Going Through the Motions | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Going Through the Motions

We sit through city council so you don't have to.

After a vicious June 25 fight over a legal bill four councilors incurred by taking on Lamar Outdoor Advertising, a compromise began taking shape July 1.

The $10,000 bill stems from legal action initiated by councilors Doug Shields, Bill Peduto, Ricky Burgess and Bruce Kraus. The four filed suit to stop Lamar from erecting, on Grant Street, an electronic billboard, which Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration approved outside of normal channels. Lamar filed its own suit against the four councilors, though the case was soon dropped.

Shields and Co. didn't seek council approval before challenging the permit, but they are seeking to be reimbursed after the fact. They first did so on May 13, but city solicitor George Specter issued a blistering legal opinion, warning that it would be a conflict of interest for them to vote on the bill.

Last week, Shields found yet another attorney to write a dissenting opinion, which poked holes in the city Law Department's argument. Nevertheless, Burgess has remained out of council chambers the past two meetings whenever the bill is discussed for fear of reprisal.

As the bill came up July 1, however, Shields asked that it be tabled. The administration, he said, was offering a compromise: The city would pay for legal expenses racked up once Lamar sued council. (Government typically covers legal costs when officials are sued for actions taken on the job.)

But who will pay for the cost of challenging the permit in the first place?

"We're working on that," Shields said. Noting "a philosophical difference" among councilors, he said he didn't want to "get the bill paid but leave this council in tatters."

It may be too late. Councilor Patrick Dowd -- who also challenged Lamar's permit, but with his own money -- opposed reimbursing his colleagues. Dowd, like Shields and the rest, identifies himself as a reformer, but resentment among them has grown, and it spilled over during the June 25 meeting. Shields called Dowd a "straw man" for Lamar; Dowd accused Shields of bullying and said the issue was "a sideshow."

Actually, Lamar is about to move back into the center ring. After dropping its original permit application, the company has reapplied -- this time going through proper channels. A Zoning Board hearing on the sign is slated for July 24.

This time around, though, council seems more willing to take Lamar on. Even Jim Motznik, who sided with Lamar last time, said he supports a challenge now.

"I'm happy to ... intervene in this," says Motznik. "My problem originally was that the process failed."

That's always been the bone of contention -- that procedure wasn't followed. The mayor's office bypassed usual procedures to allow the sign, and Shields and Co. bypassed their colleagues in challenging that approval. But Shields says there was simply no other way to stop Lamar the first time.

"This was not a fight I wanted to engage in, but someone had to," said Shields. "You can fault me on process, but ... you can't fault me on the facts."

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