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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 9:07 PM

Today was the deadline for candidates to file their year-end reports on their 2012 political activity. I'll give the topline numbers below, and then offer a few thoughts afterward. And it might be worth sticking with me: Just behind these numbers are some potentially sticky problems which could conceivably invite a lawsuit or two, force candidates to return money, and potentially blow up the city's fledgling campaign-finance law entirely.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl raised $497,950 last year, and spent $94,000 of it. With money he already had on hand in previous years, he was sitting on $748,589 at year's end. More than the other candidates, Ravenstahl's support came in the form of large donations: Nearly 98 cents of every dollar he took in came in donations of more than $250. At least five political committees gave him $8,000 each -- the maximum allowed under city rules. His rivals, by contrast, had a total of one such donation. The mayor's single biggest supporter appears to be state Sen. Jim Ferlo, whose gave $2,000 of his own money ... and $8,000 donated from his own political committee. (Ravenstahl also submitted a report covering January activity -- something candidates do to look especially bad-ass -- which showed him closing on $1 million in cash. But I'm leaving it out here so as to have an apples-to-apples comparison.)

City Councilor Bill Peduto raised $326,721 in contributions, but spent $68,729 of it, leaving him $260,942 at the start of the year. As with Ravenstahl, Peduto's largest source of support was contributions of more than $250 from individuals, but about 15 cents of every dollar he raised came in amounts of less than $250. Peduto also took in almost $11,000 in contributions of less than $50 -- contributions that can serve as a rough gauge of grassroots support. Peduto's biggest backer -- the source of his only $8,000 political contribution -- came from County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. But you probably guessed that.

City controller Michael Lamb, meanwhile, raised $208,653, and spent $58,594. When you add in the $62,000 he already had on hand at the start of 2012, he was left with just over $212,000. Lamb had nearly as many $50-or-less contributions as Peduto -- $8,953 worth -- and overall, about 11 percent of his contributions came in donations of less than $250. Lamb's financial picture is the murkiest of the three, for reasons discussed below.

Those are the topline numbers. Here are some of the stories behind them.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 4:00 PM

Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Fox Searchlight
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild

The AB Film group at Carnegie Mellon regularly schedules current and classic films. Movies screen at McConomy auditorium on campus. Admission is $1 for CMU students (with ID), and everybody else only pays $3. More info and complete schedule here.
Here’s what playing this week, which you’ll note includes an Oscar 2013 contender.

Thu., Jan. 31.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The perennial cult-favorite rock musical about a transvestite from outer space, and the two fresh-faced American kids who get ensnared in his lair. 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight.

Fri., Feb. 1
Beasts of the Southern Wild. A group of people living on the very edge of the Louisiana refuse to evacuate in the face of a hurricane. An exhilarating mash-up of dystopia, fairy tale and social commentary.
8 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight.

Sun., Feb. 3
Anna Karenina. The recent lavish adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, re-imagined in a series of theatrical set pieces.
7:30 p.m., 10 p.m. and 12:30 a.m.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 3:13 PM

According to multiple sources, Port Authority board member and former turnpike chief Joe Brimmeier will not be tapped by county executive Rich Fitzgerald to head up the transit agency. Sources tell City Paper that current CEO Steve Bland's departure is still likely to be announced tomorrow at the agency's board meeting, however.

As we noted earlier this morning, rumors of Brimmeier's potential appointment have attracted increasingly public concern, and folks within Fitzgerald's inner circle have also expressed discontent with the idea.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 12:59 PM

Count former Gov. Ed Rendell among those not too concerned about the possibility that former Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission head Joe Brimmeier could take over the Port Authority.

Rendell, who as governor appointed Brimmeier to the Turnpike post, says Brimmeier "did a great job."

"The turnpike ran incredibly well," Rendell tells City Paper. "It was an effective agency in doing its job."


Rendell specifically praised the turnpike's snow-removal efforts during inclement weather, and lauded its handling of toll raises in 2004 and 2008. (The 2008 increase stemmed from Rendell's own transportation-funding plan, Act 44.The law obliged the Turnpike to pay $450 million a year to PennDOT, and has since been blamed for subsequent Turnpike woes.) Rendell said he had no criticisms of the way Brimmeier did the job. "I often would get anonymous letters about secretary this or secretary that, but none of that about Joe, no reports or anything," Rendell says.

Asked about an ongoing state grand jury investigation into the turnpike for its hiring, contracting and political practices among other concerns about Brimmeier's past, Rendell says "I don't know anything about that."

"Do I know how he handled his interpersonal things on personnel? No, I don't know. Do I know how he dealt with contracts? I have no idea," Rendell says. "No problems ever reached my desk."

And asked about rumors swirling around his own political career, most recently that he was a contender of Mayor of New York City, Rendell says he wants to do transportation lobbying advocacy work with Building America's Future, a group he co-chairs with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"I think I can do more to advance the cause of investing in transportation infrastructure from the outside then the inside," he says. "And I don't think New Yorkers would vote for an Eagles fan."

Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 11:15 AM


While State Sen. Jim Ferlo hasn't been thrilled with outgoing Port Authority CEO Steve Bland, he says he's disappointed with how a change in leadership is coming about at the transit agency.

"I don't think it should be so contentious," he says. "There is enough citizen criticism and disappointment with PAT leadership. I hate to see the board divided. It's not the way to have a smooth transition with a divided board consumed by politics."

The board is reportedly divided over whether to fire Bland at the behest of county executive Rich Fitzgerald. Bland has been chief executive officer since 2006. In 2011, his contract was extended until 2014 and there have been no vocal complaints of his tenure by board directors at monthly board meetings in at least two years. Fitzgerald has reportedly been meeting with board members individually, according to sources.

"I guess [Fitzgerald] is the type of person who wants his own people at the various authorities and agencies," says Ferlo. "I can't blame him for that, it's a new sheriff in town."

Ferlo reiterated that Bland has lost some support from the Allegheny County state delegation for constantly criticizing Harrisburg politicians for not solving the state's transportation funding debacle.

"Bland was obviously the spokesperson and at times he'd keep focusing the attention and deflecting criticism back to the state legislature," Ferlo says. "People like myself and others get a little upset about that. We don't have any director or board rep on the PAT board when more than 60% of revenue comes from state resources and authorizations."

And while he says he personally likes former turnpike chief Joseph Brimmeier, the rumored next, albeit controversial, leader of the agency, at least on an interim basis, "I think given the type of salary it pays and the need for a transportation professional....there could have been an effort to do a search, whether it be regionally or nationally," Ferlo says. "But then again, that's the kind of thing to the victor goes the spoils, and the victor is Mr. [Fitzgerald]."

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Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 10:33 AM

Second in a three-part series by Ruchika Rai

On my first foray to an American hot-yoga studio, the first thing that struck me was the merchandise section right next to the reception. On sale were branded two-piece yoga suits (that can also be used as swimwear) for approximately $50 a piece. Quite a change from my home country of India, where yoga is a universally accessible yet also noncommercial part of the culture.

Perenially on a low budget, I decided to brave the high-temperature yogasana in normal gym apparel. (Albeit, as luck would have it, I happened to find myself the $50 yoga shorts at $10 on Wal-Mart that evening.)

I attended the first class successfully, and this is how I described it to my mother (back in India), on Skype: “Imagine doing yoga under the sun during summers, when the temperature is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and paying for it. That’s how it feels.”

Not surprisingly my mother replied, “You must really be insane to do such a thing.”

Hot yoga exemplifies a health phenomenon particular to a consumer society. Time and again, bridging the distinctions between cultures, languages and intellect, we tend to accept, rather naively, the promises of health experts offering illogical health solutions.

When we import an idea from another country, we instead ought to ensure that we accept it wholly, and let it really absorb in our system. If we fail to do that — if we change a traditional practice too much to suit commercial needs — we contribute in creating a lop-sided market, benefiting very few.

Not only is “hot yoga” something no one in India would bother with. But the popularization of yoga in the U.S. has brought about two additional phenomena: high price per class, and a high attrition rate. For instance, a 2007 New York Times article reported an attrition rate of almost 30 percent.

Meanwhile, media reports have also indicated that yoga, as an industry, is slouching toward monopoly. Consider Bikram Choudhury, a Calcutta native who oversees a multimillion-dollar American yoga empire. According to a 2012 Seattle Weekly story by Rebecca Moss, Choudhury had copyrighted his form of yoga, and has now sued his former student Greg Gumucio — who offers hot-yoga classes for $8, whereas Bikram Yoga charges at least $15.

If nothing else, the $8 fee shows that there are market players who can offer yoga that’s more affordable, and hence more accessible — which might get more Americans to practice daily, as is more common in India. It isn’t hard to imagine how inexpensive a conventional yoga class could be, if we could go back to the basics and practice yoga the way its founders practiced it.

Tomorrow: Yoga more like its founders' version

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Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 9:34 AM

State funding that was a lynchpin in the Port Authority's funding package for the year is not in jeopardy if the agency undergoes leadership changes, even to a controversial figure like board member and former head of the PA Turnpike Commission Joseph Brimmeier.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has so far paid the Port Authority $9.3 million of $30 million committed for this year.

"The funding was part of Governor Corbett’s commitment to sustaining public transportation for the citizens of Pittsburgh and surrounding communities in exchange for the Port Authority agreeing to real, long term cost-containment reforms that addressed their budget's structural problems in the years ahead," says Steve Chizmar, PennDOT spokesman, in an email. "The funding is not in jeopardy."

Chizmar says transportation secretary Barry Schoch "has enjoyed and continues to enjoy" a working relationship with authority CEO Steve Bland, who county executive Rich Fitzgerald will likely ouster at tomorrow's board meeting.

"If the decision is reached to replace him, [Schoch] hopes that there is careful consideration given to his replacement and future direction of the Port Authority," Chizmar says.

As for the potential appointment of Brimmeier, the former CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission whose tenure has been clouded by charges of nepotism and cronyism and multiple state and federal investigations, Chizmar says: "Transit is a complicated business to operate efficiently. It is always critical that transit management has transit experience and is qualified to manage the agency."

Federal funds, at least from the Federal Transit Administration, are also not in jeopardy. According to the FTA, the agency has no role in actions regarding executive leadership of agencies that receive FTA funds. The authority received $38.5 million in FTA funding in Fiscal Year 2012.

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Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 9:23 AM

The day is nigh — the day when the whole country knows the name of Punxsutawney, and pays it the kind of heed only residents of Jefferson and Elk counties do the rest of the year. And Pittsburgh's famed singin', school-bus-drivin' cowboy and one-time Northern Tier resident has graced us with a musical tribute to the weather-forecasting rodent. Observe:

If you head up north on Saturday, take care!

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Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 8:46 AM

Gov. Tom Corbett's proposal to privatize the state liquor store system has met with at least qualified support from both the left and the right. But at least one part of Corbett's strategy -- to direct revenues from privatization to the schools -- may be backfiring. Even some Republicans are objecting to "Washington-style politics," faulting Corbett for trying to up the ante by joining schools to a separate debate. And as we've been noting for days now with respect to Corbett's push for a pension overhaul, this isn't the first time that Corbett risks being accused of holding schools hostage. I just wish Corbett had been so concerned about school funding when he was negotiated "severance tax" terms with the natural-gas industry.

Speaking of which ... guess what industry conference Corbett found some time to drop in on yesterday?

In today's installment of "Brimmeier Watch" ... more on the history of Joseph Brimmeier, the guy County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is said to want to put in charge of the Port Authority. By this point, the Trib's narrative of Brimmeier's stint at the Pennsylvania Turnpike may not surprise you. But of interest is Tom Corbett's assertion that his administration is "closely watching the events unfold at Port Authority." Considering how much the transit agency relies on state funding, that sounds ominous. The Post-Gazette cautions Fitzgerald to back slowly away from the appointment in an editorial today. And from what I'm hearing, plenty of folks in Fitzgerald's inner circle are disheartened by the possibility. Makes you wonder what the upside of a Brimmeier appointment would be.

No surprise here: Pennsylvania's tax structure is among the most regressive in the country, with the poorest paying 12 cents out of every dollar they earn, while the wealthy pay less than a nickle.

Senator Bob Casey is renewing a push to end the gender pay gap. Prompting Casey's announcement is a new report showing that in Pennsylvania, men earn 18 percent more than women for doing the same work. (Among older workers, the gap is even larger.) Casey favors harsher penalties for employers who discriminate, but naturally, Republicans are this as a "war on free enterprise."

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Posted By on Wed, Jan 30, 2013 at 4:19 PM

Welcome to another installment of Localism. Today, we're looking at a few Pittsburgh-based projects that are currently funding on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo:

— Local band Lovebettie is looking for $10,000 to record and release a new album and book a U.S. tour. Backers at the $300 level can get a haircut and style!

— This project, for a cool deck of cards from a local designer, is already overfunded, but you can still secure your pack of cards, so go for it! Only funding for two more days.


— Local retailer Awesome Books could use a little help.

SPEAQ is a new LGBTQA open-mic series that could use a boost from you.

Go 'head! Go fund!

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