City Council: After a wild week of speculation, reformers come out on top | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

City Council: After a wild week of speculation, reformers come out on top

At about 10:05 a.m. on Mon., Jan. 7, City Councilor Jim Motznik flew out of council chambers and rushed toward his office.

"Do you have the votes, Jimmy?" asked one man in the spillover crowd gathered around a television set in the hallway.

"I don't know," Motznik replied. "We'll see shortly."

Close to 10:30, council's swearing-in ceremony got under way -- about 30 minutes behind schedule.

Rumor has it that the delay was the result of last-minute, behind-the-scenes arm-twisting by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on behalf of Motznik, a mayoral ally. When it came time to make the choice, however, it was obvious Motznik didn't have the votes -- and that he'd decided to save face instead. Motznik nominated the incumbent president, Doug Shields, who is no friend of the mayor's. The nomination was approved by an 8-0 vote. Councilor Tonya Payne was not present for the vote or the rest of the meeting.

Amongst reformers and Ravenstahl critics, the outcome is being hailed as a potential watershed moment, a sign that Ravenstahl may encounter a council less complacent than last year. But after the vote, Motznik put a positive spin on the outcome.

"I think it was important that our voice was unanimous," Motznik told reporters. "We all have the same goal, and that's to move the city forward in the right direction.

"Let's be honest: It was probably a long shot for me to become the council president," added Motznik, whose sharp-elbowed attempts to garner the position in previous years rankled some colleagues. "I did have an interest in it, but the majority of council members felt that Mr. Shields was doing a good job."

Motznik says his support of Shields was not part of any deal. That became obvious when Shields handed out committee assignments, part of the council president's prerogative. Shields put Motznik in charge of the distinctly unglamorous committee on engineering, fleet and forestry.

Ravenstahl apparently hadn't cut many deals either: For the powerful post of finance committee chair, Shields named Bill Peduto, a onetime mayoral candidate and a frequent Ravenstahl critic. The new position will give Peduto even more opportunity to spar with the administration.

While announcing his choices, Shields urged the audience, "[D]on't read too much into this. I did my best to put the right people in the right places and the right jobs." Shields pledged to work with Ravenstahl, pronouncing, "If the mayor should fail, then we all fail." But it's hard to ignore the political implications of the outcome: Council's two top positions are now held by councilors who've defied the mayor on a number of issues.

For his part, Peduto said no deals were made. However, he said he didn't know for sure what was going to happen until about 9:55 that morning.

"The council presidency is part playground politics and part Machiavellian politics," Peduto said. "It all came to a head in the last few days. What happens never surprises me, yet it always surprises me."

The drama in those final hours surrounded council newcomer Patrick Dowd. Dowd narrowly bested incumbent Leonard Bodack last year, running on a good-government campaign. But rumors swirled amongst reformers that Dowd was planning to support Motznik, so that Dowd could become finance chair. Most vote counts showed Motznik and Shields with four votes apiece, making Dowd the critical swing vote. (Council's other two newcomers, Bruce Kraus and Ricky Burgess, were numbered in the Shields camp.) In the face of mounting pressure, Dowd wrote a densely worded public letter insisting, "I want to elect a council president based upon a publicly articulated agenda" -- one that would "articulate a clear list of priorities or agenda items or goals." And contrary to rumors that he had thrown in with one side or the other, "At this point, no candidate has articulated publicly an agenda or list of priorities."

Dowd said he still didn't receive that and went with a "second-level of decision making." That second-level thinking involved a decision that would help unify council and get rid of the "politics of personality," diffusing the polarity that exists in city government.

In the days leading up to the ceremony, local blogs had been ablaze about strong politicking from councilors and the administration toward council's three new members, with Dowd being labeled the swing vote. One blog even alleged that the mayor visited Dowd at home this weekend.

"A lot of people have been to my home ... but the mayor has never been to my home," Dowd told City Paper after the meeting. "The whole insinuation that I got pressure from the administration is just not correct."

Dowd said he received more than 100 e-mails and about 10 calls regarding his vote for council president. He said he did discuss it with fellow council members in the days leading up to the vote, but added, "That's my job."

Whatever bad blood may exist between the administration and reformers -- or among the reformers themselves -- councilors on all sides are trying to put the best face on things. "[N]ow is the time for us all to work together," said Peduto. And while he's been critical of Ravenstahl's handling of finances, he said, "If we work together, we can probably solve this problem."

Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest
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Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest

By Pam Smith