2021 Mayoral candidates on Pittsburgh policies: Bill Peduto | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

2021 Mayoral candidates on Pittsburgh policies: Bill Peduto

click to enlarge 2021 Mayoral candidates on Pittsburgh policies: Bill Peduto
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Mayor Bill Peduto poses for a portrait inside his office at the City County Building in February 2020 in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Like most political races, the 2021 Pittsburgh mayoral contest has been filled with attacks, broad goals, and debates, as it should. But what gets lost sometimes, is a focus on what a mayor of Pittsburgh can actually accomplish. Every politician loves to comment on national stories, but in reality, there are many limitations to being a mayor of a second class city in Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh City Paper has conducted policy interviews with all four of the Pittsburgh mayoral candidates who will appear on the Democratic Primary ballot with these factors in mind. All interviews were conducted before publishing, as to ensure fairness, and all discussed topics are the same. Links have been added in places to provide more detail on certain topics.

This is in hopes of discussing each candidate's goals and specific plans concerning the city’s ability to tackling climate change and environmental issues, transit and land-use, and police reform. City Paper chose these topics because they are areas where a Pittsburgh mayor can make both immediate and long lasting change.

First up is Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. He has served as mayor since 2014, and he served in city government for decades before that. Peduto has focused his campaign on his accomplishments, and casting his administration as guiding Pittsburgh to an optimistic future. This interview was conducted on March 25 and has been edited for clarity and length.

CITY PAPER: So we'll start with the environment. You know I've written about your Marshall Plan for Middle America before, and it's got a lot of big bold proposals in there. But a lot of them require a lot of outside investment either from the federal government or from private partners. I'm curious what has your administration done in the immediate to combat climate change and clean the environment, and what can Pittsburgh voters expect next if you were to be reelected?

BILL PEDUTO: There's a number of initiatives we've taken over the past seven years, and that all fall within both our climate action plan and our 2030 vision. Some of them are very large initiatives. Such as the change to 100% renewable energy to power city operations. We were able to accomplish that last year, and received the climate award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That was 10 years before our expected goal of 2030. Some of them have been smaller in dimension, such as being one of the 12 cities on Earth to divest fossil fuels from our pension fund. But it's almost in every operation that we take, we look through it, through the lens of P4: people, planet, place, and performance. When we look at the entire book of what we've done in order to lower our carbon footprint, Pittsburgh ranks, nationally and internationally, as one of the cities in being able to do so with creative partnerships in order to be able to take on some of our biggest issues.

One partnership involves the National Resource Defense Council, Carnegie Mellon University, Google, and Peoples Gas, where we partner with Carnegie Mellon to develop sensors that go on to the Google cars that drive throughout the city, taking pictures of our homes. And those sensors are able to determine where there are leaks of methane, where faulty gas lines need to be replaced, and Peoples has made it a priority in order to be able to remove those lines. We measure everything that we do so, it's not a question of when we say that we'll lower our carbon footprint by 50% by 2030, whether or not we've made it. We're measuring it on an annual basis to make sure that we're benchmarking every step to get there.

As far as national and international leadership, it's much more than a tweet. The actions that were taken just this morning, I was on Zoom with the mayors of Lascaux, and Aarhus in Denmark. And we're convening in Glasgow later this year, the convening of the post-industrial cities. Cities that still bear the scars of heavy industrial age. Cities that have been put into a binary discussion over the change to renewables between whether they will economically survive. And we have been putting together the discussion around environmental justice, combined with social and economic justice for areas where decarbonization would have a negative economic effect on the people in the communities that they serve, when they should have a positive effect. And I believe that discussion is going to be able to get a lot of traction this year.

That's more on the long term, but at the same time, it's very real. It's a conversation that we have every week with leaders around the world, the White House, and with Congress. Last month, or actually this month, the U.S. Secretary of Energy [Jennifer] Granholm called Pittsburgh's economic development strategy the national model for areas that would otherwise be left behind. We tie the environment into all of those decisions in creating that type of model.

CP: We've seen a little bit of an uptick in city residents commuting via car. Driving to work, basically. What is your administration doing to either curb that or some other way to ensure that there aren't as many fossil fuels that are out there from people driving around Pittsburgh and polluting?

PEDUTO: We've been working with leading experts in urban mobility and the Ford Foundation for over the past year, going back before COVID, in developing a new digital-based multi-modal transportation system for the city of Pittsburgh. When we talk about transportation, oftentimes people will immediately say we need a regional wide, light rail system, and I agree. But that is not the function of city government. I can lobby for it, but it will require multi-county cooperation between county commissioners, the county executive, and the governor in order to be able to see something like that get started.

So then what I can do is create models within the city that the rest of this region can look at and say, "We want to be more like Pittsburgh." So working with those experts in the Ford Foundation, we identified every form of mobility within the city. There's riding a bike. There's bike share. There’s e-bike. Eventually there will be scooters. The state of Pennsylvania has proven that we're one of the last states in the country. There's public transportation by incline, public transportation by Port Authority [bus], public transportation by light rail. There's driving a car. There's rideshare and there's Zipcar.

So you take all of those different modes of transportation, and you create a system that is digitally-based, but it also can be run by a kiosk in multi-modal areas in the city. And you type in where you're at and you type in where are you going to go, and you get all that information. You will be able to break down all the different, separate modes of transportation in the one citywide transportation hub. And the idea behind it is only being utilized in one city in the world right now and that's Helsinki, which is considered one of the smartest cities in the world. Our model will be the next step past and advance beyond it. And we should be launching that new transportation connectivity mobility device next month.

CP: Are you confident that that'll help decrease car use in the city?

PEDUTO: I'm not sure if it will help to reduce car use. But for people who don't have a car, it will make the connectivity much less complicated, and instead of being siloed and broken down, we'll show how the last mile and first mile components can be integrated into a system. I think dependency on cars becomes more of a personal choice within the city of Pittsburgh. And again, as the mayor of the city and out of the region, 35% of the people in the city don't have a car. So it is absolutely incumbent upon the mayor to be able to enhance the other modes of transportation, so that the 35% has the ability to easily navigate from point A to point B.

CP: I think transit is something that gets lost in basically all political campaigns. And mayors like yourself in big cities, they have a pretty big sway in how transit policies are shaped within the confines of their city and maybe even beyond. That includes capital investments, lowering traffic deaths, and increasing alternative transit uses. Your administration over the years has really taken to redesigning a lot of roads throughout the city. And I'm wondering if you can talk about that and also hint at what maybe Pittsburghers should expect if you were reelected.

PEDUTO: Yeah, the importance of mobility is that is the key ingredient to social and economic mobility. That if you can't get to work or you can't get to the doctor, then you're going to have a very difficult time to be able to survive, let alone thrive. And I just got off the phone with a gastrointestinal doctor 30 minutes ago, and she was telling me about a patient who has been diagnosed with colon cancer. And she said, "Well, how does she get to where she needs to go without renting a car?" That becomes not just a burden, that becomes a blockade to anything else that you're trying to be able to get to. Is she's gonna have to see this doctor and that doctor, and every time involves renting a car?

Cities are very different than suburban or rural areas, and the challenges that we have — just by the demographics of those we serve — are very different as well. Our goal has been to take a 19th century road system, and to be able to upgrade it to the challenges of the 21st century. And in many cases, we're at disadvantages because our streets are much more narrow than they are when we crossed the Mississippi. Cities that were designed after World War II were designed primarily for the automobile.

Ours was sort of adapted, and so we don't have left turn lanes, that's why we have the Pittsburgh Left. It is a physical challenge to be able to make our roads safe for everyone, but it's one that we take very seriously. If we're going to be able to adopt the principles of Vision Zero, we have got to be able to physically change the structure of our streets to be safer for all. Whether you bike, whether you walk, whether you have special needs. Whether you drive a car, and that has been the reason that we created the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure. We didn't have the capacity within [the Public Works department] to be able to take on those challenges, let alone the challenges of updated artificial intelligence traffic signals and autonomous vehicles. So DOMI’s mission has been to become the city's first multi-modal department, based upon all modes of transportation.

From this we can build. One of the areas that we're looking at in the future is reimagining the parking authority as the mobility authority. Starting to imagine different types of transportation coming to Pittsburgh. Through the Rockefeller Foundation, we were able to conduct a study with a German tram car company, looking at the potential of cable cars in the city of Pittsburgh where they would be most efficient, but also where they would also provide greater equity in which communities could be connected that aren't connected today by roadways. We toyed with the idea for decades of having marinas and water taxis. We have been looking into tram cars and to be able to connect those with the Port Authority bus system. But all of those needs are something that goes beyond just a city department. If we can reimagine the parking authority as a mobility authority, we can make those types of investments and create public private partnerships that could enhance transportation to the point where you wouldn't need a car. And we could lessen the dependency on cars, simply by increasing the multi-modal mobility between city neighborhoods.

CP: I agree that having different kind of mobility [options] would do that, but that also seems like a harder thing to accomplish. What can we expect in the next four years, if you were to be reelected, to really help us connect, say Bloomfield to Garfield or other neighborhoods?

PEDUTO: We have presented a 10 year plan for our bike infrastructure. Most of it is based on connecting the dots. So there are areas in the city where there is good bike infrastructure, but it doesn't connect to the other bike infrastructure, one mile away. And so our priorities will be on connectivity of Pittsburgh's present system while expanding it. We will have electric fleet [Bus Rapid Transit] system up and operating in the next couple of years for greater connectivity between Downtown and Oakland. That will also involve upgrades to Forbes and Fifth Avenue, including a dedicated bike lane on Fifth Avenue. We've been working for several years on the connectivity of Hazelwood in Oakland. Although there's some opposition coming from the folks in [Four Mile Run neighborhood], there's no doubt that Hazelwood has to be better connected to the rest of the city.

Presently, the only way to really get there is by automobile, and upgrades to the current public transportation will not be adequate for the future growth of Hazelwood. The community needs to have better access when it comes to northern travel and southern travel. Southern travel, as we look at the next four years, could be enhanced between Hazelwood and communities in the hilltop like Carrick and then having the connectivity to Oakland would allow the southern hilltop communities to have access to Oakland to the hospitals into the universities. It's a critical stretch that has been disconnected by design for 150 years, and it needs to have a better approach.

And then simply within neighborhoods themselves, we have started by creating safe routes to schools. But there is more information and data out there on where our most dangerous intersections are and improvements physically over the next four years are absolutely critical. We want to be within the next couple of years to the point where we are a city that has adopted Vision Zero, but is actually in a position to implement it. When I took office, we weren't anywhere close. We could not even imagine it through the Department of Public Works. Through the work that we created and developing out all of the different critical needed positions and infrastructure within city government. It's now possible to have that conversation.

CP: You talked about Hazelwood and the importance of connecting it to Oakland and any future growth that comes through [the Hazelwood Green development]. Are there any other plans to help connect our Black neighborhoods to more infrastructure? Black people in the city, they walk a lot more, they ride bikes, and they definitely take public transit a lot more. So what is the city doing to help connect those Black neighborhoods to all the other opportunities?

PEDUTO: The first part is through our partnership with Allegheny County and the Port Authority. Although we don't [directly] cooperate with the transit authority, they ride on our roads. So providing greater access through being a positive partner in providing different changes to route systems is absolutely critical.

As we look, we measure and we've worked with groups like [Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group] in recognizing where there are transit deserts within the city of Pittsburgh. So we then sit down with the Port Authority, and look at all the different options on public streets to be able to get buses into those areas. We partnered with Lyft and with Uber on rideshare opportunities with our housing authority to provide $5 rides to grocery stores, and you don't need to use a cell phone and you don't need to have a credit card. You can just use a $5 bill to be able to take people, especially the elderly, directly from their home to the front door of the grocery store, and we'll look for other partnerships when it comes to that as well.

We’ll navigate the 10 year plan for our bike system. But we continue to adapt it, and we'll continue to work neighborhood by neighborhood in order to be able to get the input, especially within our Black neighborhoods. There's a great opportunity as we reimagined Centre Avenue in the [Hill District], to be able to add bike infrastructure into it in a safe manner as alternative transportation outside of the Fifth/Forbes corridor. And we basically will take on the different opportunities that come with the advancements of technology to make sure that what's baked into the future of transportation is equitable and not an afterthought.

CP: Earlier you were talking about really trying to ensure people who don't have a car can get around and have opportunities. And I think there's kind of a land use proponent there. Specifically, I'm thinking about the Shakespeare development, the Giant Eagle near the East Liberty [Busway station]. The zoning board blocked a decision there, and so I'm wondering how your office can ensure that any kind of zoning changes that you want to see or any kind of zoning amendments that you want to see, go through and you don't get blocked by the board.

PEDUTO: Yeah, it's one of the dangers about appointing people based upon merit, is that you don't have the opportunity to pick up the phone and tell them what to do. So there's never been a time when I've called any commissioner, board member, or any authority board or commission, to tell them how to vote. I tell them when I appoint them, that I appointed you because of merit, and I expect that you'll do the right thing.

I disagreed with the zoning board's decision. That development had gone through about two years worth of community meetings. Councilwoman Strassburger has worked extremely hard to listen to all sides and to incorporate all ideas into the future development. She wasn't just trying to stop the development from happening, she was trying to improve upon an amazing opportunity. If you're an urban planner, you believe in density as the key component of development. You believe in Transit Oriented Development, meaning you want to have that type of density, close to the access of quality public transportation, and you want to have affordability as a component of any of the housing decisions being made.

What we don't want is surface parking lots in a prime dense urban area. And this development checked all the boxes. So I can’t assure the [zoning] board won't act sometimes in a way that I may not favor. But I can assure the people of Pittsburgh that the members of the zoning board are professional independent thinkers that have a high understanding of not only law, but community planning, and community-based development.

CP: Do you think the zoning board needs more of a signal or something? Would legislation, championed by you or another councilperson, in terms of altering zoning rules or regulation make a change with those kinds of decisions?

PEDUTO: It possibly could. The zoning board will still be required to make decisions based upon law. The question is what type of laws could we enact in order to be able to help to steer development like that, without obstacles in the future? I think that some cities have adopted more of the TOD approach to the zoning code. We have created some, especially around tax incentives and others. We have been looking and thinking about the process of updating this zoning code since the last year that Ray Gastil was the planning director.

And, I think that there would be a good opportunity in these next four years, not only to take that to the people, where it should come from to begin with, but also look for a unique partner like CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon to begin the process of updating our zoning code. The last time we updated the zoning code, I was a staff member to a city council member. So it's been over 20-some years. The world has changed quite a bit. Multi-use development is now common when back then, it was rare. Different types of functionality of community, meaning, everything from communities that want to create inclusionary zoning, to those that want to be able to eliminate parking standards, to those that want to be able to have more opportunity for density within their residential zones.

[Those zoning changes] need to be made in a local basis, and then formulated into code on a citywide basis. So I do believe that we have many more options than we had 30 years ago of how to plan the future of our city. And I would be very receptive over these next four years to reaching out to the community to begin the process of changing our zoning code. I think that is the more effective way of bringing change to a zoning board than a mayor who picks up the phone calls people to tell them what to do.

CP: Something I know gets lost a lot of times with journalism and with advocacy and everything is that actually implementing police reform in the city of Pittsburgh is really complex. You have to balance negotiations between the FOP [police union]. You get calls from residents and businesses wanting to address violence or even perceived violence. And then you also get calls to ensure accountability among officers who are participating in misconduct or being violent themselves. You’ve talked about a lot of those barriers of changing those things, whether that's changing state laws in Harrisburg or arbitration rules, etc.

How do you imagine proposing better communicating all those problems, all those barriers with Pittsburgh. And how do you build back some of that trust, where some residents are now skeptical that you even want to reform or change the [police] department?

PEDUTO: This type of communication can't be done by social media. You just lifted off the cover of all the different issues that are involved within policing, and it's not as simple as a slogan. It is a very complex part of city governing. So it needs to happen at the local level, and we do it every month through zone council meetings within each police zone. We talk about the overarching themes of policing in the city of Pittsburgh. And then we talk about the very local crime that's happening within each police zone. And it’s community leaders are getting up. They're not selected, it's an open invitation to everyone in Pittsburgh to be a part of it. And that's how solutions happen.

What I need to be able to do as well is communicate the message of where we have been successful. Overall, crime is down, violent crime down. Homicide is down, the number of cases solved is up. The number of complaints against Pittsburgh police officers is down. The number of lawsuits against Pittsburgh police officers are down. The number of times police have been using deadly force is down. In fact, in all of last year, all of 2020, there were only two times that police officers fired a gun in the city of Pittsburgh. Two times. Like, these are the facts and these are the key indicators that need to be held accountable by.

So when we allow the conversation to go away from what's happening in East Allegheny or what's happening in Beltzhoover or what's happening in Homewood, and we allow it to be framed under what's happening in this country, we lose the ability to be able to effectuate change locally. All of the key indicators show that we have been able to make positive change within the bureau. When I entered office in 2014, the U.S. Attorney David Hickton said to my solicitor, Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge, "Good luck. You're not going to be able to control it. It will probably fall under the Bureau of Justice and the consent decree." And we said, "Give us a chance." When I got sworn into office in 2014, the police chief was in jail. I inherited a completely broken police bureau. We have changed it in the one, where accountability is key. I brought in the only police chief in the city's history, 205 years, to come from the outside. As he called himself, Cameron McLay, the "wrecking ball chief," knew that he would only be here two to three years because of the things that had to be done, would not be something that would sustain a chief’s ability to lead.

And we did it, and we took it on, head on. I didn't fire Paul Abel. I fired Paul Abel twice. When other administrations would never fire officers. I have an officer in prison right now. We have taken every proactive step, and not only that, but when the Obama administration began to put together their policing for the 21st century [platform], they called us to be a part of it. The city of Pittsburgh was instrumental in putting together the model for 21st century policing. In return, we were awarded one of the only six cities in the nation to train our officers in implicit bias. And it went so well, we now train all of our employees in implicit bias.

These actions didn't just come about. As [professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York] David Kennedy will tell you, that when he was trying to work with the city of Pittsburgh in 2009, the city of Pittsburgh was the most obstinate to change. And when he came to my administration, we were the most willing. That only happens through leadership and that leadership comes from the top.

CP: You talked about former chief McLay. He was very vocal about being a reformer. Now that he has gone, should Pittsburghers become confident that those kind of changes will sustain? Or do you understand why they might be worried that the police might start acting like they used to?

PEDUTO: When McLay came in, the one person that I emphasize the need to be able to take under his wing was Scott Schubert. I have known Chief Schubert since he was Lieutenant Schubert, working out of Squirrel Hill. And even back in those days, I knew two things. Number one, his love of Pittsburgh and number two, his integrity to the uniform. In other words, he believes in a police officer who follows the rules and is the model citizen. There was very little doubt in my mind.

Scott was one of the finalists for chief that was selected by a citizens council, and was the highest rated Pittsburgh police officer by the citizens council. So we had somebody from within. What he needed was a little bit more experience and an outsider that could show what could happen. We are in a transition these next four years, there will be a very high number of command staff retiring. Which means there will be an entire new generation of officers that will be taking over the command of the Pittsburgh police. What I want to find is, who has that commitment to community policing? Who can lead by example and has led by example? It's about having the officers from within that already have a cultural belief in a policing that is based on the community.

What that means is, is it's not about policing to find the one bad guy. It's about policing to find the 99 good guys.

CP: You talked about Chief Schubert. After the first few big protests that we saw last summer, there was a mistruth, and honestly factual inaccurate statements that were put out by the police and then we're also repeated by you initially. When those things happen, how do you address those things and how do you build trust with moments like that?

PEDUTO: Getting into it specifically, I don't think that I can because of the federal lawsuit. I would just disagree with some of the information was not true. I can’t specifically answer that.

But I will also say that you are also correct. Some of that information wasn't true. It was not factually backed up, and it was more of a need to be able to try to put some information out that same evening. Because that information went out without having a backup, and it was confirmed that it was wrong. I was first to admit it. That is absolutely true.

What we are dealing with is not in a bubble. So it’s not just Pittsburgh police. It’s an issue nationally and internationally. We are finding ourselves in a critical time. The emergence of a different type of policing, it’s the only way that trust can be built is by communication. It’s a long process. It requires officers to not be just driving around in cars wearing sunglasses. It requires them getting out of the car and talking to people on the street. It requires interaction that is not mandatory. They have to be at a community meeting where they want to be working with the kids in the neighborhood where they serve.

And it requires cultural change, away from a soldier to a guardian, where a police officer views their job very differently than they did 10 years ago. It's very difficult when a number of people they are recruiting from coming directly out of the military. You can’t untrain a soldier. But you have to be able to train that soldier and that the difference between what they were doing in one uniform compared to what they do and another.

The second part of that is there needs to be a better understanding about what an officer's job entails. Their job entails the criminal code of the state of Pennsylvania. So I got myself in trouble, I often do [chuckles], by talking about Downtown and saying about how people wanted homeless people arrested. For what crime? For not having a home? And I said that this is a public area. If you don't want to be with people that need help and are getting it, because that's where the services are, then go to a mall. That's a private property. They can tell that person to leave. I can't. That's not my job and I don't want to. But we have to stop treating homelessness as a crime. We have to stop treating addiction as a crime. We have to stop treating mental health illness as a crime. And that's why we created the Office of Community and Health Services, to be able to partner with social workers and doctors. So when somebody calls 911 because there's someone at 11:30 at night screaming with their shirt off, that the only person that shows up is not a police officer. But that we have 24/7, around-the-clock coverage with social workers now in the city. We created our program as a partnership with Allegheny Health Network, and being able to partner with a nonprofit, to provide that type of service.

We also realize that, you know, we need more homeless shelters in the city so we partnered with Light of Life and the URA in order to create a new homeless shelter with them. We partnered with East End Cooperative Ministries and created a new homeless shelter in the East End. We partnered with PNC Bank and UPMC and Allegheny Health Network. They're building a new homeless shelter in Downtown. We are reaching out to Bethlehem Haven in order to create a new homeless shelter for women.

All of these are parts of that police reform. When you give someone an option of not having to go to prison, which has become the largest mental health facility in Allegheny County, you're giving them an option to not be a part of that cycle where then people have a bias against them, because of where they find themselves in life. So it may not seem part of policing, but it is every bit as much of policing in the 21st century as an officer walking the beat.

CP: You said earlier about not communicating this stuff over social media. And, as you know, my editor wrote an editorial about some of your statements on Twitter comparing the far left or radical left with radical right. Do you regret making those tweets? Or would you like to explain why you made those statements?

PEDUTO: Well, let me take the first part first. You know I really read it after I got criticism, and I can absolutely see where some people took it that way, and where they found it to be offensive. And for that I apologize. It could have been worded differently to express what I was trying to say and instead it seemed to be unclear what it was that I was alluding to. And I don't delete tweets because I believe that that then becomes the bigger story. So I left it up, and I took the hits.

Twitter is unforgiving in the sense that it really doesn't look at the whole person. I've dedicated 31 years of my life to the city of Pittsburgh. I would never associate anything with Nazi-ism. I would never associate the far left, or the Black Lives Matter movement, with anything negative in that sense. Not even close.

I would think that people would look and say, you know, "We've known him for 31 years, he wouldn't say that," but that doesn't happen on Twitter. And I realized that I could have also been smarter, and tried to state it better.

That's part one. Part two is what I was trying to say. And I've seen it now twice in my lifetime. I saw it with Ralph Nader, and George Bush winning the election when Nader supporters went from [Al] Gore. And I saw with Hillary Clinton. When turnout was less because those that didn't find her to be liberal enough sat out the race, and saw Donald Trump become president. The only way that the right rise is when the left divides itself. And that was true during the 1930s in Germany when the Reichstag fell, and it fell because of the separation of the left in losing control. The SDP [Social Democratic Party of Germany] and the KDP [Communist Party of Germany were more and at war against each other than they were at war against the Nazis. And that's what I was trying to allude to. It's historical fact. You know, the communists went against the left, center, socialists, they won, they beat them. Then the Reichstag fell and the first thing the Nazis did was they arrested all the communists. When the left fights against itself and the right rises. It's a disservice to both causes: the left and the center line.
Primary Election Day will be held on May 18, 2021. Citizens can register to vote at votespa.com. Registered voters can also request mail-in ballots on Pennsylvania's voting website.

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