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Friday, February 25, 2011

Mugshot Mania: For those who don't think OUR content is depressing enough

Posted By and on Fri, Feb 25, 2011 at 12:17 PM

On the off chance that reading City Paper hasn't sufficiently dented your faith in human nature, we've got some new reading material for you: 

Mugshot Mania

This weekly tabloid just hit the streets with its first issue Feb. 14. And it delivers exactly what the name suggests: 16 pages of mug shuts for criminals booked for everything from driving without a license to involuntary manslaughter. Some are listed as "most wanted" criminals, though its hard to see what they've done to deserve the title: along with serious offenses like homicide and rape are such relatively minor offenses as simple assault and "acccidents involving property damage."

"My intent was to put a face on local crime," says Shawn Kirkwod, the paper’s publisher. "Our intent is to educate the public about crime and help law enforcement deter crime."

The paper also features a "missing children" page, and a "registered sex offenders" gallery, whose photos you can also find at the Megan's Law website. It also boasts a sports trivia quiz (quick! Who beat Pitt in the 2007 NCAA tourney's Sweet 16 round?), an astrology column, and a word-search. (Try to find such terms as "possession," "disorderly," "harassment," and "suspicious.")

In addition, it features some content intended for those who'd like to keep their photos out of its pages. One column discusses myths about addiction and substance abuse, with a primer on the treatment available. 

The paper, which Kirkwod says is on sale at 160 stores througout the region, sells for $1. 

Media experts say publishing mugshots has become more common across the country. (The Beaver County Times, for one, publishes a weekly "Mug Shot Mondays" feature.) Most of the content, after all, is furnished at taxpayer expense. 

But as the practice becomes more widespread, so has criticism. 

Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member for ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says the papers are "pretty profitable and popular." But, she adds, "I don't think they're journalistic ... What they're selling is voyeurism."

And after all, most of the mugshots published only depict people accused of a crime -- not those who've been convicted.

Kirkwod, however, publishes a disclaimer -- "all suspsects are innocent until proven guilty" -- above each page of photos ... even those of convicted sex offenders. And Kirkwod says the publication helps create greater awareness of crime. "Is it unethical to inform people about local crime?"

Read more in next week's issue of City Paper.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Young Democrats announce endorsements

Posted By on Wed, Feb 23, 2011 at 1:26 PM

The Young Democrats of Allegheny County have announced their endorsements in the upcoming May primary. The endorsees are:

  • County Executive Rich Fitzgerald
  • County Controller Valerie McDonald Roberts
  • County Council 6 Steven Hvozdovich
  • County Council 10 Bill Robinson
  • County Council 11 Barbara Daly Danko
  • City Controller Michael Lamb
  • City Council 1 Darlene M. Harris
  • City Council 3 Bruce A. Kraus
  • City Council 5 Corey O’Connor
  • City Council 7 Patrick Dowd
  • City Council 9 Lucille Prater-Holliday

For Common Pleas Court, while there are only two slots availalbe, there was a tie for second place, so the Young Dems backed three candidates: Michael Marmo, Leah Williams-Duncan and Alex Bicket.

The Dems also backed Hugh McGough for the District Magistrate seat in the East End -- the one outgoing councilor Doug Shields is gunning for. They also endorsed Dara Ware Allen in District 2 of the city school board.

There'll be more election-related material in this space a little later today -- along with a guide to upcoming political protests. Stay tuned! 


Party-switching allegations in city council district 3

Posted By on Wed, Feb 23, 2011 at 11:45 AM

A couple developments this week in the race for City Council District 3. 

First up is a strongly worded letter in the current South Pittsburgh Reporter. The letter notes that one of the challengers in the race, Gavin Robb, registered as a Republican in 2001. The letter accuses Robb of having then "conveniently ... switched to the Democratic Party so he could run for Pittsburgh City Council." The letter continues:

Hence, our Republican turncoat, Gavin Robb, voted in Republican Primaries supporting Republicans that in turn ran against our Democratic candidates in the General Elections ...

Do we want to elect a turncoat? Does the party of George W. Bush, Rich Santorum and Sarah Palin have a place in Pittsburgh city government?

I have verified that Robb originally registered as a Republican here 10 years ago. He switched party registration in early 2009 -- roughly two years back. 

"I'm flattered to get so much attention," Robb told me. "It's good to know someone is that concerned."

Robb noted that his party switch wasn't that recent, and says that "I've always been a moderate, but I found myself aligning more with the Democrats -- thanks in part to the people identified in that letter."

In any case, Robb says,  "I had no inkling that I would be running for City Council at the time I changed my party affiliation." The move "was based solely on a change in my feelings towards both political parties and the evolution of my overall political philosophy."

Indeed, Robb has previously told me that he began weighing a run for office nine months ago. 

What's more, Robb says, "I don't think voters are really concerned about this sort of thing. I don't plan on stooping to that level."

Robb will be responding to the allegations directly, however: He plans to write a rebuttal for an upcoming issue of the Reporter.

Meanwhile, distrct 3's incumbent councilor, Bruce Kraus, took some time during Tuesday's council meeting to address some of the campaign talking points being tossed his way.

The topic on the floor was a city council proclamation honoring public employees -- timed to provide support for the ongoing labor protests in Wisconsin. But it also provided an occasion for councilors to defend their opposition to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to lease out publicly-owned parking garages -- a plan they likened to an anti-union privatization scheme. (Though proceeds from the lease would have been used to shore up union pension funds.)

Kraus noted that he and other councilors -- including council President Darlene Harris -- were facing election-year challengers, and he tied that opposition to the lease vote. 

After nothing that he's been accused of taking an anti-business approach to bar-related problems on the South Side, Kraus asserted that "not selling our parking assets to private bankers was the best pro-business decision this council has made." Council's position, he argued, protected neighborhood business districts from seeing steep parking-rate hikes. 

Yet a price was being paid on council, Kraus added: "If anybody out there thinks that this administration is not coming after sitting council members" because of the lease vote, "I've got news for you -- they are."

In any case, on balance you'd have to say Kraus is having a good week. As noted here earlier today, he also got the backing of the Young Democrats of Allegheny County. And in a statement circulated by the Kraus campaign, YDAC president Michael Phillips lauded Kraus as a "model of how to be truly engaged in the betterment [of] neighborhoods and the city." The statement backed Kraus on a variety of issues, ranging from a ban on drilling for natural gas in city limits to opposing the tuition tax. But it singled Kraus out for "his efforts to rid the city of litter and graffiti, and his plans for maintaining a safe and vibrant nightlife in the South Side and Oakland neighborhoods."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fitzgerald: Without statewide tax reform, "I'll go to jail" before sending out tax reassessments

Posted By on Tue, Feb 22, 2011 at 7:21 PM

Most political junkies know that one of the Republican candidates for county executive, Charles McCullough, is facing a date with a judge

What you may not know is that one of the Democratic candidates, Rich Fitzgerald, says he's willing to be hauled into court as well. For the good of the people, of course.

It's no secret that Fitzgerald, the county council president, opposes the ongoing reassessment of county property values. He's on record saying that reassessing propery values in Allegheny County is unfair, since nearby counties haven't reassessed their residents' homes in decades.

Still, I was surprised to hear a pledge Fitzgerald has been making on the campaign trail. As Fitzgerald put it during a political gathering on the South Side last week, if the state doesn't ensure a uniform reassessment process in all 67 counties, "[Y]ou have my commmitment that next year, those bills will not go out."

At least, that's what my notes tell me he said. At first, I was a little unsure I'd gotten that right. As Chris "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" Briem has pointed out, the property tax issue has been litigated for years now. The state Supreme Court has upheld the operative part of Judge Stanton Wettick's court order to carry out the valuations. So is Fitzgerald saying that -- if elected to the county's highest office -- one of his first acts would be to buck a ruling upheld by the state's highest court?

Well, yes.

I called Fitzgerald yesterday, and he confirmed it: "If I'm the county executive, I won't send the bills out, unless [reassesment] is done statewide."

Um. Can he actually do that? Wouldn't he be in contempt of court or something?

"I guess they could throw me in jail," he says. "And if they do, I'll go to jail. I will not send those bills out if this isn't addressed."

(ADDED: This seems an obvious point, but while contempt of court can result in incarceration, fines are a more likely penalty.)

Technically, Fitzgerald wouldn't really be spiking your bill: He'd be refusing to mail the certified valuations your bill is based on. The reassessed valuations are to be sent in January. And they're what taxing bodies will use to levy their taxes on next year. Fitzgerald, then, would effectively be freezing values at the current level.

To be sure, Fitzgerald says a courtroom standoff would not be his first choice. He notes that Democrats in the state House have proposed a measure requiring the state to solve "the vast inequities of property assessments across this Commonwealth." The bill, which is similar to one that died in the Senate last year, also imposes a moratorium on any future reassessments until the issue is addressed. (The legislation does allow counties "currently conducting a court-ordered countywide reassessment" to continue it -- but that's purely "at the discretion of the county.")

The bill is currently backed by Democrats, but Fitzgerald thinks the GOP will likely feel some pressure to support it as well. He notes that  Mike Turzai, the House majority leader, represents affluent suburbanites in the North Hills -- areas that will likely see steep increases in their tax bills under a reassement. Fitzgerald figures that the moratorium is going to look pretty good to Turzai's constituents.

Failing a legislative solution, Fitzgerald says the county should appeal the reassessment back to the state Supreme Court -- again. Fitzgerald says that in previous litigation, the county's attorneys didn't push county-to-county disparities hard enough. "The gubernatorial race came into play" he surmises: County Executive Dan Onorato was running for governor and "didn't want to be responsible for a [court ruling that required] reassessment in Erie and Fulton counties."

And what if neither the state Legislature nor the courts take action? 

Says Fitzgerald: "Assuming Plan A and B don't work -- which I think they will -- we'll go to Plan C." 

Fitzgerald allows that he might send out the bills -- if county council passes a measure requiring it and overrides his veto. But barring such action, he says, "I don't think [Wettick] is right. This should be in the hands of the county executive and county council." 

What's more, he adds, "Everywhere I go, municipal officials are passing resolutions saying, 'No, don't reassess.'"

Fitzgerald allows that freezing current values will hurt some communities -- especially hard-pressed places like Braddock, where actual property values have fallen precipitiously since the last assessment, but the tax burden remains unchanged. Still, says Fitzgerald, "The same problems exist in every county. We need to fix this statewide." 

But can a local official really just decide not to play ball until the rules change?

"You can always decide not to comply with the law," says Joe Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor with a background in local government. "But there are often unpleasant consequences." 

Mistick notes that if Fitzgerald did throw up a roadblock to the assessment process, a number of things could happen. The plaintiffs who sued to require the reassessment could file a mandamus action, which compels governmental officials to take actions they are duty-bound to execute. Or a judge could find Fitzgerald in contempt. 

Mistick doesn't think the Supreme Court will hear this matter all over again, however. "It's very rare that a court rules on a matter but then changes its mind because you say, 'Hey, come on.'" 

But ultimately, Mistick doesn't expect to see Fitzgerald clapped in irons, either. "I don't think this is a good governing strategy," he says. "But it might be a good election strategy."

And if it helps pressure Republicans like Turzai to ensure statewide tax fairness this year ... Rich Fitzgerald will have pulled off a major coup before even being elected.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Pallus formally launches council bid

Posted By on Mon, Feb 21, 2011 at 11:13 AM

Brighton Heights resident Vince Pallus has made official a development we first reported nearly three weeks ago: A short time ago, he released a statement announcing his campaign against City Council President Darlene Harris in this year's Democratic primary.


Pallus joins another contender in the race, Bobby Wilson, and has ties to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Pallus' campaign outreach is being handled by Zachary Mazefsky, who's the (fraternal) twin brother of mayoral policy director Gabe Mazefsky. Pallus also graduated from North Catholic High School, just a couple years ahead of Ravenstahl himself.

Ravenstahl would score a major coup if Harris was ousted; she won the council presidency last year by joining with an anti-mayor bloc, which has subsequently thwarted Ravenstahl's will on some key initiatives.

It's hard to avoid that subtext when you browse Pallus' nice-looking website, where you'll find assertions like this one:

Over the last four years, we’ve seen personal interests and power politics put above the well-being of everyone in our community. Together, we’ve watched what seems like an endless soap-opera of fighting within the administration , while dangerous, vacant homes continue to cripple our North Side neighborhoods, crime rates continue to soar, and roads go unpaved. 

As we've been seeing in district 3, this is becoming a meme in council races this year -- members of the Harris majority being attacked for uncivil debate, etc. 

We hope to speak with Pallus in the days ahead. For now, though, the full text of his campaign announcement follows:

Vince Pallus, 33, of Brighton Heights, announced today that he will be seeking the Democratic Endorsement for Pittsburgh City Council District 1, challenging incumbent Darlene Harris.

Vince was born and raised in Pittsburgh’s North Side, purchasing the Brighton Heights home in which his parents raised him and his three siblings.

"The reason I'm running to represent the people of the North Side is simple," said Vince. "The incumbent has made poor decisions that will negatively impact the taxpayers of the North Side and the City of Pittsburgh. I care deeply about the North Side neighborhoods, it's where I went to school, played ball, coached sports and where I call home. It's time that we elect a representative that will usher in change by putting the community's concerns first, not personal interests."

After 14 years in the private sector working his way up the ladder with a small, local business, Vince seeks to bring common-sense leadership to Pittsburgh City Council.

Vince graduated from North Catholic High School, where he later coached basketball. He is a member of the Risen Lord Parish located in the Brighton Heights neighborhood of the North Side. Vince volunteers with sports programs at North Catholic High School and for Kids' Chance of Pennsylvania.

"Over the course of my campaign, I look forward to speaking with constituents about their concerns for our community, and the changes they expect to see," Pallus said.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Local media landscape getting crowded with planned new online venture

Posted By on Fri, Feb 18, 2011 at 12:37 PM

So it looks like Charlie Humphrey, who heads up Pittsburgh Filmmakers, is launching an online news venture later this year, with help from the Pittsburgh Foundation.

Attentive City Paper readers shouldn't be surprised. We first reported on the foundation community's interest in such a venture back in June. That story came about in the context of discussions about the future of WDUQ, but clearly foundation officials were thinking about online models as well:

Grant Oliphant, who heads the Pittsburgh Foundation, notes that "much of our work involves strengthening communities." And one key to a healthy community is a public that is "engaged in decision-making and informed about what's going on." That's why, along with the Heinz Endowments especially, "We're very concerned about the future of journalism."


Local foundations have also followed the efforts of the Knight Foundation, a Miami-based grant-maker with roots in the newspaper business. Through its "New Voices" grants, Knight has helped fund upstart community journalism projects around the country -- from Oakland, Calif., to Coral Gables, Fla. 

Not all the resulting journalism has shaken the pillars of power ("Dutton/Brady [school] board approves three bus routes," read one recent Knight-funded headline) and some ventures have gone dark since getting Knight funding. But they have provided new forums for community discussion. And as a study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism notes, "some partnerships have begun between the old and the new media." Some newspapers, for example, share links and collaborate on reporting with local blogs. 

The Knight Foundation's ventures "tend to be really good models for how you could do something here," says Oliphant.

Today's news, not surprisingly, also includes Humphrey suggesting the possibility of partnerships with existing media. 

Nor is it particularly surprising to see him involved in the enterprise. Humphrey, after all, had been working as a public liasion with the foundations as they pondered WDUQ's fate. And at one time, he was the editor of the now-defunct In Pittsburgh -- an alt-weekly which predated City Paper, and which was eventually merged into it. (Full disclosure: I am a former In Pittsburgh employee myself, though I worked there after Humphrey's departure.) 

So in one way, this deal makes a hell of a lot of sense. (In fact, when I interviewed the Pittsburgh Foundation's Oliphant last summer, I recall asking him why the foundations were even thinking of trying to launch a journalism enterprise in a capital-intensive medium like radio.)

On the other hand, the venture raises some interesting questions. 

First, even though the foundations ultimately weren't involved with the sale of WDUQ, its new owners are apparently still planning to focus on local journalism. And as I said when they announced those plans, "when you consider Pittsburgh already has two daily papers -- each held by independent owners willing to sacrifice profit margins that corporate owners would insist on -- I'm not sure that the problem with journalism here is insufficient supply. It may be a lack of demand."

And I haven't even mentioned -- a hyperlocal journalism initiative launched by In recent months, has launched a series of community-level news sites in the area. Among them are sites covering areas like Regent Square and environs, Dormont/Brookline, and Upper St. Clair. Some of these sites are better than others, though there is some journalistic muscle here: Former Post-Gazette staffer Cindi Lash is a regional editor, and contributors include folks with journalistic experience (including a City Paper intern or two). 

As an alt-weekly editor, I believe strongly in having as many voices as possible. And as a reluctant capitalist, I am compelled to profess that competition is the bedrock of our society. A surplus in media outlets should -- at least in theory -- result in a winnowing process where only the best survive.

That said, I think one of the things that characterizes Pittsburgh is that there's a surplus of civic institutions -- many of which date back decades or even centuries -- while the citizenry has shrunk, and civic life has in many ways calcified.

The backers of this new venture, at least, aren't seeking to put anyone out of business. The Pittsburgh Foundation's Oliphant told the Post-Gazette today that the new venture "will hopefully supplement the traditional media in the community." I guess we'll see.

ADDED: More from the Pittsburgh Foundation on the initiative. Time to change out of those pyjamas and burnish those resumes, bloggers!

A process will begin shortly to appoint two full-time staff members, an editor and a web content manager. 


The Pittsburgh on-line news initiative will seek to work closely with regional partners in the mainstream broadcasting and print media, and initially will use a core of independent freelance journalists for news and feature story assignments.
Charlie Humphrey added: "We cannot continue to view news and information production in silos where everyone is rushing to scoop everyone else. We need to look beyond that competitive model and look for ways to strengthen all media outlets."
Like I said: I guess we'll see. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Your tax dollars still at work on FOP hoax

Posted By on Thu, Feb 17, 2011 at 2:54 PM

Courtesy of today's Post-Gazette, we learn that the District Attorney is mulling charges in the great FOP press release hoax -- which led to a police raid we first reported on last month.

Coincidentally enough, just this week The New York Times carried a story on a similarly faked news release. Seems that some Internet pranksters issued a statement suggesting that the Koch brothers -- industrialists who have helped to bankroll much of the right-wing movement -- would fund climate-change awareness and research. 

The two cases are remarkably similar. The Koch release, like the hoax FOP statement, includes a trumped-up e-mail and other contact information. It falsely attributes direct quotes to company CEO Charles Koch.

And in both cases, media tumbled to the ruse very quickly, reporting the releases as a ruse -- rather than as a genuine change of position on behalf of either the FOP or the Kochs.  Times scribe Noam Cohen puts it this way:

As spoofs go, the fake Koch news release wasn't particularly spoofy. My colleague Tom Zerller Jr., who covers environmental issues, was among the reporters who immediately sussed out the release's bogusness, noting that its content was quite implausible ... His first reporting on the release was to note that it was a spoof, though he conceded the fake news 'might have caused some climate campaigners' hearts to flutter momentarily.'"

But there is one notable difference between the Koch case and the FOP matter. Koch Industries hasn't filed criminal charges but rather a civil lawsuit -- the legal remedy generally recommended by advocates of online freedom.  (The company is claiming damages that include the "costs associated with spending time and money to respond to inquiries about the fake release," and the effort necessary to investigate its origins.)

Even at that, the Times portray's the company response as heavy-handed. Cohen's article quotes a Harvard Law School professor arguing that, "There's no category of cases that is more clearly privileged than when you are using someone else's words as a way of criticizing." 

In fact, Cohen writes, because "parody is a well-protected form of free speech," the company "is resorting to an indirect legal theory in order to get private information" identifying the identity of the hoaxer. Rather than sue for defamation -- an offense that would invite First Amendment counterarguments -- the Kochs are alleging trademark abuse, hacking, and other commercial offenses. Those allegations "give the company the rationale for going after private information" kept by the Internet host used to post the release, Cohen writes. And that information, apparently, will be used to identify specific members of the group that has taken responsibility for the stunt, Youth for Climate Truth.

The lawyer representing the pranksters, Deepak Gupta, says similar actions are often filed just to unmask an anonymous accuser. Very often, cases are withdrawn once a hoaxer is identified. 

We'll see if the FOP hoaxers in Pittsburgh get off that easily. But really, if Koch Industries can handle a trumped-up press release through civil court -- where no one is threatened with jail time -- why isn't that good enough for the FOP? And a civil suit would have another benefit too: The FOP could spend its own money trying to settle scores, rather than carrying out a grudge on the taxpayer's dime.

Political round-up: Developments in City Council races and the county exec contest

Posted By on Thu, Feb 17, 2011 at 12:40 PM

Gonna bundle up a couple different races in this dispatch, with news from City Council Districts 3 and 9, as well as initial impressions of a new entrant in the county executive race. If that doesn't interest you, Dan Savage has some advice this week for married dudes who are bored with their sex lives, and lesbians who are ecstatic about theirs.

So, last night marked a "meet the candidates" night for Ward 16 committeefolk. That ward covers much of the hilltop communities in city council district 3 (though the event was held on Carson Street, in the South Side Flats). And its chair is none other than Jeff Koch, one of the three candidates challenging incumbent Bruce Kraus.

Koch has, by his own acknowledgment, been running a somewhat under-the-radar campaign, at least as far as voters are concerned. He appears to be much more focused on rounding up support for the party's endorsement: As he told the couple dozen people attending last night, "Right now, that is my main concern -- the Democratic endorsement."

Koch kept his own remarks fairly brief. Like Kraus' two other challengers, Koch faulted Kraus for what he portrayed as a divisive leadership style -- especially where quality-of-life issues in the Flats are concerned. Koch pledged to "rebuild some of the bridges that have been strained bewteen residents, some property owners, and restaurant owners."  He also intimated that he had some ideas for resolving parking pressures in the area, though he declined to discuss those last night. 

I hope to have more about those solutions -- and a full sit-down with Koch -- sometime soon. 

Neither of Kraus' other challengers were on hand to speak last night. But for his part, Kraus reiterated many of the legislative accomplishments he discussed in this space last week. And as in that discussion, he made no apologies for a "very hardline position" on the Carson Street bacchanalia. "Some might say that's acrimonious," Kraus allowed. "I say it's governing on a law-and-order basis." 

Kraus gave some signs of being in enemy territory last night -- this is Koch's committee, after all. But clearly, Kraus needs party support less than Koch does. Kraus won without the party's backing back in 2007.  Koch, who was then the sitting councilmember, after a special election in 2006 -- had the party's backing in both his previous runs for the seat.

Still, Kraus Koch has arguably missed a chance to press his advantage this time around. The ward he chairs has at least three vacant spots which, if filled, could have cast votes in the endorsement process. As ward chair, Koch could have recommended replacements -- and presumably padded his chances of carrying the endorsement. (Though final say rests with the party's county chair, Jim Burn, he usually defers to ward chairs in such cases, unless there are problems with residency or party registration.)

The deadline for Koch to pick fill-ins, however, expired Feb. 4. 

A number of other candidates also appeared at last night's event: including Rich Fitzgerald and Michael Lamb, who is running for city controller again -- and who told committeemembers that "Maybe the most compelling reason to support me is I don't have any opposition." 

But perhaps the strangest laugh came from Marc Daffner, who is running for Common Pleas Judge. Daffner introduced himself in part by saying he had one child "that I know of." I LOLed, as the kids say. But then it occurred to me that newly elected county judges typically end up presiding over cases in the Family Division. Not sure how well jokes about paternity go over there.  

Committee battles are also ongoing in city council district 9, where incumbent Ricky Burgess faces two challengers: Lucille Prater-Holiday and Phyllis Copeland-Mitchell

There's already been some outspoken support for Copeland-Mitchell from Ward 12. Chair Jacque Fielder sent out a Feb. 15 e-mail that simply read "PUT COUNCIL DISTRICT 9 'BACK ON TRACK' ELECT PHYLLIS COPELAND-MITCHELL."

Days before that, however, Fielder also sent out a somewhat puzzling e-mail to commitee members. It seems to suggest that Fielder doesn't want candidates soliciting committee members directly for their support -- a reading Fielder denies, as we'll see. 

The e-mail reads as follows:








What's most striking about this -- at least to my eyes -- is that on the one hand, the e-mail seems to fault candidates who "make you feel ... like you can't speak for yourself and have to go through the ward chair." On the other hand, the first line of the e-mail seems to suggest ... that committee people insist on going through the ward chair. So does the last full-length paragraph there, which seems to warn committeefolk "of candidates who are trying to get around the ward chair and going straight to the committeepeople."

But Fielder says that's not the way it's intended at all. Asked by our very own Lauren Daley about whether she was trying to bar conversations with candidates, Fielder responded, "absolutely not. They speak with candidates all the time." 

Fielder says she sent the e-mail because she heard reports that candidates had complained that Fielder would not return their phone calls. And that is "not true," Fielder says.

Finally, this morning a new candidate saw another candidate entering the county executive race on the Republican side: D. Raja, a Mt. Lebanon businessman and current member of the township's board of commissioners.

Raja's entry as the third candidate for the GOP nomination was not unexpected. And at a Downtown gathering this morning, Raja positioned himselfaas a pro-business Republican. Raja runs an information-technology consulting firm, and says that what's keeping more such firms from setting down roots here is the county's "high taxes, aging infrastructure and inefficiencies." 

The talk was upbeat though, not surprisingly, short on specifics. Raja pledged to bring "fresh eyes" to government and to go beyond making "incremental changes." When asked afterwards what inefficiencies he'd be able to address, he cited "duplication of services" with the city.

"Part of the frustration," he added, is that while both the city's mayor and the county's executive are Democrats, "they have not accomplished the goal" of eliminating redundancies. 

Raja's speech urged that the county "make sure that Pennsylvania's newest industry, Marcellus Shale jobs, does not bypass Allegheny County. We need to make sure we address those environmental and safety issues so that these jobs can stay here." 

Afterwards, Raja told me that the county executive would "have to work with the state" on ensuring adequate environmental protections were in place for drilling to continue. Did he think current regulations and policing were adequate? "That's something we have to evaluate," he said. 

But there's lots of time for Raja to flesh out his views. His event was upbeat, and drew a mix of Indian Americans from the suburbs, business-suited GOP stalwarts, and a smattering of tech workers. He hails from Mt. Lebanon, which despite its reputation as a haven for cake-eaters has skewed Democratic. That suggest s he may have more appeal to moderates than, say, Tea Party candidate Patty Weaver.

And Raja has already racked up a big-name endorsement: state Senator John Pippy. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Demonizing Josie Dimon

Posted By on Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 11:08 AM

You know, being an alt-weekly editor is all about presenting alternative points of view. And since Josie Dimon is being treated as the devil -- the paramedic most blamed for the death of Curtis Mitchell during "Snowmageddon" -- I'll be the devil's advocate.

Dimon does have her champions. But righteous anger seems like the more popular response to the news that an arbitrator says the city must give Dimon her job back. On a gut level, rage seems a perfectly understandable response.

But it shouldn't be the only one.

Disclosure: I claim no special expertise here. I've mostly followed the story as a reader. Which means I have no more, and no less, expertise than many of those calling for Dimon's head. 

And maybe I'm burned out. Years ago, I came to the conclusion that if you ever felt wanted justice for being mistreated by a public-safety worker, you better prepare for disappointment. It's very difficult, for example, to charge such people with crimes based on what they do "in the line of duty." Even if you fire them for misconduct, meanwhile, union arbitration rules often result in them getting hired back. Dimon's case is not unusual.

That's why when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl tried to fire Eugene Hlavac for an alleged act of domestic violence, I urged restraint -- even though Hlavac had been accused of similar behavior before.

Nor was I particularly surprised when Paul Abel was cleared by a court after he pistol-whipped an innocent guy who ended up shot by accident -- all while Abel was off-duty and out drinking.

Generally speaking, the only "justice" one gets in these matters comes from a legal settlement when somebody sues. That's how it was in Abel's case -- and I've gotta feeling that's how it will be in the death of Curtis Mitchell too. 

But Dimon's reinstatement, it seems, is generating much greater public outcry than most such cases. (Though some critics have also directed some ire directed at Abel, too.)

On the one hand, the stakes are much higher here: Somebody died.

On the other hand, somebody easily could have died in the Abel situation. And unlike Hlavac, Dimon's career prior to this incident seems relatively uncontroversial. Nor was Dimon the only person involved in the incident that led to her firing. Other ambulances also failed to come to Mitchell's door.

Dimon, of course, is the only person caught on tape using obscenity. And all the 9-1-1 personnel involved in Mitchell's case, only Dimon can be heard expressing the sentiment that "this ain't no cab service."

In fairness, however, Dimon isn't the only person who can be heard sounding indifferent to Mitchell's fate. During a prior recorded conversation also on the tape, you can dispatchers discussing the fact that, because of all the snow, they can't drive the ambulance to Mitchell's residence. And they, like Dimon, barely seem to contemplate the possibility of walking to his home.

"Oh well, he'll be fine," one says of Mitchell. 

"I hope so," the other replies. "If he's not, I mean, we did the best we could do."

Admittedly, Dimon's sentiments are expressed on a much different, more antagonistic, level. Listening to them, it's hard to imagining your own loved being taken care of by a paramedic who talks like that. 

But here's the thing: The doctors who treat the patients saved by paramedics? Not every word that comes out of their mouth ennobles the human spirit either. People in high-stress jobs sometimes sound like assholes, especially when talking to coworkers. Happily, most of us don't have those interactions recorded. 

Which raises another point. I think it's intriguing that Ravenstahl's office publicly released 9-1-1 tapes in the matter on March 24, just weeks after the incident. 

Compare that to the administration's handling of, say, its stonewalling about police actions during G-20. Or its ginger handling of the Jordan Miles incident, where despite early promises to release a report to the public, nothing has happened in more than a year.  

It's worth noting that in Pennsylvania, 9-1-1 tapes are not public records. Judges or other officials can release them if they decided "that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the interest in nondisclosure." But that's their call, and as far as I can tell, they are under no obligation to be consistent. (City Paper, for one, has had requests for tapes in unrelated matters -- but cases we'd argue are clearly in the public interest -- rejected.)

Could it be that administration officials were more willing to release material in this case ... because doing so could take the attention off their own sins? (Ravenstahl and his public safety director were, famously, out of town the night the storm struck, celebrating he mayor's birthday.) The case could be made.

I won't say Dimon is being made a scapegoat here. We generally think of "scapegoats" as being innocents. And Dimon was involved in the chain of events that led to Mitchell's death.

But is she bearing more than her share of the blame? That's a different question.

Just for the sake of argument: Let's assume that, as the arbitrator's report suggests more than once, Dimon has been a city employee for more than a decade, and has generally been a good one. And let's also assume that Dimon is telling the truth when she told her supervisors "[w]e physically walked calls both before and after this call."

If these things are true, can we judge her professional attitude by what a few seconds of tape? And if we set aside what she says on the tape, was her behavior any worse than that of other ambulance drivers who also didn't go to Mitchell's door? And hey -- at least all those paramedics were on the scene during a natural disaster. Not everyone in the chain of command can say the same. 

To some people, I realize, none of those arguments change the facts. For them, saying Dimon had a sterling career prior to Mitchell's death is like asking Mrs. Lincoln how she enjoyed the rest of the play. For them, Dimon should be treated purely on the basis of what she did, or failed to do. Nobody else's actions, or inactions, have any bearing on the question. You can't argue against a speeding ticket by pointing to how other people drive. And even if everyone else in this matter should be fired, that's not a reason for Dimon to keep her job. 

If that's your argument, OK. I've done my best devil's advocacy. We probably even agree that there is something deeply wrong with the arbitration process.

But such issues call for a broader conversation. And making Dimon the archfiend, it seems to me, here makes that conversation less likely.

Is Dimon being singled out? Sure feels like it. And maybe we ought to save some of our anger for a bigger fight.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fetterman gets national press ... and this time it ain't a puff piece

Posted By on Fri, Feb 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM

For fans of all things John Fetterman, Sue Halpern's story on the mayor of Braddock is a must-read.

The story is online today in the New York Times Magazine. (The print edition will be available in the Sunday copy of the paper.) And when compared to the media coverage Fetterman has gotten elsewhere, Halpern's piece takes a more jaded view. (Full disclosure: Halpern interviewed me for this piece, though I'm not quoted in the story and -- as far as I can tell -- had very little impact on it.) 

Just for example, Halpern offers some not-unexpected criticism of that famous Levi's ad campaign:

Billboards with Braddock, Pa., along the bottom appeared in Times Square and across the country. They featured portraits of some of the finer-looking denizens of the town, like Dave Rosenstraus, whose company, Fossil Free Fuel, was the one new business in town (which recently spawned another, still with the same partners); Jack Samuel, a member of a straight-edge-vegan-punk-rock collective; and Deanne Dupree, whose boyfriend was the last homicide in town. They carried the affirming slogan "Everybody’s Work Is Equally Important," which had a touch of irony in a place where so many people cannot find jobs.  

The story notes that, for all the ink Fetterman has gotten for trying to bring artists and other pioneers to town,only two dozen have actually moved there. And some of them didn't know what they were getting into. One artist confesses to having been "a little blinded by the image of Braddock that has been portrayed by the media, that all this place is is an artist’s compound." Another couple, meanwhile, has spent $60,000 trying to rehabilitate a home they paid $5,000 for. They are now broke, and purchased a shotgun "because it is more intimidating than a handgun."

Some native Braddockers sound disillusioned as well. Of one longtime resident bemused by Fetterman's initiatives, Halpern writes:

Nothing that was happening in Braddock -- not the green roof on the old furniture store, not the screen printing studio run by members of a socially-conscious arts collective, not beehives, not the Shepard Fairey art installation on a nearby wall, not the Levi’s ad campaign -- has changed the most essential facts of his life: he is poor and without prospects. 

Some of these complaints aren't new. City Paper itself has reported on some of the discontent among residents. And when UPMC shut down Braddock Hospital, Fetterman has sometimes ended up squabbling with those trying to save it.

Even the glowing media coverage has been a double-edged sword. Magazines like Rolling Stone sometimes seem to bulid Fetterman up by tearing Braddock down -- by referring to him as the "Mayor Of Hell," for example. That coverage ain't Fetterman's fault, of course. But you can't blame residents for, as Halpern puts it, "resent[ing] that one man's vision is represented as their collective vision" -- even if that man's vision is genuinely doing some good. 

In fact, one interesting, and previously underreported, aspect of Halpern's piece is its implication that Fetterman has created his own pseudo-government. Fetterman has long been at odds with Braddock's borough council -- which holds most of the actual decision-making authority. And so, Halpern writes:

Fetterman built a back door -- he started a nonprofit organization called Braddock Redux, financed until recently primarily by family money. (His father is its largest individual donor.)

... By heading a nonprofit that is a major property owner, the mayor was able to advance what he calls his "social-justice agenda" without having much political power, or the burden of it, either. 

And I have to note this irony: Halpern characterizes Fetterman's experiments as "a sampling of urban renewal trends" ... including "championing the creative class to bring new energy to old places (an approach popularized by Richard Florida)." Take it from me, the guy who Fetterman once accused of writing a "slobbering rim job" about Florida ... this ain't exactly the company Fetterman would choose to be identified with.

In the end, though, Halpern's piece reads less as an attack on Fetterman, than as an attempt to question some of the adulation he receieves.

Braddock as a brand -- as a vision, or a viral idea -- has been a tremendous success. The Levi's campaign is just one example. At least in the national mindset, Fetterman has remade its image completely: Instead of a decaying steel town nobody cares about, it has assumed a role in the national consciousness far out of proportion to its size. But while Braddock's image has been reborn, the reality is proving far more stubborn.

Halpern's piece begins with Fetterman receiving ovations at a forum to discuss "how ideas can change the world." The story ends by showing how vacuous that kind of rhetoric can be. Braddock needs more than ideas, or brash "pioneers." It needs more money than Fetterman can bring. Its people need jobs and investment, as well as government officials at every level willing to help put the town back on its feet. 

But if Braddock ain't living up to its celebrity profile, that isn't Fetterman's fault. Nothing in Halpern's story makes me think he isn't trying his damndest. Really, you can only fault Fetterman if you assume one guy -- hamstrung by century-old governmental institutions and decades-old economic neglect -- can remake a community overnight.

The fault, if there's any to lay here, lies precisely with those of us who do make that assumption. Those who want to believe a guy like John Fetterman can pull off a miracle -- so the rest of us won't have to bother. 


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