A Bill of Goods | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Bill of Goods

Council tries to pass a false reform measure

There is a word for the Pittsburgh City Council: embarrassing.

Council's May 31 "debate" about new spending limits was laughable.

Councilors Bill Peduto and Doug Shields introduced a measure that would have stopped an absurd practice. Currently, as Shields put it, if a councilman wants to, he can take, say, $500 out of his miscellaneous account, and go hand out $1 bills to kids in the park.

Such practices are "for each council member to decide," says Councilor Jim Motznik, who knows a thing or two about milking the system. He was double-billing the city for gasoline until he was called on it by WTAE Channel 4. Then he took off running when they tried to confront him on camera.

Since then, Motznik has been "creative" (as Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Rich Lord put it) with his discretionary spending. He hired lawyers to force a day-care center to move its Dumpster and to stop construction of a cell-phone tower. He hired a lawyer so a constituent could sue to get a fence moved.

These may have been well-intentioned deeds. But it's not supposed to work that way.

I'm sure congressmen Mike Doyle or Tim Murphy would like to hand out giant checks to constituents. There's just one thing: They have to get a majority of the other members of Congress to agree with them. They can't just pull taxpayers' money out of their pockets on a whim.

Now we have a new leader in the sometimes legal but clearly unethical department: Councilor Twanda Carlisle, who gave $27,000 to a man who lives with her mother to produce a ludicrous report mostly taken from another report. Similar spending in Carlisle's office — the P-G says it amounts to nearly $180,000 — is now being investigated by the state's Ethics Commission and the district attorney.

How did Twanda spend almost $180,000 when each councilor technically has only $8,000 in discretionary spending money? Because of a rule that allows council members to play fast and loose with taxpayers' money, this time by transferring money intended for staff salaries into the discretionary spending account.

Peduto's amendment would have stopped that practice too, requiring council approval along with a valid explanation for such transfers. Peduto also would have required council members to post records of their spending online.

And then my nominee for bonehead of the week, newly elected Councilor Tonya Payne, stepped up to the plate. Payne said she didn't need to put her spending online, because people could come down to the office and see it. Does she not get the convenience factor? Or does she not want people to see what she's spending our money on? Not sure. But here are some of her less enlightened quotes.

"How do we reform ourselves? C'mon that's not really gonna happen." OK, maybe that's not so dumb, because it turned out to be true. But Payne went on: "Basically this is crap to me and it's going to be crap to people."

She said to Peduto, "Unless you're saying to me, you know, the rest of us aren't bright enough to sit in a room with you and come up with some real reform, OK, I accept that, that's fine." Sounds like someone's a little paranoid about intellect.

Peduto called her statement ludicrous. But again, I think Payne was right on the money, in the sense that she did not appear to understand what was happening.

She insisted that all lawmakers needed to have input, implying that only a universally accepted unanimous ethics-reform package would work. But the bickering at the meeting clearly illustrated this was impossible. Indeed, Council President Luke Ravenstahl refused to table the spending-control-lite measure that did pass, so there could be more discussion on serious reform.

Payne made this point: "Real reform isn't just coming up with an amendment and an ordinance or whatever, just to say that we're reforming for the sake of reform."

But Peduto was offering real reform. It was right there in front of you.

The reform died 6 to 3. Council members want their walking-around money, and they want you to know as little as possible about it.

The quote of the meeting came from Motznik: "Somebody at this table's gonna look bad."

Try all of you.