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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Blue Ribbon Blues

Posted By on Wed, Oct 1, 2008 at 11:11 AM

You'd expect a press release heralding the mayor's plan to improve transparency in city government to be a little more, well, transparent. But the item that popped up in reporters' Tuesday afternoon was anything but:

"Mayor Luke Ravenstahl tomorrow will announce plans to create more transparency in City government," it read.

Transparency is a good thing, obviously -- especially in an administration that requires reporters to call the mayor's office to get permission to speak with the heads of city departments like zoning, planning and public works. the meeting could be about anything. An administration whose authorities have come under fire recently for giving contracts to politically connected high bidders. An administration where an outgoing development official, former Urban Redevelopment Authority head Pat Ford, had leveled accusations about a "culture of deception and corruption" before leaving under a cloud.

And the administration's response to those developments was similar to its response to previous controversies: Create a commission to look into the problem -- while maintaining there really isn't a problem at all -- and give it a l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g time to report back.

On Tuesday the mayor, with Councilor Ricky Burgess by his side, announced the formation of the "Pittsburgh Contracting Best Practices Commission" to focus on the "key themes of transparency, efficiency and opportunity." The commission, Ravesntahl pledged, will work with a third-party consultant to review the city's and authority's current procurement processes, along with the best practices in the private and public sector. Based on those findings, the commission will make recommendations on how to improve the city's procedures.

The new commission which will feature Burgess and fellow councilor Patrick Dowd, along with representatives of local companies like Duquesne Light and U.S. Steel, authority heads and other appointees of the mayor. These luminaries will meet within 30 days and provide recommendations within six months of its first meeting. Additionally, the mayor signed an executive order requiring that all city contracts must be backed up with a "justification form" that would explain "why the contractor was selected." That form will be posted on the city's Web site.

Like most reform initiatives these days, this one comes with some caveats. Ravenstahl noted while he will urge city authorities to use the form, those agencies are "technically independent" and wouldn't necessarily have to do so. Ravenstahl also said that despite the fact that he had just convened a commission to look into how winning contracts are selected, he didn't "believe any selection was done" improperly. But the use of "an independent, reputable third party will ensure that future decisions will follow the best practices."

Fair enough. So what about best practices when it comes to campaign financing? Earlier this year, City Council worked  to pass a campaign finance reform bill that would not only have required donors to disclose whether they or their immediate family members had won any city contracts. Some councilors have long held that there is a "pay to play" component to the awarding of city contracts. Burgess and Dowd voted for the bill, and Dowd told City Paper at the time that he thought campaign-contribution information should be posted online "in a real-time, readily accessible format."

When asked about whether this panel would study those types of disclosures, Ravenstahl said he didn't know if that was something the commission would look into. Members would "define their own scope," he said.

Then again, when Ravenstahl vetoed the campaign finance measure June 9, he pledged to, well, work for "an open and transparent" process over just such questions.

"We must share which donors are doing business with the city to end unfounded suspicions of a pay to play culture… Let us continue to work together on this issue."

When asked by CP Tuesday what he had actually done toward that end, Ravenstahl said he had been working on a plan, but wasn't sure when it would be done. "Hopefully by the end of the year," he said.

(An earlier version of this blogpost wrongly stated that Councilor Dowd voted against campaign finance reform. Sorry, councilor!)

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