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Monday, June 22, 2009

A quick thought on the Stadium Authority

Posted By on Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 4:12 PM

The city is all abuzz that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has yanked Deboarh Lestitian, the chair of the Stadium Authority -- presumably because she was often a dissenting voice on the five-member board. City Councilor Bill Peduto, a frequent opponent of the mayor, was bounced from the board a year ago.

This isn't a huge surprise: Rumors were rampant that Lestitian was being kept in the dark about plans to develop the North Side. But as is often the case with Ravenstahl, this sort of brazen display seems bound to backfire. Sure, Lestitian was often critical of the Steelers/Continental plan to overhaul the North Shore. But I doubt she could ever have generated as many bad headlines as Ravenstahl will generate by removing her. 

But there's another trend afoot here. Which is that Ravenstahl wouldn't be able to get away with this stuff if it weren't for the sins of his predecessors. 

It's worth remembering why we even HAVE a Stadium Authority in the first place. After all, the only building the Stadium Authority had jurisdiction over -- Three Rivers Stadium -- was torn down in 2001. Heinz Field, PNC Park, the Civic Arena ... all are governed by the Sports and Exhibition Authority. 

We have a Stadium Authority for a simple reason. The SEA is a joint city/county agency -- but the Stadium Authority's board is handpicked by the mayor alone. That's because Ravenstahl's predecessor, Tom Murphy, wanted to be able to call the shots on developing the land Three Rivers once occupied -- and to do so with no outside interference. Ravenstahl pulled the trigger on Lestitian today, but Murphy loaded the gun.

In fact, those two new stadiums wouldn't have been built if Murphy's allies hadn't been willing to yank a recalcitrant board member. Funding for new stadium construction required the support of the Allegheny Regional Assets District board, which was expected to cough up some $13.4 million a year. When one board appointee, Fred Baker, announced his opposition to the plan, Allegheny County Commissioner Bob Cranmer pressured him to resign. 

Outrageous? Sure ... although a Post-Gazette editorial justifying the political steamrolling makes for pretty amusing reading:

To a lot of politicians around Allegheny County, the commissioner's removal of a potential obstacle to an $803 million development program ... is a bald political power play ... an end-run around the public will ... the stuff of Boss Tweed and Davey Lawrence...


But for all the crying they do in their civics books, that's what people hear from any politician who ends up on the short end of a vote.

I've got a feeling the P-G will be a little less dismissive of those criticizing Ravenstahl. 

Why do I bring this stuff up now? It's not to let Ravenstahl off the hook. It's just to point out that in many ways, the city is reaping what it has sowed over decades, by countenancing strong-arm tactics in a city that already has a strong-mayor system.

I've said it before, but Ravenstahl is the best friend reformers ever had ... because his hamfistedness makes the need for reform so apparent. Time and again I've heard people say things like, "How can he expect to get away with this stuff?" But the most disturbing thing about Ravenstahl isn't that he's breaking rules. It's that he almost never has to.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Payne-ful lessons in District 6

Posted By on Wed, Jun 3, 2009 at 11:33 AM

This comes a little late, I guess, but as far as I know, no one else has taken a very close look at what happened in Pittsburgh's race for City Council District 6. Which is weird, since for lots of people this was the most surprising outcome of the May 19 primary.

So ... how did Tonya Payne, a one-term incumbent, lose to Daniel Lavelle? How could Payne, who beat Sala Udin in 2005, lose to Udin's former assistant just four years later?

On paper, these races were very similar. In both, Payne was running against either Udin or his ally. And in both, the same dark-horse candidate -- school board member Mark Brentley -- was also in the running. So how did Lavelle find the means to defeat her this time around?

The answer is simple: He didn't. Payne beat herself. 

As with most elections this May, turnout in this race was low. In the 2005 council contest, more than 4,800 votes were cast: This year, the number was just below 4,300 -- a drop of 11 percent. 

But Payne was the only candidate who suffered as a result. Lavelle won the race with 1,910 votes -- a couple dozen below his former boss's 2005 total. Brentley, too, had almost exactly the same amount of support he had 4 years ago: In 2009 he earned 696 votes -- just 13 below his 2005 total.

But Payne? She finished 486 votes short of her total in 2005 -- a drop of 22 percent. That's twice the decline in overall turnout. And that's what did her in. 

I've always been irritated when pundits say things like, "This race will be decided by turnout." Yeah, duh: The candidate who gets the most supporters to show up generally wins elections. But in this case, I think, the observation has some merit ... because Payne seems to have gotten cocky. 

Iit's safe to say that she was, well, confident going into the election. As CP's Chris Young reported, at her campaign kickoff Payne told backers, "We're absolutely going to win. It's just by a matter of how much." And it wasn't just a matter of projecting confidence to supporters, either: In an interview two months after that campaign event, Payne asked Young, "Why shouldn't I be confident? Is there a reason not to be?"

Apparently, there were a couple hundred reasons.

Perhaps the most damning result in this race is this: Payne's support fell most sharply in Ward 5, the heart of the Hill District.

A new hockey arena is going up just next door to these voters, who've been promised jobs and other community benefits as a result. Ordinarily, you'd expect the promise of development to benefit an incumbent. And yet, Payne got nearly 300 fewer votes in Ward 5 than she did  four years ago -- before anyone had ever even heard of a "Community Benefits Agreement." (She also lost ground in nearby portions of Wards 3 and 4.) 

Lavelle's campaign, not surprisingly, had faulted Payne for not doing more on the CBA. But few voters turned to him instead. He did improve on Udin's Ward 5 performance, but not enough to explain the drop in Payne's support. Apparently, more voters were turned off by Payne than were turned on by Lavelle.

I'm not sure whether this is because voters are cynical about the CBA -- they've heard job promises before, after all -- or whether they are merely cynical about Payne. Probably both. The incumbent, after all, originally supported a plan to bring a casino to the Hill, and once accused those who sought community benefits of trying to commit  "extortion."

Maybe it doesn't really matter, since Lavelle won in any case. But Lavelle should make sure he doesn't get cocky. He won with just 44.5 percent of the vote -- almost exactly the same percentage Payne earned in 2005. And while a lot of folks outside the district are excited by his victory, the numbers show little evidence that people inside the district were swept up in the enthusiasm.

Other than a modest improvement in precincts near the arena site, Lavelle did nothing to expand on the base that Udin bequeathed him. In fact, Lavelle actually lost ground in the district's North Side wards (where perhaps other voters shared Sue Kerr's doubts about his commitment to the North Side).

This election was about voters turning on Payne ... just as 2005 seems to have been about voters turning on Udin. If he's smart, Lavelle will be mindful of the trend here. 


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