With no one challenging incumbent Luke Ravenstahl for mayor, this year's race for city controller is the only citywide contest on the ballot. It's also the first election since the office was vacated last year by Tom Flaherty, whose pugnacious style for better and worse defined the position -- and much of the city's political landscape.
The controller performs financial audits for both the city and the Pittsburgh school district. He also has the power to conduct "performance audits" to ensure city departments are running smoothly. Those responsibilities have arguably never been more important: The city's finances are in a delicate state, and the mayor and much of council is relatively inexperienced. The five candidates for city controller, meanwhile, have decades of experience between them.
But the race has attracted little attention despite its profile. That's partly because the candidates have kept the gloves on: They've attended numerous debates together, and the rancor has been minimal. And for the most part, they share a belief that the office can -- and must -- be more than a number-crunching post.
In general, Dawida sees potential for merging services with other municipalities. "Pittsburgh and Penn Hills do the same things," he says. And he touts his own record in making things happen: At the county, he presided over construction of new stadiums, as well the Waterfront Mall along the Monongahela. He also inaugurated a countywide 911 service -- and was sued (unsuccessfully) by local police chiefs for his trouble. Given that experience, Dawida says, he could act as a sort of mentor to Ravenstahl. "I see an inexperienced person, but I don't see a dumb person." And he says that his breadth of experience gives him an advantage over his rivals: "I can communicate with the state [legislature] because I was there. I can communicate with the city because I was there."
Lamb says his campaign for county reform -- which had him butting heads with Flaherty himself -- shows his independence. "I still to this day have people within the party structure hammer me." And he promises to be similarly aggressive as controller. He is, for example, bandying about a proposal to chase down city residents who list suburban addresses for tax purposes. And one of his first audits would be to study why firefighters receive 70 percent of the city's workers'-compensation costs. "My guess is that's about training, and people doing things on the job they shouldn't," he says. "There's something wrong with that number."
Macklin's campaign is light on specifics. While other candidates stress the importance of performance audits, Macklin emphasizes that "the job is financial. You need to understand the numbers." He got into the race, he says, to "create opportunities" for residents; as controller he'd push for belt-tightening that could entice businesses with lower tax rates. "We're trying to do economic-development projects like we did back when we had 600,000 residents," he says. "You can't do that."
Acting controller Tony Pokora is more cautiously optimistic about the city's finances than, say, Dawida. "We're stable right now," he says. But because of mounting debt and state-mandated tax cuts, "A lot of the revenue that we have now is going away." Still, he says, "I think we'll be able to mitigate it by finding ways to raise revenues, cut expenditures and merge some services."
Like Pokora, Doug Shields has a less downbeat view of the city's finances. "We're certainly in a far better place than we were in 2003," asserts Shields, currently the city councilor from District 5, and formerly a top aide to his predecessor, the late Bob O'Connor. Shields notes that the city has improved its debt rating, and spent money on capital improvements for the first time in years. Still, he says one reason he's running for controller is to ensure "we're not giving political, sweetheart deals. ... The city is in far too serious a situation to be squandering taxpayer dollars."