One BIG IDEA for Pittsburgh's next mayor

The Post-Gazette asked people from various walks of life to offer the next mayor of Pittsburgh (whoever that might be) one big suggestion...

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Abolish your job

Simin Yazdgerdi Curtis, president and CEO, American Middle East Institute

Congratulations, Mr. Mayor. Now, please phase out your job -- gradually, maybe, but inexorably! Why? Pittsburgh needs to have its mayor and county executive collaborate to put Pittsburgh in the top 10 cities population-wise, which would happen if Pittsburgh encompassed all of Allegheny County. We would then have about 1.3 million people, placing us as high as No. 7 on a list that includes New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia. We are currently No. 61, which means we never pop up on anyone's Google search of top 10 metro areas in the United States.

We not only would have one leader running this new metro Pittsburgh, but we also would have a streamlined government that would eliminate, among other things, a lot of dead wood in the city government, not to mention all the wasteful duplicative services. The American Middle East Institute, headquartered here, would certainly have an easier time attracting the attention of Mideast dignitaries and big investors to this new mega Pittsburgh -- and all the job potential that would come with it. Mr. Mayor, don't despair -- you could always run for county executive or mega mayor or whatever the new top leader is called.

Speed up the buses

Chuck Bunch, CEO of PPG Industries and chair, Allegheny Conference on Community Development

The next mayor should build on the economic impact of two of Pennsylvania's largest centers of jobs -- Downtown and Oakland -- by linking them with Bus Rapid Transit. This would make the corridor more attractive for office, residential and entertainment development by providing easy access to these busy areas.

BRT combines the speed, comfort and reliability of rail service while eliminating the need to build expensive rail infrastructure, and it has helped transform neighborhoods elsewhere. Cleveland's BRT line connects downtown to the medical, academic and cultural institutions at University Circle, helping to generate billions of dollars of investment in an economically depressed 6-mile corridor.

BRT can take advantage of public-private partnerships to bring private capital into the project from design and construction through day-to-day operations. Cleveland's BRT has been dubbed "the HealthLine," thanks to a corporate sponsorship deal with Cleveland Clinic.

Quicker to finance and put into operation than a rail system, BRT can happen in just a few short years. The residents of this region could be utilizing BRT between Oakland and Downtown before our new mayor's first term ends.

Go mobile

Christopher Briem, regional economist, University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research

Bring the mayor's office into our neighborhoods (literally). Citizens want a more open, accessible government. Ensconced on Grant Street it is easy for the city's apparatchiki to become disconnected from its 90-plus neighborhoods. How Pittsburghers view their elected leaders would be instantly transformed by moving the mayor's office and staff out of 414 Grant Street and embedding them directly in our city neighborhoods.

Our phones and computers already follow us. Is there any reason the mayor's office could not operate out of Sheraden, or Beltzhoover, or Brighton Heights? For a day? A week? A month? Forever?

Making city officials work in the neighborhoods they serve is thinking about government in a whole new way. No more traveling to the redoubt of the City-County Building's fifth floor; take the fifth floor out to the people. Staff and city council meetings on Main Street instead of Grant Street, anyone? Whatever inconvenience or cost incurred would be more than offset by the benefits citizens would gain from knowing their government is in tune with conditions where they live and work.

End poverty

Susan Everingham, director of RAND Corp.'s Pittsburgh office

Pittsburgh's on a roll, regularly appearing on top 10 lists, turning heads like a mousy schoolgirl after a makeover. It's an exciting time for both longtime Pittsburghers who have lived through Pittsburgh's darker days as well as newer residents like me who now can feel smugly vindicated for deciding to make Pittsburgh home. ("Here's the name and number of a psychiatrist," one disbelieving Pittsburgher said to me when I revealed that I had moved to Pittsburgh by choice.)

So many passionate Pittsburghers have labored doggedly to make this remarkable renaissance happen. But not all residents are enjoying its benefits. The difference in economic circumstances between adjacent neighborhoods is often stark. This is nothing less than shameful.

We have lacked the public and political leadership to strategically align forces to ensure that Pittsburgh's rise lifts everyone. Our next mayor should rally all Pittsburghers and our institutions in a full-court press to help our less-than-thriving neighborhoods become healthier, better educated and more prosperous. Let's make Pittsburgh the city that solves the problem of persistent poverty.

End poverty II

Cheryl Hall-Russell, president and CEO of the Hill House Association

I've lived in Pittsburgh for two years and my experience is shaped by working in the storied Hill District. I researched the city before moving here and was impressed by Pittsburgh's well-deserved honors and accolades. It is vibrant and beautiful. Its efforts to go green and diversify its economy are exciting.

My professional life here has been dominated by the building of a grocery-anchored retail center in the Hill. This has given me a close look at the health challenges of the community, which is sandwiched between its wealthier and healthier neighbors in Oakland and Downtown. And I've been stunned by the racially charged conversations around what citizens of low-income neighborhoods "deserve" in terms of basic needs like health care and food.

For our city to mobilize all of its citizens in its effort to be the best, our mayor must initiate fearless conversations about the impact of poverty and race. We are all Pittsburghers, and all Pittsburghers are needed to make us great.

New blood

Anne McCafferty, human resources manager, IBM

Create a "New Pittsburghers" Office. Grow and revitalize Pittsburgh's demographic profile by identifying and recruiting people to live in Pittsburgh. Newly arrived immigrants to the United States should figure prominently, in addition to the young professionals and boomerangers we already attract. About 2 million immigrants join the U.S. population each year. Let's tell them about what a great life they can have in Pittsburgh.

Within a year or two of arriving and living in expensive coastal cities, half of new arrivals move inland seeking affordable housing, safe and welcoming communities, and educational and entrepreneur/employment opportunities. We should let these folks know about Pittsburgh's extraordinary assets. Other inland cities have been doing this well and best practices have been developed, so no need for trial and error -- just do it!

The next mayor can turbocharge this vision and enlist the support of engaged citizens, visionary foundations and businesses, and our vibrant academic and services infrastructure. Wouldn't it be delightful not to compete with Cleveland over who attracts the smallest number of immigrants each year?

Get fiscally fit

Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute

Under state-appointed fiscal overseers, Pittsburgh has reduced its debt and boosted pension funding. But much remains to be done to achieve financial stability. Pittsburgh's per-resident employee count, spending and taxes are well above those of well-managed cities. Long-term fiscal health depends on permanently cutting employment, spending and the tax burden. The goal should be to cut each of these by 10 percent over the next four years. How?

1) Institute a one-year hiring freeze. 2) Examine all departments for increased efficiencies. 3) Create a bonus program for employees who suggest implementable cost or labor savings. 4) Outsource functions such as garbage collection and building maintenance. 5) Contract with the county government to perform functions the county can do more cheaply.

Emphasize equality

Sue Kerr, editor, Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents

Address LGBTQ equality with standout reforms that protect everyone and create an inclusive workplace culture to attract new business development -- reforms similar to those in Philadelphia and those found in the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index. These would include:

1) A tax credit to companies that provide domestic partner health insurance coverage. 2) A tax offset on city employees' domestic partner health insurance which is currently counted as pre-tax income, unlike family coverage for married employees. 3) Reduced barriers for low-income LGBTQ families to join the domestic partner registry. 4) Gender-neutral bathrooms required for new construction or renovation of city facilities. 5) A new office of LGBTQ or diversity affairs. 6) LGBTQ community members recruited for public safety roles as well as board and council appointments.

The focus is on creating opportunity, not solely preventing discrimination or responding to discriminatory treatment.

Champion the arts

Jon Rubin, assistant professor of art, Carnegie Mellon University

Just as most major cities have police, planning and public works departments, the city of Pittsburgh desperately needs an art department. In most progressive cities, this is usually called something like the Department of Cultural Affairs. Frankly, I don't care what it's called just as long as it is a fully empowered office within city government that advocates and supports the arts in all aspects of public life.

Pittsburgh has some of the greatest private foundations in the country functioning as the de facto backbone for most of the major arts-related efforts in this city. This unique asset needs to be strategically paired to a city hall that believes the arts are not just a private benevolence but a civic responsibility. If Pittsburgh wants to be a 21st-century city, it needs to act like one.

Question everything

Audrey Russo, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council

Renew our commitment to building the best place in the world to live, work, raise a family and retire. Question everything and get out of city hall to find answers. Businesses face rapidly changing customer preferences. If the city is delivering services the same way today that it did five years ago, suspect that it was wrong then or wrong now. City government should be a hallmark of innovation, with continuous evaluation and measurement fueled by the voices of citizens. The city government has been doing the same things in the same ways for decades.

A practice referred to as "The 5 Whys" helps find root causes of problems -- Google it! And instead of appointing a customary transition team, appoint a transformation team charged with questioning everything.

Honor taxpayers

Jonathan Growall, South Side resident and founder, Trail Town South Side Pittsburgh

Outlaw all future mayors from placing their names on publicly funded capital improvements such as park benches and trash cans. These are paid for by the taxpayers of Pittsburgh, and they are the ones who should be recognized. Besides, why should we pay to have names removed after someone new is elected?

If anyone should be recognized it should be the 300,000-plus people who choose to live here and stick it out through tough times. We do so because we believe in Pittsburgh. Many others of our generation figure they can live life more comfortably in an outlying town or borough.

Many of us are needed to carry on the daily mission of preserving the city we love. Let us honor ourselves on our trash cans instead of the mayors we elect.

Enshrine rights

Pat Buddemeyer, instigator of local co-housing movement and of Borland Green Ecovillage

In 2010, Pittsburgh City Council voted for an internationally groundbreaking Community Bill of Rights, which includes a ban on fracking in the city. Using a civil rights approach, this ordinance makes Pittsburgh the first major city to transform the prevailing legal system that subordinates the rights of the community and of nature to the "rights" of corporations and to state pre-emption.

To make Pittsburgh a just and thriving city, working collaboratively and strategically with environmental and social justice initiatives and setting precedents to inspire other Pennsylvania communities, the Community Bill of Rights should be permanently embedded in the city's Home Rule Charter. This would ban fracking forever and set the stage for a vibrant deliberative democratic process. With an enshrined Bill of Rights, plus the support of the new mayor and city council, we the people can create a path to health, prosperity and justice.

Improve school food

Leah Lizarondo, curator, The Brazen Kitchen; Pittsburgh ambassador for Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution"

Studies by the Center for Ecoliteracy have shown that "by addressing school food, we affect public health, academic performance, economics ... the environment, and community well-being." I challenge the next mayor to advocate initiatives to improve the food served in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Pittsburgh's school lunch program feeds more than 20,000 children five days a week. For many of the children, it is their primary source of nutrition. While school-food reform enacted last year has been lauded, compliance has been perfunctory at best. The addition of whole grains and (wilted) salad notwithstanding, smaller portions of unhealthy food is still unhealthy. We need real change. We need to serve our children truly healthy food that is appealing, include food education in the curriculum and bring parents and caregivers into the process.

Good nutrition has been repeatedly linked to learning readiness, academic achievement and decreased discipline and emotional problems. Food education has been shown to improve children's eating habits, laying the foundation to reverse the dire trends in obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Investing in better school food is an investment in our city's future.

Modernize relentlessly

Douglas Heuck, publisher of Pittsburgh Quarterly, director of PittsburghTODAY

Be relentless in modernizing city government ... whether that means joint purchasing with Allegheny County or working with the brainiacs at CMU and Pitt to build a smarter, more efficient government across the board. Scour the world for best practices. Challenge the city government to be the best in the country in delivering services. Enlist everyone in the quest. Create a culture of excellence that attracts people and businesses to Pittsburgh.



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