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Pittsburgh City Controller 

A high-profile race for an often-overlooked job


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.

click to enlarge Mike Dawida
  • Mike Dawida
A former state senator and Allegheny County Commissioner, Mike Dawida has stayed out of politics since last century. But he's back, in part because of his concern about city finances. While city officials say the city is poised for a turnaround, "I was stunned to hear people pretend that we have a balanced budget," he says. "All we did was defer the debt. ... In two years it's going to be horrible." Dawida says a controller must think of creative ways to cut costs and enhance revenues. For example, he thinks injured city firefighters could work as consultants for volunteer departments in the suburbs.

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."

click to enlarge Michael Lamb
  • Michael Lamb
Michael Lamb takes pride in the work he's done as county prothonotary, a court record-keeping office. He also takes pride in putting himself out of a job: Thanks to county reforms he supported, his elected position is being eliminated this year. Lamb says he's learned from having the job and from eliminating it. "The county does a far better job of collecting taxes," he says. "Their collection rate is in the high 90s; the city is in the 80s." Maybe the city should let the county take over collections, he says: While Pittsburgh is "momentarily solvent," Lamb sees "trouble on the horizon." As controller, he'd push to merge such services with the county "to save costs -- but also to generate more revenue."

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."

click to enlarge Damon Macklin
  • Damon Macklin
At age 28, DaMon Macklin is the campaign's "new guy on the block," and the only non-white male in the running. Though he graduated with a degree in finance and works as a real-estate adviser, he has never held elected office. Still, he cites that fact as an advantage. "I know I'm against some heavy hitters," he says. "But if you show me 100 years' worth of experience, I'll show you a city that's going backwards, and is in heavy decline. We need a change around here."

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."

click to enlarge Tony Pokora
  • Tony Pokora
Pokora has worked in the controller's office for a quarter-century. Like Flaherty, his former boss, he has some choice words for the city's nonprofit sector, whose contributions to the city Pokora is currently auditing. "They are the biggest impediment to the city right now," he says. "I don't mean to blast them, but some of them are making hundreds of millions of dollars every year and they need to ... help the city out." And while he is less confrontational than Flaherty was, he says he doesn't back down, either. Last year, he pushed for tighter controls on council expenditures after revelations about City Councilor Twanda Carlisle's spending. And he says he's "in a spat with the administration right now" over a vehicle-repair contract. Pokora says the contract is nearly out of money and must be renegotiated. Ravenstahl "doesn't think he needs to," Pokora says, but when "the last dollar is spent, the next invoice [is] going right back upstairs.

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."

click to enlarge Doug Shields
  • Doug Shields
Shields aspires to have the controller's office function as a "think tank" exploring new ideas in finance and management, and he touts his council experience as a key asset. "I understand the dynamic between council and the mayor. But because the controller has no vote, he is well positioned to speak plainly." If elected, he says one of his first audits would be of the city's permitting process. The development of the city was "opened up" to local developers by the late Mayor Bob O'Connor. But the permitting process, he says, it not so welcoming. "I've heard too many complaints from developers who said they've had projects unduly delayed." Unless that changes, he says, "The controller won't have all that much money to count."

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