of water, paving of land.

As Wilson put it: "We're wiping out the great encyclopedia o life on earth without knowing what most of the volumes had in them," he said.


Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 8:35 PM

Late this afternoon, city councilor Bill Peduto formally requested the city's Ethics Board to look into Adam Ravenstahl's being named to the board of Alcosan. Adam Ravenstahl, of course, is the brother of mayor Luke Ravenstahl.  

Addressed to board chair Sister Patrice Hughes, the letter notes that tby the terms of the city code, "no public official or public employee shall appoint, hire [or] advance a member of his direct family to a positionthat is under the juridiction or control of the city."

The city solicitor has argued that this language does not apply to Alcosan, because it's an independent authority whose mayoral appointees must be confirmed by council. When I talked to Peduto about that earlier this week, he called it a "half-ass legal interpretation."

His letter counters that, in fact, "the Mayor and City Council have jurisdiction over the nomination and appointement of all Board, Authority, and Commission members. The Mayor has the sole responsibility of nominating candidates to these positions and Council has the sole responsibility of approving [them]."

A copy of the letter is here. Anyone want to take bets on how much the brother has to fear from the Sister?


Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 4:26 PM

A rough week of first-job and second-job and third-volunteer-job duties behind me, I find myself looking forward to a weekend of chillin', grillin', illin' and doing nothing that seems remotely like work. But before I do that, I have to tell you about shows that are happening. Some of them are shows at which you will perhaps find me, if you know what to look for.

My bet for tonight, for me, is Brillobox for Meeting of Important People, Tarlton (from Minneapolis), and Delicious Pastries (perhaps the one band in Pittsburgh that sounds most like you would expect it to sound based on its name). Also worth noting tonight: Aussie one-man band Richard Perso at Howlers in Bloomfield.

Tomorrow is Saturday, and the two things I have on tap for you: again at Howlers, an "oddball rock 'n roll party" presented by Oddball Entertainment. It's a mix: The Lions Rampant, Temperance League, The Devilz In the Detailz, and The Ceiling Stares. DJ Fernando spins, and it's all $8. The other thing: Title Town, the soul and funk party at Shadow Lounge. In addition to residents J. Malls and Gordy, Michigander Brad Hales is in town for this one -- 9 p.m., $5, 18 and over.

Sunday night, as I wrote in this week's issue, Arrington de Dionyso brings his new project, Malaikat Dan Singa, to Garfield Artworks.

And Monday, if you're not busy with parades and barbeque, the Trib Total Domination Market Saturation Amphitheatre at Station Square plays host to Fallen Not Forgotten 2, a huge bash benefiting the families of local police officers killed on duty. This year's benefits the families of Michael Crawshaw and Paul Richey, and features a list of performers too long to be named here in the finite space of the Internet, but which includes Joe Grushecky, Steel Hollow, Abby Abbondanza, Identity X, Gramsci Melodic, Punchline, Bill Deasy, and Triggers.

Watch out for bears out there!


Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 1:45 PM

The White House has now responded to simmering concerns surrounding Joe Sestak. And it turns out Bill Clinton played a role in what was supposedly a job offer to encourage Sestak to drop out of the race. 

The most important thing here is that White House is claiming that what Sestak was offered was an unpaid position, on an advisory board. ("The advisory positions discussed with Congressman Sestak ... would have been uncompensated," the memo reads.) In fact, the memo notes that Democratic leadership had "legitimate concern about the Congressman vacating his seat in the House." And Ed Rendell and others did, in fact, argue that Sestak shouldn't run for Senate partly because his old seat would be vulnerable to Republican takeover. Hiring Sestak to work full-time somewhere else would, then, defeat much of the purpose for urging him not to take Specter on. 

The memo also addresses speculation the position Sestak was offered was Secretary of the Navy. In fact, though, "The President announced his intent to nominate Ray Mabus" to that job last spring -- "over a month before Senator Specter announced that he was becoming a member of the Democratic Party."

But the memo has a downside as well. Because of all the ex-presidents in all the gin-joints in all the world, the White House had to recruit  President Bill Clinton as a go-between.

"White House staff did not discuss these optoins with Congressman Sestak." Instead, they "enlisted the support of former President Clinton." 

As we all know, nothing sets Republican hard-liners at ease like the apperance of Bill Clinton. And I gotta say -- the fact that the White House released this today, on the Friday before a three-day holiday, suggests a bit of uneasiness. 

UPDATE: Indeed, I can already see plenty of "meaning of is" type verbage bouncing around the interwebs. Though the more frequent response is, "Sestak said he was offered a JOB. That's not the same thing as an unpaid advisory post!" 

Naturally, the assumption is that this is a White House cover-up. Though even if you assume someone has been acting in bad faith here -- rather than speaking carelessly -- it's certainly possible Sestak was exaggerating  the offer to burnish his credentials. Anyway, here's the Sestak response:

Last summer, I received a phone call from President Clinton. During the course of the conversation, he expressed concern over my prospects if I were to enter the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and the value of having me stay in the House of Representatives because of my military background. He said that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had spoken with him about my being on a Presidential Board while remaining in the House of Representatives. I said no. I told President Clinton that my only consideration in getting into the Senate race or not was whether it was the right thing to do for Pennsylvania working families and not any offer. The former President said he knew I'd say that, and the conversation moved on to other subjects.


Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 9:35 AM

So today's Post-Gazette offers some clarity on the great treehouse dispute, and I'll try to further flesh out matters below. 

First off, it's worth noting that city councilor Doug Shields is now acknowledging that a staffer said something "inappropriate" to Amy Ambrusko in a phone conversation -- something he denied, sort of, in comments to me earlier this week. And while Shields was of the impression that the treehouse proposal was a "done deal," a Parks Conservancy spokesperson tells the paper, "I'm not sure why there was a perception that there was a memorial ready to go ..."The truth is that we're so early in the process that there was very little to share."

I spoke to that spokesperson, Michael Sexauer, this morning, and he stressed the preliminary nature of the treehouse proposal. In fact, he said, "Part of the confusion is using the word 'treehouse.'

"That was a working title, and we felt it was a good one. We didn't want to call it a 'memorial,' since that's a word people associate with statues." But for starters, he says, you shouldn't be envisioning "a treehouse in the tradition of something several feet off the ground." (Any proposal would have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, after all.)

The RFP for the proposal does assert that "the primary vision ... is that of a tree house, which both chilldren wished for before their deaths." And designers were encouraged "to creatively interpret the notion of a tree house." But there are months of discussions and planning ahead, and there's no guarantee about what a final design might look like -- or where it might end up. 

The Conservancy is engaged in a broader attempt to add facilities throughout the park, an effort to replace the Frick Environmental Center that burned down several years back. It's possible, in other words, that the treehouse-that-isn't-a-treehouse could go in another location. A June 7 meeting on the proposal will begin to gather feeback, but that will be just the start of a series of discussions. It's very much up for grabs.

And that's what makes this all so "unfortunate," Sexauer says. ""People are passionate on both sides, but it's premature for anybody to pass judgment. The wonderful thing about the blogosphere is that it's a great way for people to share their thoughts. But we're seeing this week what can happen when there's not much information out there."

Indeed, there are some unedifying comments attached to my earlier post about this subject, in which Ms. Ambrusko is accused of "arrogance." And the rhetoric on the other side hasn't always been ennobling either. Witness, for example, Twittered accusations that Doug Shields suffers from a "hatred of dead children." [Editor's note: The author of that Tweet says he was being sarcastic. So it's a bad example. Use this one instead: "I am still murderously furious at these horrible, insensitive excuses for people who had a problem with a mom honoring her children."]

There's no shortage of confusion and dissent in Regent Square either.  Today's P-G story, for example, certainly delivers on expectations that neighbors would have head-scratching reasons for opposing the park. Resident Barbara Hicks confirmed that while parking was a major concern, she was also worried "the playground might become a haven for drug users, noting that the site has drawn such activity in the past." The paper quotes her asking "If you have a treehouse, what better place to hide the drugs."

I can think of a LOT of better places to hide drugs ... though of course I work at an alt-weekly, so maybe I have an advantage here. 

In any case, I've already heard from other active members of the Regent Square community who say they are baffled by this claim.  They aren't aware of any criminal activity in the area to speak of.

But some of them also tell me that the online rhetoric from project supporters has been disheartening too. They fear the June 7 meeting -- which was planned as an attempt to gather feedback and explain the (limited) progress made so far -- will end up being a "shouting match." 

Seems like everybody involved deserves better than that. 



Thursday, May 27, 2010

Posted By on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 6:12 PM

Or something.

Treehousegate has now gone to the NEXT LEVEL. 

Not long ago, Doug Shields' office released the following statement, blaming the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy for doing a bad job of speaking with the community.

The Conservancy did not fulfill its obligation to communicate with all parties when it partnered with Amy Ambrusko to create a memorial for Kate and Peter. This grieving Mom deserved better.

I am disappointed that the Conservancy was irresponsible when it led the community to believe that an appropriate memorial is ready to go when it is, in fact, only a concept at this time.

There will be ample time for all parties to share their opinions, and I encourage everyone to attend the June 7th community meeting. When citizens, government and non-profits work together, good things can happen. And I know that a grieving Mom will have a lasting tribute to her children.

The statement also included the text of a Conservancy blog post I referenced last night, viewable here.

Nobody asked my advice, but I'm not sure this was such a good idea.

UPDATE: I will say, though, that I wouldn't blame anyone in Regent Square for being confused at this point.

Compare, for example, the way Virginia Montanez describes the historic background:

Amy and the Parks Conservancy decided on a unique treehouse type of play area for children to play in at Frick Park ...

So, with money coming into the conservancy, proposed designs being drawn up, and a perfect spot in Frick Park identified, it appeared everything was moving along just swimmingly.

to yesterday's statement from the Parks Conservancy:

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy would like to address public opinion about an outdoor learning space concept proposed for Frick Park.  The concept is part of a larger effort to construct a new Environmental Center in Frick Park with supporting outdoor learning spaces throughout the park.

The concept is part of a larger effort to construct a new Environmental Center in Frick Park with supporting outdoor learning spaces throughout the park.

Although none of these spaces has even a preliminary design, the idea is that they would be subtle, blend into the environment, and provide places to learn about nature in a playful setting.

The bolding in both those quotes was mine. Because on the one hand, it sounds like the design of this project is well underway. On the other, the conservancy is making it sound like it's barely begun. 

I've got a call into the conservancy, in hopes of clearing this up. In the meantime, I will say that based on what I've heard, this Treehouse is further along than the Conservancy's note makes it sound. 

MORE UPDATE: The Post-Gazette has a story out on this today that clarifies the picture. Shields -- who is now acknowledging that his staffer said something "inappropriate," contra to earlier claims made to me -- says that residents had the impression that this proposal was a "done deal." The Conservancy, though, says that they are only weighing preliminary designs and so on.

"I'm not sure why there was a perception that there was a memorial ready to go," a spokesman told the paper. "That certainly was not the case. The truth is that we're so early in the process that there was very little to share."


Posted By on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 2:26 PM

Apparently Lady Gaga's appearance at the Consol Energy Center in the fall won't be the first concert there -- the venue just announced that it's holding a contest in which participants guess who the first show will be. It's slated for August and is being characterized by the venue as: "huge."

Ideas? I'm thinking it would be the perfect time to reveal that Consol faked Michael Jackson's death in order to trot him out for a comeback at the new arena ("Jacko's back and Big Coal's not dead either!"). Barring that, probably Girl Talk, right?


Posted By on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 10:19 AM

I'm a little late with the news that the mayor has appointed his brother, state Rep.-elect Adam Ravenstahl, to the Alcosan board. And others have already hashed out the question of whether such an appointment violates a city ethics rule barring the appointment of relatives. I'd just like to point out that this is the latest example of a long-standing, and largely unchallenged, practice by Ravenstahl: taking advantage of board members serving expired terms. 

Whether Brother Ravenstahl should be appointed to fill the Alcosan vacancy is one question. But another is why the vacancy existed in the first place. It existed because the guy Ravenstahl replaced, Dan Keller, has been serving on an expired term since last December.

As we've written repeatedly, the members of city boards and commissions are allowed to continue serving on boards even after their terms expire ... until the mayor either moves to renominate them, or to replace them with someone else.

So this is legal. But serving on an expired term is like living on borrowed time: You can be replaced at any moment. And that makes a mockery of the whole reason for HAVING appointees in the first place.

Appointees get fixed terms, after all, to reduce their susceptibility to political pressure. It's supposed to give them some breathing room for making tough decisions. It's also supposed to insulate them a bit from the rapid ups-and-downs of the political process. Obviously, that didn't happen here: Keller was running against Adam Ravenstahl in the state Rep. race, and was tossed out from his position practically the moment the ballots were counted. 

It occurred to me yesterday that there would be an easy way to stop this. The city could change the code with language that said something like this:

When an appointee's term expires, the mayor will have 30 days to either renominate or replace  the appointee. If the 30 days elapses with no action on the part of the mayor, the appointee shall be given another full term.

Optionally, the code could be changed in the opposite direction: If 30 days elapses, the appointee shall be automatically removed from the board. That would force the mayor to actually take an affirmative step of choosing a replacement, rather than this passive-aggressive approach of bringing existing board members under his thumb. 

I suggested this idea to City Councilor Bill Peduto, who has proposed a few reforms in his day. Peduto thought it was a good, workable idea -- and that it would make absolutely no difference at all. 

"If you have somebody who doesn't follow the rules," he said, "will adding more rules change anything?

"We could create that rule, but what happens when they disregard that one too?" he asked. "Or they come up with some half-ass legal interpretation. Then you have a debate about that instead, and you get off the subject."

He points to the Alcosan appointment as an example: While the ethics language seems clear, the city solicitor is arguing that it doesn't apply, in part because legally speaking, Alcosan is a standalone entity. 

"So now I have to argue that the mayor has jurisdiction over Alcosan, because he has the ability to appoint members and withdraw them," Peduto says. And passing my proposed change might look good on paper, but would do nothing to prevent a similarly bogged-down argument in the future.  "How much time should we waste trying to be baby sitters?"

So what is the solution? It lies with the voters, Peduto says. 

"People get the government they elect, and this is what they wanted."


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Posted By on Wed, May 26, 2010 at 11:04 PM

Pretty wild scene taking place over at That's Church concerning a proposed treehouse memorial for Amy Ambrusko's two children, who died in a tragic car accident. The memorial was to be installed in Frick Park, and as Montanez tells the tale:

Amy thought it fitting to raise the funds to put a playground of some sort in Frick Park for them.  Those plans grew and shifted and changed until Amy and the Parks Conservancy decided on a unique treehouse type of play area for children to play in at Frick Park.

She began silently raising funds to pay for the proposed treehouse, and secured donations from 700 people and groups all around the world … including me.

So, with money coming into the conservancy, proposed designs being drawn up, and a perfect spot in Frick Park identified, it appeared everything was moving along just swimmingly.

Until Amy sent me an email a week or so ago, to put me on notice that she was hearing rumblings that some residents in the Frick Park area planned to oppose the treehouse. She and I couldn’t fathom why.

It's worth noting here that, by the Conservancy's own admission today, "no formal presentation has been made either to the community, or to the city, or to Councilman [Doug] Shields," who represents the district. Montanez, as a contributor to a silent fundraising campaign, may have known more about the proposal than some of the Regent Square residents living a few doors down from it. And as we'll see, neighbors had some reason to be on edge anyway. 

More from Montanez:

A representative with the Parks Conservancy met with [some neighbors] to hear their concerns and told Amy ... that their minds are made up. That one person went so far as to say something along the lines of, “Why does this woman think that just because her kids died and she raised all this money, she’s entitled to put a playground in our neighborhood?”

A public meeting on the park was scheduled, but then, Montanez reports, a staffer in Shields' office reportedly urged Ambrusko to drop the matter, and said, "Do you really want your kids' names to be part of this controversy?"

That, to Montanez, "went beyond the pale" by playing the "You'll tarnish the Names of Your Dead Kids card." 

There was only one thing for it: Montanez called out her supporters to contact Shields' office and tell him "[t]hat you object to their methods. That you object to their callousness."

And lo! So it came to pass. Shields tells me he got more than 100 e-mails, many of which were in the "Doug is a jagoff, and how can he be so horrible" mode. (One correspondent informed him that "You are going to rue the effin' day" he refused to support the treehouse; another called him an "ogre.") City hall observers say Shields was "flipping out" as the missives came in.

Needless to say, this did not endear Shields to Ms. Montanez, or her legion of adherents. Montanez "published this without ever consulting me," he says -- and after doing so, she Tweeted the request that reporters "not ask me for comment ... I am merely the bullhorn."

Montanez has a standing policy of not talking to reporters on the record, even in innocuous situations. (For example, she declined to give an interview to City Paper for last year's "Best of" issue.) But as far as Shields is concerned, what the policy amounts to is, "She just lights this fire, and then runs away."

I quoted the claim that Shields' office had played the "You'll Tarnish the Names of Your Dead Kids" card. Shields said, "That's not what Judy [Feldman, his chief of staff] is telling me, and it's not what I'm saying now."

As a city councilor, Shields says, it's not his job to support or oppose a project right out of the gate. His job is "to get in the middle of these situations, and act as a mediator" between different sides. "That's never happened here" -- in part because the Conservancy hadn't kept him up to speed on developments, or put a formal proposal on the table.

But why would a community oppose a treehouse in the first place? Shields says the  proposal came along amidst protracted discussions about the expansion of an environmental charter school nearby.

"Regent Square is an active community, and there was a great deal of concern about the school's expansion," he said. And there was, it seems, a considerable amount of confusion about the treehouse proposal -- whether it be part of the school's expanded "footprint," whether it would be a simple bench or plaque, or something else. 

The treehouse is proposed to go in "Turtle Park," which adjoins the school. Residents are concerned about building "an attraction" there, Shields says, in part because of a dearth of parking nearby.

The formal presentation of the thing is still scheduled for June 7. It's scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Wilkins School community center (7604 Charleston Avenue). And now, of course, Montanez's het-up blog readers are pledging to attend. Perhaps they will share sentiments like the comments-thread claim that opposing the treehouse "boils down to race and class and geographical dividers." Then the healing can really begin!

Is it possible Doug Shields, daunted by Montanez's minions, is now engaged in a defensive crouch? Sure. Is it possible that race and class play a role in community fears about who will use the park? Maybe: They play a role in just about everything else, after all. Finally, is Regent Square engaged in a classic "not in my backyard" response? Well, as Shields himself acknowledges, there is concern about attracting more visitors than the area wants to handle.

But I gotta say -- if you're gonna blame Regent Square for being insular and tribal ... there seems to be a bit of that going around today.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Posted By on Tue, May 25, 2010 at 1:12 PM

I haven't been to a Pirates game in awhile -- I stopped going after a dispute over an order of nachos. But if the team is generating as much heat inside the park as it is outside, I may start going again. 

We start with the bleacher bums at the conservative Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, who we find crowing over the Pirates' poor attendance this morning:

As we have reported ... since 2007, Pittsburgh Pirates' attendance languishes among the lowest in the league. Since 2007, attendance has ranked 28th out of 30 teams. So far this season, attendance is still holding two spots above the worst level. Unless fireworks and special promotions over this summer boost attendance sharply from the current pace of 17,170 per game, the 2010 season will see only 1.4 million fans push through the turnstiles.

Of course, it's early in the season, and school is still in session. The Institute more or less acknolwedges that 1.6 million fans is a more likely number. Nevertheless ...

One of the arguments used by those who pushed so hard to get a new ball park was that Three Rivers Stadium was not a good baseball venue and a new park was needed to boost team attendance and revenue. [But]  during the last four years of play at Three Rivers Stadium, 1997 through 2000, attendance averaged 1.6 million. So it is safe to say that after ten years, PNC Park has not proved to be the answer to Pirates poor attendance.

But the Allegheny Institute aren't the only folks nursing old grievances. The Nutting family, which owns the Pirates, is apparently STILL sore over a short-lived possibility that Penguins owner Mario Lemieux might offer to buy the club from them. 

Exhibit A: this column by Paul Ladewski about the Penguins' playoff loss -- a piece that has been a staple of sports-talk fodder after it appeared on the Nutting-owned Pirates Report Web site. (It was later removed from the site, which is why this link takes you to a Google-cached location.) Even by the standards of a Pirates fan, it's a stunning display of cognitive dissonance:

Now that the Penguins have gone belly-up in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years in the Sidney Crosby era, maybe we'll hear less about how their ownership will turn around the Pirates in no time if given the chance.

... [D]id you know that, while the Pirates have gone 17 years without a sniff of .500, the Penguins have hoisted exactly one Stanley Cup in that period?

So if I'm reading this correctly, the defense for the Pirates' current ownership is this: Hey, at least the Pirates have never gone to the playoffs four times in the past four years! So there! Yeah!

Local sports writer John Perroto called Ladewski's piece "the least-credible bit of sports journalism in recent Pittsburgh professional sports history." But of course Perroto has grievances of his own with the Nuttings -- as his piece makes clear, they canned him not very long ago.

As Perroto notes, the column came out one day after a big Post-Gazette story on Lemieux's co-owner, Ron Burkle -- a story that reminds us of Burkle's interest in the Pirates.

Who's right? Who's wrong? I don't know. But I wish the Pirates played with the same passion as the people arguing over them.