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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Are gloves coming off in Penguins/Hill dispute?

Posted By on Tue, May 31, 2011 at 5:09 PM

Hill District leaders are used to dropping the gloves with the Pittsburgh Penguins. But as their criticism of the team has mounted, the Hill District Consensus Group says the hockey team's president recently directed a cryptic threat to the neighborhood group's leader.

According to Carl Redwood, convener of the Consensus Group, Penguins President David Morehouse was "fuming" after Redwood addressed City Council on May 23 at the Hill District's Epiphany Catholic Church, where members of the public voiced their feelings about the Penguins' plan to demolish the Civic Arena. In his comments to council, Redwood criticized the team for offering little back to the community in exchange for lucrative development deals.

"Morehouse came up to me right after I spoke and said, 'Where I come from, when you get sucker-punched, you punch back,'" Redwood tells City Paper. "We can't even speculate as to what that means."

Today, the Consensus Group issued a press release about the exchange. Titled "Discussions of Multi-Million $ Subsidy for Civic Arena Demo turn ugly: Pens President Lashes out in anger at Hill District Consensus Group," the release states that "While the meaning behind Mr. Morehouse's words is unclear, it would seem that the Penguins would prefer not to have the public subsidies they receive discussed in public forums."

Penguins officials could not immediately be reached for comment. But Redwood's May 23 criticism of the team was scathing. 

During his address to City Council, Redwood fretted that the Penguins won't have to foot the bill for tearing down the Civic Arena or preparing the site for future development. "Where is the community benefit in this deal?" asked Redwood, whose group favors demolishing the arena. "The Penguins expect the public ... to pay for the demolition and the site prep and then turn the land over to them to collect all parking revenue and future revenue."

Some community benefits are already apparent: The Penguins have pledged $1 million toward the Hill District grocery store expected to open in November. But Redwood maintains that the value of subsidies and development rights given to the team could reach $1 billion. "Where is the other $999 million?" he asked. "It is $999 million in profit for the rich people in the Penguins Corporation."

The Penguins currently operate roughly 2,500 parking spaces in lots surrounding Mellon Arena, generating anywhere from $7-15 per parking space for the team. Late last year, the Consensus Group launched a campaign to get the Penguins to allocate $1 per car toward a community fund that would, for example, help pay for a bus loop through the Hill District.

The Consensus Group estimates that the fund would generate roughly $600,000 a year for the neighborhood. But the Penguins want nothing to do with it.

"As Gandhi said, 'First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,'" Redwood announced during a May 13 Consensus Group meeting. "We're in the ignore phase right now."

Maybe not for much longer.

Belated election analysis: city council district 9 reflects Burgess strength, progressive weakness

Posted By on Tue, May 31, 2011 at 2:16 PM

A bit of belated election analysis from city council district 9, where Ricky Burgess won a three-way race in which he got exactly 50 percent of votes (not counting a handful of write-ins).

I haven't said much about the results here, mostly because I figured Burgess to win this race ever since it became clear he'd be running against two female challengers, both with hyphenated last names: Lucille Prater-Holliday, and Phyllis Copeland-Mitchell. If you were deliberately trying to split an opposition vote, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better scenario. And at first blush, election results appeared to confirm that Burgess squeaked by because the two women split the opposition vote in two, with Prater-Holliday getting the much larger share. 

But I took a second look at the race after being pointed to this Pittsburgh Courier piece by Louis "Hop" Kendrick, long a fixture of black political life. In Kendrick's view, Burgess has won a victory not just over his two rivals, but over an entire political machine intent on ousting him: 

Allow me to put the victory of Councilman Burgess in perspective, because it was a total victory. How? He defeated six Democratic chairpersons, five unions and four sitting Pittsburgh Council people ... Those outside forces that sought to remove Ricky Burgess absolutely do not have the best interest at heart when it comes to the residents of the 9th council district.

Kendrick is referring to a series of setbacks Burgess had to overcome this year. He failed to win the backing of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee; he also lost the endorsement of the Allegheny County Labor Council and other labor groups. And obviously, council's progressive majority would not have mourned his departure. Just today, Burgess released a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett calling for more rigorous review of the city's pension fund, and the potential return of the mayor's plan to lease public parking garages. Not surprisingly, it also denounces the as-yet-untested solutions proposed by the mayor's foes. 

So is that majority indeed The Oppressor here? I've argued recently that we may be seeing the rise of a progressive "machine," with its own network of supporters and candidates. Kendrick's exultation over defeating these "outside interests" may sound like confirmation of that theory.

But on closer inspection, the outcome in District 9 suggests that the progressive "machine" still has some problems under the hood. 

For one thing, the "outside forces" never agreed on which candidate to back, and often worked at cross-purposes. To take the most obvious example, Prater-Holliday got the Labor Council's backing -- but Copeland-Mitchell won the party endorsement

Even the progressives themselves were split. Phylilis Copeland-Mitchell got the backing of the 14th Ward Democratic Club ... while Prater-Holliday got support from the Young Democrats, the Sierra Club, and Progress Pittsburgh

But when you drill down into the district-by-district voting returns, the larger trend becomes clear: Even if progressives had been united on a challenger, it's not clear it would have mattered. Burgess has, in his first term of office, outgrown his need for progressive support. 

If you just look at the total vote, Burgess would seem to have posted near-identical tallies in 2007 and 2011: In both races, he finished with 50 percent of the vote. But a closer look shows that the 50 percent he got this time around was a different cohort of voters. 

When Burgess first won the office, in 2007, he did so with help from voters in the progressive heartland. While District 9 is mostly black, and much of it is economically distressed, it also includes portions of Point Breeze -- a more affluent, whiter neighborhood that makes up a chunk of the mighty 14th Ward.

Back in 2007, Burgess was the favorite of those voters; In a 8-way race, nearly 55 percent of the district's Ward 14 voters supported him. Elswhere in the district, he earned just under 48 percent of the vote. It's safe to say that Burgess won the race by carrying Ward 14, and finishing no worse than a strong second in almost every other precinct. Geographically speaking, Ward 14 isn't that large a chunk of his district -- but it accounted for 20 percent of the votes cast in the 2007 race.

This time around, by contrast, Burgess lost the 14th ward, earning only 37 percent of the vote there, to Prater-Holliday's 42 percent. Copeland-Mitchell got 20 percent of the vote ... no doubt including some of those 14th Ward Clubbers.

Burgess' decline in Ward 14 no doubt reflects mounting disenchantment there. Burgess has been tight with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his circle, a bete noir for many progressives. What's more, he's complained that affluent neighborhoods get an undue share of resources that properly belong to poorer communities.

That's not the best way to win votes south of Penn Avenue. But Burgess doesn't have to worry. While his support dropped in Ward 14, he made up the difference by consolidating his support in the heavily African-American portions of the district: This time around, he got nearly 54 percent of all non-14th ward votes.

As a result, even if Prater Holliday got all of Copeland-Mitchell's 191 votes in Ward 14, she'd have been well short of what she needed to topple Burgess.

In fact, Copeland-Mitchell turned out to be something of a paper tiger in this race. From the outset that she was the candidate preferred by Ward 12 chair Jacque Fielder. But Fielder's backing translated into very few votes: Copeland-Mitchell finished last in Ward 12 too, though that was where she performed the strongest.

Prater-Holliday did better, but not nearly well enough: Outside of Ward 14, she won only 4 out of 48 voting precincts.

Having written an account of Progressivism Triumphant this election season, I feel obliged to note that this primary result has some cautionary notes as well. It's one thing for progressive incumbents to hold onto their own council districts: That's playing defense. The one race where they played offense was in District 9, and despite the best efforts of go-to campaign guy Matt Merriman-Preston, it didn't pan out.

And it's worth remembering that if progressives have hopes for a 2013 mayoral campaign, these are neighborhoods and voters they have to connect with. As the indispensible Chris Briem  noted just after the last mayoral primary,

You can't win a Democratic primary if you have absolutely no support from what is the largest, and often the most cohesive, block of votes in the city. African Americans at this point likely make up just about 30% of the city’s population which translates to maybe 40% of Democratic households.

Progressives have been trying: Initiatives like the city's prevailing wage bill, which was supported SEIU, guarantees higher-than-minimum wages for service-sector employees -- a measure that attempts to connect with working-class voters of all races. And you may be seeing more such initiatives in the future

Still, there's work to be done. ouncil's progressive majority is all-white, and they tend to hail from mostly-white neighborhoods. Connecting with black voters is both a moral imperative and a political necessity.

Kendrick is probably half-right: Burgess' victory does reflect his strength as a candidate. But it also reflects some areas of progressive weakness. And if they're going to build on this year's success, they'll have to do something about it. 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Code Blue! Who wins in healthcare fracas?

Posted By on Sat, May 28, 2011 at 4:58 AM

They may get lost in the holiday weekend, but both our dailes have stories about the ongoing clash of healthcare titans, and they are well worth reading.

UPMC, the region's biggest healthcare  provider, and Highmark, our biggest health insurer, have been on the outs for months -- with a marked escalation in tensions since Highmark announced a willingness to partner up with the ailing West Penn Allegheny Health System (WPAHS). On the surface, today's story concerns a technical dispute over when a contract between the two entities expires: Will Highmark's network cease covering UPMC facilities in 2012, or 2013? But this somewhat arcane battle gives you an interesting look at the broader war.

Highmark insists that its contract with UPMC doesn't end for another two years, and accuses UPMC of having "mounted a communication campaign aimed at frightening Highmark policyholders." UPMC, for its part, says their contract ends next June, and faults Highmark for "having announced its intention to compete with UPMC as a provider" of healthcare. 

"UPMC has a responsibility to ensure that the highest quality care is widely accessible and affordable for the largest number of people," the hospital chain contends. And the way to ensure access for the largest number of people, apparently, is to walk away from an agreement with the outfit most likely to be insuring them. 

But put aside such concerns -- and whatever amusement you derive from hearing UPMC laud the virtues of competition in the healthcare market. A couple things jump out at you about this fracas.

First, these are the two healthcare entities that the WPAHS, the parent of Allegheny General Hospital, accuses of being a collusive monopoly

Second, doesn't Highmark's position here look pretty weak? The guy with the strongest negotiating position, it seems to me, is the one who is most willing to get up from the table. And that sounds like UPMC, which is making lots of noise about welcoming new insurers to the market. Not to mention the fact that UPMC has an insurance operation of its own. (Which, by the way, makes it a little hard to be sympathetic to complaints about Highmark's willingness to compete: UPMC has been encroaching on Highmark's turf for years.) 

Conversely, when Highmark says UPMC is scaring customers, it seems like an acknowledgement that UPMC has lots of leverage ... and Highmark doesn't want the hospital chain to use it. 

In any case, at the moment, it seems easier to bring new insurance companies into the market than it is to import a rival hospital chain. UPMC has recently struck deals with national insuers CIGNA, Aetna, and UnitedHealthcare.

By contrast, while Highmark is enjoying big revenues today, who does it have to work with down the road? There are independent healthcare providers in the region: St. Clair Hospital leaps to mind. And I'm sure if Highmark did move ahead on plans to partner with WPAHS, the two entities could settle the WPAHS lawsuit. The larger concern may be that -- as is also being reported this weekend -- WPAHS has seen a nearly 20 percent decline in admissions over the past year.

On some level, it's hard to imagine Highmark and UPMC not working something out. Not so long ago, after all, Highmark invested more than $200 million so UPMC could have a nice, shiny new Children's Hospital. But whatever this battle means for UPMC and Highmark, though, the real question is what impact it will have on consumers. Medicare consumers will be unaffected by this squabble, which is nice. But like some others, I suppose, I can't help but be reminded of an old proverb: When elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Through a Glass(man) darkly: antigay group takes parting shot at Pittsburgh's newest resident

Posted By on Fri, May 27, 2011 at 2:31 PM

Stephen Glassman, the longtime head of the state's Human Relations Commission, is coming to Pittsburgh. And as he heads out the door, his old foes at the American Family Association of Pennsylvania have a final kick in the ass for him. 

The AFA is one of those "family values" conservative groups. You know the kind: When some legislator in Oklahoma denounces Pittsburgh as a veritable Sodom-on-the-Mon, the AFA is the first to agree. You might think they'd be ecstatic over the news that Glassman will be heading up the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, where he'll take over from the departing Ann-Marie Lubenau

But the AFA is taking this one last chance to urge Corbett to fire him.

Glassman is gay -- and in fact proudly claims to be Pennsylvania's first openly gay state official. The AFA contends that he has been "using the force of law to demand that all Pennsylvanians celebrate the homosexual lifestyle." That no doubt explains why it's now mandatory for Pennsylvanians to attend at least one Liza Minelli concert a year.

In any case, the AFA worries that  the announcement of Glassman's new post "offered no indication that he was leaving his position as Chairman of the PHRC." So they decided to force the issue:

Ever since Governor Rendell 'promoted' Glassman from commissioner to the chairman of the Commission he has used that position to push his agenda -- but what do you expect when you appoint a homosexual activist? We are asking Governor Corbett to do the right thing for Pennsylvania and choose a Chairman that better reflects the majority of Pennsylvanians."

I'm not sure why the AFA felt obliged to put "promoted" in quotes ... does it not count as a real promotion when gay people are involved or something? But this is one time where the AFA may actually be happy with something reported in City Paper: Glassman is, in fact, leaving his state post. 

"What's so humorous about [the AFA statement] is I've already resigned," Glassman said when I reached him by phone. "I guess they haven't spotted it. But I've submitted my resignation, only because I've accepted this very exciting position in Pittsburgh. And in order to take it, I can't do the job of being chair of the commission."

Glassman's resignation is effective June 30, he says -- a date he chose to give Corbett time to settle on a replacement. 

Glassman looks back with pride on the eight years he spent at the head of the commission. In that time, he says, municipalities all across the state have created their own human-rights ordinances, and empanelled commissions to help enforce those rules. Among other accomplishments, the state commission also helped shepherd through an anti-bullying policy in Philadelphia schools, and played a significant role in the notorious Valley Swim Club case, in which black children were ousted from a private swimming club in suburban Philadelphia. 

Rendell, says Glassman, "was so supportive of every initiative I wanted to do -- and I did a lot of out-of-the-box things." And he admits that the move to Pittsburgh was prompted in part by Corbett's victory in last year's election. "The change of administration had a great deal to do with my [departure]. I don't feel I'm going to be supported in the work I was doing there. So maybe it's time for somebody else to take the reins who is in the same party." 

Glassman says it's too early to lay out a vision for what he hopes to accomplish at the Design Center, which advocates for and assists good design throughout the built environment. But he's clearly a big-picture guy.

Glassman is moving into a new loft in East Liberty's Penn Circle area -- "East Liberty is an exciting place to be -- I come from not only an architectural background, but also the civil-rights movement. And I didn't want to be somewhere that was isolated from minority populations."

I noted that East Liberty's redevelopment had already raised inevitable concerns about gentrification, and asked whether such issues could be addressed in his new position. 

"Just before you called," he said, "I was on the phone with a city official talking about legislation that would help protect local residents from being priced out of the market." Such a proposal would work by keeping property taxes stable while a resident remained in the home -- and when the property was sold, a portion of the proceeds would revert back to the city, with interest.

"That way, the city isn't out any money from lost revenue," Glassman says. "I think there are all kinds of public-policy things you can do to address these problems."

And who knows? Since he's techincally retaining his HRC chairmanship for another few weeks, maybe Glassman could make a phone call to another city official, Rev. Ricky Burgess. Who, once again, is a no-show in the official PrideFest magazine. If you take a look on page 7 of the guide to this summer's gay-pride activities, you'll see that Pittsburgh City Council members are welcoming the LGBT festivities. With one notable exception.

Can you see what's missing from this picture?
  • Can you see what's missing from this picture?

Yes, Burgess, the city's District 9 councilor, is missing from the roll call of councilors listed on the ad.

No surprise here: Blogger Sue Kerr pointed out Burgess' disappearance from the same ad last year, and more recently she's noted his somewhat equivocal position on a resolution to urge state officials to ban discrimination against LGBT Pennsylvanians. And back in 2008, not only was Burgess the lone opponent of a domestic-partner registry, but he tried to conceal himself in a photo taken of council members with officers from the Delta Foundation, which organizes PrideFest.

I'd take Burgess over the folks at the American Family Association, of course. But even so, looks like Glassman may find one or two familiar things in his new surroundings. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Parking Break: the parking biz revels in Pittsburgh

Posted By on Thu, May 26, 2011 at 11:52 AM

Parking in Pittsburgh has always been a problem. The Mon Wharf floods as often as the Ganges. Downtown garages fill up by 8 a.m. And then there are the tickets, and the dreaded "boot."

But the parking industry has a fun side, too -- and it was on display this week at the International Parking Institute's Conference and Expo, held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.


"People can think the parking industry is pretty boring," says Cindy Campbell, chairwoman of the IPI. "I've never met so many good, decent people. The parking industry is a people industry and you may not see that, but it's the way it should be. We're not just heartless, terrible people giving citations."

How does parking industry cut loose?


  • Game shows: The enforcement company PayLock sponsored its own version of Family Feud, which had music, blinking lights and lots of clapping from attendees. Convention insiders said the company is known for its showmanship, and last year used a coffin and pall bearers as props.
  • Free swag: If you didn't think the parking industry didn't have a sense of humor, you'd be surprised. Among the free t-shirts spotted at the convention included "I LOVE PARKING TICKETS," a play on the famous Hooters restaurant t-shirt but featuring a parking boot, and one that read "Scofflaw."
  • Lots of new tech: Think Robotic parking systems, where you drive your car into a garage, punch in your money and the car is parked for you ... by a robot. Not the kind from The Jetsons. More of a robotic grid -- cars go on blocks that are moved around, kind of like a big Tetris grid. The technology can go into existing or new garages. "You can fit in the same space twice as many vehicles," says Rod Kirby of Boomerang Systems, who had a robotic parking display.
  • Going Green: The industry has geared itself toward lowering its carbon footprint, says Campbell, and much of that was on display from mobile parking apps that allow you to reserve spots online, from your smartphone or over the phone, to parking guidance systems, which inform drivers what lots have spaces open, and even show you where they are in garages and lots. "It really lowers emissions by avoiding people driving around in circles and circles looking for a spot."

But what of the notorious "boot," the metal clamp that anyone with five or more outstanding parking tickets in the city of Pittsburgh fears?

Plenty of "enforcement companies" were on hand to show off their take on the product, and the guys at Rhino Vehicle Immobilizer were kind enough to show us how the damn thing works. Suffice it to say you really DON'T want to drive your car withone of these on; the device clamps onto your brakepads.

We also talked with Chris Williamson, vice president of manufacturing at Miti Manufacturing, who makes the Rhino.

CP: You guys are kind of the villains of parking for people who have outstanding tickets.

CW: The boot is much cheaper then being towed. No one likes boots, but in the long run it's cheaper.

CP: So these don't damage vehicles?

CW: Most clamp right on the back and use a key. There's another model that wraps around your tires and can hurt it. Some cities don't care, though.

CP: Can people take off the boots on their own?

CW: It's made of steel. And it's all about time. If you take the time, but think about it: In five, 10, 15 minutes, someone's going to come by, you know? But if someone hooked up a chain to [a boot] from another car and drove off, would it work? Yeah. But that takes time.

CP: Who primarily uses your boot?

CW: Municipalities and universities, but for two different reasons. Municipalities want the revenue. Universities are more about compliance. Kids park where they don't want them to so at the beginning of the semesters you'll see a flood of boots so it sends a message.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A final (?!?!) plea for reforming finance reform

Posted By on Wed, May 25, 2011 at 6:55 PM

So the election is over, and the campaign-finance reform kerfluffle has abated -- at least for the moment. City councilor Ricky Burgess has proposed legislation to scrap the city's limits on campaign contributions entirely, but his repeal is currently in limbo, pending a public hearing. And based on the discussion in council chambers last week, the debate is shaping up as a stark choice: Leave the ordinance as is, or gut it entirely.

During a May 19 council meeting, Burgess sought a legal opinion from the city Law Department about the ordinance's "legality, workability [and] enforceability." Burgess contended that while his own campaign had followed the rules ("I passed [the legislation], and I followed what I passed. I'm a man of my word") others had not. And while he said he was open to preserving the law, he had concerns that the measure was unworkable. While it "looks good on the outside," he opined, "when you look into it carefully, it's hollow, and has no value."

The other side's position seems just as entrenched. Bruce Kraus, who was the first councilor accused of violating the law, pledged, "I would never vote for the insanity of repealing campaign finance reform." Fellow councilor Doug Shields grumbled, "If I could vote [Burgess' repeal] down today, I would." 

It would be easy for Shields, Kraus, and the other members of council's majority to do just that. But I've argued before that this would be a bad idea, because Pittsburgh's campaign finance law as written is incomplete. It borrows its structure from federal regulations, but lacks the necessary reporting and oversight to make those regulations work. 

I've got another example of the law's shortcomings, which will be the basis of this final (I hope) argument for trying to reform the reform. Because as it turns out, there's a previously undiscussed loophole in the law ... one that allows contributors to potentially triple the amount they are permitted to give a candidate for city office.

Here's the loophole: An executive with, say, an engineering firm could donate the legally permitted maximum ($1,000 for individual donors) to a city candidate. The same executive could then donate money to a separate political committee -- one associated with his engineering firm, for example. And that firm could ALSO donate the legally permitted maximum ($2,000 for committees) to the candidate. That would allow the executive to triple his donation, to $3,000 in all. 

This isn't just hypothetical speculation on my part. I got the idea by looking at this year's campaign-finance reports. Specifically those of Ricky Burgess.

Before I go any further, a couple caveats. As we'll see, Burgess has done nothing wrong here, and neither have his contributors. The pattern I'm about to describe may well crop up in other candidates' reports; I haven't checked. In any case, the loophole is large enough that a city official could be benefiting from it, without even realizing the fact. The only reason I paid special attention to Burgess' report is that he filed it late, and he had a small enough roster of contributors that I could wrap my head around the sums involved.

In any case, here's what happened:

In late April, two of Burgess' individual contributors -- Robert Agbede and George Miles -- gave Burgess $1,000 each. Under the campaign-finance ordinance, that's as big a donation as Burgess could spend this spring. 

Agbede and Miles are both executives with ATS-Chester Engineers, which does water-management work for all kinds of public- and private-sector clients. (Full disclosure: My father was once an employee of Chester.) And like a lot of big firms, ATS-Chester has a political committee of its own. And on the very same date of Burgess recorded Agbede's contribution -- April 28 -- it also recorded receiving another $2,000 from the PAC. 

So where does that committee raise the money it donates? This year, at least, it got a lot of its money from Robert Agbede and George Miles.

According to a report filed earlier this year, ATS-Chester started 2011 with less than $600 in the bank. But in early March, the committee got a cash infusion from Agbede and Miles, who contributed a total of $5,000 between them. (The committee is also carrying a $10,800 debt owed to Agbede, reflecting a loan he made to it.) Weeks later, the committee made its contribution to Burgess.

Am I suggesting that Miles and Agbede are just using the committee to get around city limits? Absolutely not. The committee's been around since at least 2004 -- a lot longer than Burgess has been in politics. And Miles and Agbede weren't the committee's only donors: It also took in $3,100 in contributions of $50 or less. (The law does not require those contributions to be itemized, so we can't say who made them.) Moreover, Burgess isn't ATS-Chester's only beneficiary: The committee also gave $4,000 to county executive candidate Mark Patrick Flaherty, for example. More donors and recipients will likely appear in future reports. 

But here's the point: If you wanted to, you could set up committees that were intended to be mere pass-throughs -- tripling your contribution and your influence. What's more, that extra influence would be harder to track: Some citizens might be geeky enough to check which committees are donating to the candidates. But not many are pathological enough to look into who is donating to the donors.

And all of this would be legal. Pittsburgh's ordinance says nothing at all about creating or using commitees to serve as conduits for additional donations. 

In the world of campaign-finance reform, that is an unusual omission.

Federal law, which has been cited as a model for the city's ordinance, does regulate such "earmarked" contributions. If an individual gives money to a committee, and then instructs that committee to donate the money to a particular candidate ... that money counts toward the individual's contribution limit. An executive could either give the maximum directly to the candidate, or through a committee ... but he or she couldn't do both.

Philadelphia, which has its own campaign-finance law, seems even stricter. Under the Philly law, if you contribute through a campaign and then "direct, suggest, or request" that the money be targeted toward  specific candidate, then the amount contributed counts against both your contribution limit and that of the committee.

I'll be honest: I have my doubts about whether such language could be enforced in Pittsburgh. The FEC regs, for example, say that the "instruction" about where to direct money can be "direct or indirect, express or implied." It's a little hard to imagine local officials here exercising that level or scrutiny -- or subtlety.  There are already doubts about whether even the bill's most straightforward provisions can be policed.

But the point here is this: The city's law, as written, has some holes in it. Maybe not all of them can be closed, but they ought to be discussed. I don't think there's any shame in taking a look at how the law is working, and seeing whether it can be improved. The shame, in fact, would be in not doing that.

Council's majority can simply vote down Burgess' measure and be done with it. But if that's all they do ... then the reform may end up dying anyway. It'll just take a little longer.

Essential Public Media fleshes out vision for WDUQ

Posted By on Wed, May 25, 2011 at 6:52 PM

[Editor's note: Earlier today, the folks who hope to run the new WDUQ-FM released a statement about their plans for the station, which we summarized here. As part of the effort to roll out their vision, execs with Essential Public Media have been meeting with reporters today. Our very own Chris Young sat down with them and filed this report.] 

WDUQ's would-be owners plan to transform 90.5 FM into a news-heavy station dedicated to in-depth local reporting and NPR programming -- while directing jazz listeners to the Internet and a HD radio channel for their music fix.

Officials with Essential Public Media, which is in the final stages of acquiring WDUQ's frequency from Duquesne University, met with reporters today to outline plans for the new station, which they expect to officially launch July 1. They emphasized that the new format will provide Pittsburgh with a "full-service news footprint," including a local interview program and expanded NPR programming.

"We've done extensive research, and what we've learned is that Pittsburgh is one of only two cities in the top radio markets without a full-service NPR news station," EPM chair Marco Cardamone told City Paper. "There are stories that are not being told."

To help fill the local-news void, Cardamone says EPM is currently developing two programs: Essential Pittsburgh, a daily, hour-long interview/call-in show focused on important issues affecting the Pittsburgh region; and Sounds of the City, a weekly feature program broadcasting an "audio collage" of sound bites and stories local people and institutions.

(Cardamone says Essential Pittsburgh will sound more like an NPR interview program than, say, Marty Griffin's daily talk show on KDKA. "We abhor the whole celebrity news and the partisan yacking," he assures.)

In addition to those two programs -- more will eventually be developed -- Cardamone says EPM will dedicate more time and resources to reporting local news. Rather than merely reading headlines from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he says, reporters will be tasked with delving deeper into local events and issues.

"How many times have you listened to a story on WDUQ and said, 'Now what's the story behind that?'" he asks. "Our local news objective is to beef up what is already being offered."

As for NPR, Cardamone says, 90. 5 will carry "all the shows you know and love" -- Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Car Talk, This American Life -- "and a lot more."

Jazz programming will be expanded from 100 to 174 hours per week under EPM ... but only six of those hours will be heard on 90.5 FM. To hear the rest, listeners will either have to visit EPM's Internet audio stream or purchase an HD receiver so they can listen to jazz 24/7 on an HD channel.

According to Cardamone, six hours of jazz will air on 90.5 Saturdays from 6 p.m. to midnight. He says the weekly program will likely feature live concerts, including shows hosted by Manchester Craftsmen's Guild Jazz. The HD channel and the Internet stream, on the other hand, will broadcast "more of what you already have on 90.5."

"There's more jazz overall," he says.

Still, many listeners might have difficulty tuning in. Not everyone has access to the Internet, and picking up the HD channels requires a special receiver.

EPM is offering a "voucher program" to help current WDUQ members purchase a receiver. But Cardamone says it's too early to say how much money EPM will contribute to the voucher program.

Cardamone says HD receivers can be bought for as little as $25. And with the help of the voucher program, he says, accessing the HD channel could be really cheap for listeners. "For the price of a CD, we're offering listeners access to jazz they love" 24/7," says Cardamone. "We think that's a great thing."

For EPM, the switch to a news-heavy format simply made sense. Splitting programming between news and jazz, as WDUQ currently does, "ultimately sends a confusing message to the audience," Cardamone says.

"To be reliable and trusted," WYEP General Manager Lee Ferraro adds, "you have to do [one thing] all the time."

Focusing on news, they add, should also ensure financial support from local foundations, which have long been interested in more local news as opposed to jazz.

EPM has selected Dennis Hamilton to be the station's interim President and General Manager. They hope to find a full-time GM in the next few months, but staffing at the station is still up in the air. Cardamone and Ferraro are, in fact, still unsure as to how many total employees will be part of the news operation.

News programming will be augmented with resources from Duquesne University's journalism program, whose students will have internship opportunities at the new station. EPM also plans to work with "PublicSource," a foundation-backed news outlet that Cardamone says "will do long-form, investigative stories.

"We will help give voice to those stories, even co-produce them, and they will take some of our stories," he adds. "There will be an exchange of content so that instead of being competitive, we can be cooperative."

Plans for new 'DUQ unveiled: good news for newshounds, mixed bag for jazz fans

Posted By on Wed, May 25, 2011 at 3:10 PM

The would-be new owners of 90.5 FM have unveiled a general manager for the station, and expounded on plans to launch July 1. As expected, the format will be heavy on "in-depth NPR news and information,"  including locally-produced journalism.

As for jazz lovers, who wanted to continue WDUQ's current jazz-heavy format? They should probably start shopping for newfangled HD radio receivers. 

Essential Public Media, which is seeking to acquire WDUQ's frequency, has released a statement detailing its plans today. I'll reprint the statement in full below. But here are the highlights: 

  • Essential Public Media has selected Dennis Hamilton to be the station's interim President and General Manager. Hamilton's background is in public radio, and he's currently the director of consulting for Public Radio Capital. Public Radio Capital, you may recall, were the consultants brought on by the existing WDUQ management team to help them buy the station. Didn't play out that way: PRC created a new sister organization, Public Media Company, which ended up making its own bid for the station, in concert with local radio station WYEP. 
  • Current WDUQ staffers can take some comfort in today's release, however. It notes that other hiring decisions "are being determined" and quotes WYEP head Marco Cardamone pledging to "hir[e] as many of the current WDUQ staffers as possible, since we believe there is extraordinary talent there."
  • EPM has pledged to retain such NPR shows as Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Car Talk, This American Life, and Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.
  • It's also promising new, locally generated content from a variety of sources. One of those sources will be "PublicSource," the name given to a foundation-supported journalism venture that we first began talking about last summer, and whose vision became clearer in Februrary. PublicSource will be a ProPublica-style organization, providing longer-form, investigative journalism that can be picked up by other outlets.  We'll have a bit more on this venture in the days ahead. 
  • Other local programming will include Essential Pittsburgh, "a daily, hour-long interview/call-in program exploring critical issues impacting our region," and Sounds of the City,an "audio collage" of sound bites and stories local people and institutions.

And what about those jazz fans? The 90.5 frequency will carry six hours of jazz programming every Saturday night: That broadcast may carry recordings of jazz events taking place around town. Other than that, the station's jazz coverage will feature "jazz reports or stories" -- though it's not clear how often these will be aired. EPW will continue producing JazzWorks, a public-radio jazz program. 

EPM is offering jazz fans another enticement, however: The owners have pledged a 24/7 jazz broadcast on a companion HD radio channel, and over Internet streaming audio. HD radio, somewhat like digital TV stations, allows a broadcaster to split its signal, offering multiple programming options.

But HD radio doesn't have much of an audience yet. Picking up the HD channels requires a special receiever. And those aren't necessarily cheap.  Over at Best Buy, you can get an HD-equipped car radio for as little as $80, but more commonly for something in the $100-$200 range. Home recievers can cost much more.

EPM is apparently offering a "voucher program" to help current WDUQ members to purchase a receiver. But it's not clear yet how much the vouchers will be worth, or how many of them are being offered.

More details to come. In the meantime, here's the full release:


24/7 jazz programming to air on HD channel; focus is on sustainable business model

PITTSBURGH, PA –- Essential Public Media (EPM) today announced plans to launch a digital journalism hub on July 1, 2011, that features a public radio format emphasizing in-depth local news coverage and National Public Radio (NPR) programs, an expanded jazz schedule on a High Definition (HD) channel -- on-line and on-air -- and enhanced internship opportunities for student reporters, all built on a long-term, sustainable business model.

EPM, a local, wholly-owned subsidiary of independent public radio station WYEP-FM/Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp., in partnership with Public Media Company (PMC), last January offered to buy WDUQ-90.5 FM from Duquesne University for $6 million in cash and other considerations. An asset purchase agreement signed on May 2 includes cash, a note, underwriting credits and paid internship commitments to Duquesne University journalism students, according to EPM chair Marco Cardamone.

The Richard King Mellon Foundation and Heinz Endowments previously announced investments of $1.5 million each toward purchase and operating costs. EPM recently received $250,000 from WYEP's strategic reserve and another $250,000 from a donor advised fund managed by The Pittsburgh Foundation (TPF). Additional requests have been made to TPF, and a dialogue is continuing with other leading foundations in Pittsburgh.

The new 90.5 FM radio station initially will be led by Dennis Hamilton, who will serve as interim President and General Manager. Hamilton is a public radio veteran with 25 years in executive positions at Minnesota Public Radio, experienced in station management, radio technology, business innovation and modeling, as well as program production and distribution. Hamilton currently serves as Director of Consulting for Public Radio Capital, a sister nonprofit of PMC.

"Dennis is a seasoned executive who will help us through a start-up transition period as we build-out our organization and recruit senior leadership," said Cardamone. "We are thrilled Dennis is with us to help shape this new venture."

"Working with Dennis for many years, I've watched him help build Minnesota Public Radio's 40-station network group," said Susan Harmon of PMC. "He's one of the most well-respected leaders in public radio and shares our excitement about this opportunity."

Other senior leadership and staffing positions are being determined. "Our goal is to build one of the best teams in public radio, and that includes hiring as many of the current WDUQ staffers as possible, since we believe there is extraordinary talent there," said Cardamone.

The new radio station will relocate to the WYEP Community Broadcast Center on Pittsburgh's South Side. At the request of Duquesne University, an application will be made for new call letters.

The 30-day Federal Communications Commission (FCC) public comment period regarding the purchase continues until June 9, 2011. Pending FCC approval of the license transfer application, the format change is planned for July 1.

Why News and Information

Pittsburgh is one of only two U.S. cities in the top 35 radio markets without a full-service NPR news and information station, according to NPR. National research also shows full-service public radio stations consistently outperform split-format stations in terms of community service and audience growth -- essential to long-term sustainability. WDUQ currently airs NPR news magazines and local news; about 60 percent of the programming is jazz music.

"Current business models for journalism are eroding as the traditional media landscape continues to be disrupted by the Internet, digital technologies and changing consumer behavior," said Cardamone. "Yet a significant need remains to provide listeners with in-depth coverage of local, national and global issues impacting their lives. It is our vision and intent to fill that void with cross-platform news and information programming.

"EPM will view local and regional life through a wide-angle lens to spot important stories that are not being told. Our focus is on quality, non-partisan news told by professional journalists that is accurate, comprehensive and compelling. We also intend to include stories offered by citizen and student journalists to engage the community in dialogue and action," said Cardamone.

Programming Highlights

Signature shows in development for 90.5 FM include Essential Pittsburgh, a daily, hour-long interview/call-in program exploring critical issues impacting our region, and Sounds of the City, a weekly round-up featuring stories and sound bites that will form an audio collage of Pittsburgh people and organizations. Other local programs are being planned.

Award winning NPR News magazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered will remain on 90.5 FM, as well as other acclaimed public media programs including Fresh Air, Marketplace, Car Talk, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, This American Life and The Splendid Table.

Jazz programming, currently airing about 100 hours per week on 90.5 FM, expands to 174 hours per week through three channels; HD radio, on-air and on-line:

  • Jazz will be broadcast 24/7 on a companion HD channel and Internet audio stream; EPM plans to offer a voucher program for member listeners to help them purchase HD receivers
  • EPM will continue the production of JazzWorks, the U.S.'s only public radio jazz program originating from Pittsburgh.
  • EPM will devote six hours of jazz programming every Saturday night on 90.5 FM
  • Live jazz events will be recorded for broadcast, celebrating the city's jazz heritage and current scene
  • A jazz calendar of events will be posted on-line
  • Jazz reports and features will air on 90.5 FM

The core NPR news and information delivery will be through traditional "over-the-air" broadcast radio on 90.5 FM, but also include digital HD radio platforms, the Internet and mobile devices. EPM's primary web site,, will function as a digital journalism hub for up-to-the-minute news, information, insight, listener interaction and community engagement.

"The web site also will serve as a 'listening post' for user-driven journalism that will be encouraged and cultivated," said Cardamone. "EPM also is developing interactive delivery for mobile platforms including smart phones and tablet devices. News and information will be multimedia in nature, integrating voice, video, photos, information graphics, podcasts and 'widget-based' applications into the storytelling."

Partnerships, Leadership, Internships

EPM will be a news partner with PublicSource, a web-based public service journalism initiative conceived by The Pittsburgh Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and administered by Pittsburgh Filmmakers, one of the oldest and largest media arts centers in the U.S.

PublicSource will be regionally focused, using long-form journalism techniques and utilizing text, audio, video and photography. Its web site will operate as a content warehouse and PublicSource will develop media partnerships with news organizations throughout the region.

EPM's Board of Directors currently consists of members of WYEP's board and Public Media Company's board. EPM bylaws call for a 9-12 member governance board, which will be broadly representative of civic, corporate and journalistic leadership in the Pittsburgh region. Experienced and business-focused, the board will build an efficient, sustainable cost structure, ensuring financial resources are properly managed and the station leadership operates EPM in concert with its mission. The board also will create editorial policy to ensure objective, balanced coverage with high ethical journalism standards and non-partisan news reporting.

An advanced internship program with Duquesne University will train aspiring journalists who want to report on in-depth stories, while providing listeners with a younger perspective and helping build public radio's next generation of engaged citizens and leaders.

"We are grateful that, with strong support from the foundation community, underwriters and member listeners, the new radio station and its digital technology platform will preserve a vital public resource in Pittsburgh that will benefit generations to come," said Cardamone. "We are public trustees of this resource -- not owners -- and we will continue to listen to the community's voice."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hip-hop activist takes issue with "Most Livable City" designation

Posted By on Tue, May 24, 2011 at 4:02 PM

City officials often boast of Pittsburgh's designation as "America's Most Livable City." But next week, local activists plan to use hip-hop and a community discussion to prove Pittsburgh hasn't exactly earned the title.

On May 31, One Hood Media will premier activist/artist Jasiri X's latest music video, "America's Most Livable City," at 7 p.m. inside the Homewood Library. The video, the first of four to address Pittsburgh-related issues, scrutinizes the "Most Livable City" moniker, trying to square the designation with recent U.S. Census statistics showing that Pittsburgh has the country's highest rate of poverty among working-age African Americans.

"Welcome to America's Most Livable City / Please ignore the invisibles with me," goes the song's chorus. "See Pittsburgh rebuilt its economy / But we still lead the Nation in black poverty."

Directed by activist/videographer Paradise Gray, Jasiri tells City Paper the video shows Pittsburgh's two vastly different sides: "The side city officials roll out, and the other side" -- like Elmer Square, in the Hill District, and the streets of Lincoln-Lemington.

"Going door to door in Elmer Square makes me angry that people have to live like that in 2011," says Jasiri, whose music video "What if the Tea Party was Black" went viral after its release last summer. "What we're trying to do is really highlight the economic disparity in Pittsburgh."

Jasiri will moderate a panel discussion following the video premier. Focused on addressing the city's economic disparities, the conversation will feature panelists including: Bomani Howze, program officer of the Heinz Endowments; Brandi Fisher, chair of the Alliance for Police Accountability; and Khalid Raheem, president of the National Council of Urban Peace and Justice.

"We want people to come up with solutions," Jasiri says. "We recognize the disparity in Pittsburgh. Now what can we do about it?"

Friday, May 20, 2011

The 2011 primary: more important than you think

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2011 at 12:13 PM

So. What did this week's primary election results really mean, in the cosmic sense, for city government? 

The simple answer is: We won't really know until 2012, when Corey O'Connor is sworn in. Since all the council incumbents who ran for re-election won, the only change is in District 5, where O'Connor replaced outgoing councilor Doug Shields. Shields, of course, was part of the a 5-to-4 council majority lined up against the mayor. So the future of both the mayor and his critics may well be decided by a guy who doesn't belong to either. And because O'Connor's election, fueled by a ton of cash and name recognition, was a foregone conclusion, he doesn't owe anything to any of them.

Even so, these elections mattered a bit more than some current punditry would have you believe.

Let's start with Tim McNulty, who  offers up this learned perspective at Early Returns:

There is a lot of crowing going on by Ravenstahl's critics after his challengers went 0/3 yesterday, but ... Pittsburgh's mayors have never been very good at getting their people onto council ...

Council races are not referenda on a mayor's performance, but rather about distinct issues and personalities. That's especially true in the district era (council members were elected at-large until the late 1980s) but it was true before then too.

... Councils have been driving mayors crazy for decades, and somehow they figure out a way to (sort of) work together.

McNulty's post cites a handful of examples in which particular mayoral favorites failed to win their election fights. 

I can't dispute any of that. (And a follow-up story in the Post-Gazette expands on the idea.) Hell, I used the election results from May of 2009 to reject the "coattails" argument. But I think something is different this time around. 

For one thing, those historic examples are cases where a mayor tried to affect a single race in a given election season. Ravenstahl's failure this time was much more sweeping. He  tried to oust three incumbents -- Darlene Harris, Patrick Dowd, and Bruce Kraus -- and failed all three times. One reason his coattails seem so tattered, in other words, is that he wore them so many places.

What's more, Ravenstahl's chosen candidates often did try to make this race about the mayor. A repeated talking point this spring was to bemoan the deterioriating relationship between council and the mayor -- and to blame the problem on the uppity council incumbent.

Consider, for example, this attack on Kraus by rival Jeff Koch -- the mayoral favorite in that district:

It is impossible to pass meaningful legislation without compromise. It has long been the case that childish fighting and disagreements have left the city of Pittsburgh with a government that doesn’t work ... With pension problems, budget gaps, and other economic challenges facing the city, residents deserve a strong working relationship between council and the Mayor.

This appeal did not succeed, obviously. And this is where things start getting funny. Ravenstahl's guys first tried to make this election about mayoral/council relations. And when they lost, Ravenstahl's guys began insisting the election wasn't really about the mayor at all.

Witness how Paul McKrell, Ravenstahl's former campaign manager, takes McNulty's consolation-prize blog posting and runs with it on Facebook. Lady Elaine at the Burgh Chair captures McKrell's take for those of us without access to his Facebook page:

Tim McNulty's right. In the end, Pgh is by definition a "strong mayoral form of government." With respect to some great people who make up the majority of council, that isn't bitter/obsessed with becoming mayor, & that will be augmented by an independent voice from the 5thCD, a Mayor doesn't need council to govern. Never has. Never will. But it sure does help to be able to have a conversation."

Actually, McNulty's post says nothing about a "strong mayoral form of government," and it's not clear who McKrell is quoting there. McNulty, in fact, was writing purely about politics -- the mayor's ability to affect elections. McKrell is turning that into an argument about policy -- the mayor's ability to govern. 

Which brings us to his baffling statement that "a Mayor doesn't need council to govern."

O rly? So how come council was able to thwart Ravenstahl's signature issue of 2010 -- the effort to privatize the operation of public parking garages?

Pittsburgh's charter, it's true, gives a large share of government power to the executive branch. But McKrell seems to think that because Pittsburgh has a "strong-mayor" government, every mayor must be strong. Which we've now seen isn't true -- either in politics or policy. 

Which brings us to the real impact of the 2011 primary.

The other striking thing about McKrell's post, as you may have noticed, is that it marks an early overture in the attempt to seduce Corey O'Connor. He is, of course, that "independent voice" McKrell is praising. You can already hear the sweet nothings that are going to be whispered in O'Connor's ear between now and when he takes office. 

Oh Corey ... you're so strong and ... and independent. You don't want to listen to those other councilors ... they're just bitter. You can show your independence by joining us. 

It might even work. O'Connor is, quite smartly, playing his cards close to his vest, promising to work with everyone. And God knows Ravenstahl's foes have miscalculated alliances before.

But here's the key point that I think is getting missed here. A lack of mayoral coattails is an old phenomenon. But as I wrote previously, there's also a new phenomenon at work: the rise of a rival progressive powerbase, a party-within-a-party that has its own resources and infrastructure to draw on.

Just a few years ago, I used to hear progressives mutter darkly about the Democratic Party "machine" ... the shadowy influence of guys like John Verbanac ... a whole host of forces that conspired against them at every turn. 

I've never been too impressed by that argument; belief in an all-powerful party machine, for one, rarely survives an encounter with an actual gathering of committeepeople. I always felt it was more an excuse for progressive failures than anything else.

But the progressives, it seems, increasingly don't need excuses.

Kraus, Dowd and Harris all had to run without the party's endorsement. And the Mysterious Mr. Verbanac and his pals threw cash into these races for the first time in anyone's memory. The machine took its best shot -- and failed.

2010 began with the mayor flailing in a fruitless attempt to stop prevailing wage legislation; the year ended with council rejecting his parking lease plan. Last year, then, council's majority has proved it could drive policy. This year, it has proved it can thrive politically.

That's not to say it's clear sailing from here on out. Despite breaking sharply with Ravenstahl on numerous issues, Dowd has squabbled with council's majority as well. That seems likely to continue, since he has earned a mandate to keep on keeping on. And it's not like the 2013 elections are a foregone conclusion. Both city controller Michael Lamb and progressive councilor Bill Peduto are clearly pondering mayoral runs ... raising the specter of the two men splitting the opposition vote, just as they did in 2005.

So yeah, this could all end in tears. In the end, O'Connor may not decide to line up with that majority. But when you take a look at the election results from 2009 ... and Ravenstahl's failures on the pension issue last year ... and this past week's results ... it's obvious that there's a new game in town. And when you're deciding what kind of player you want to be, that's a big deal. 


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