A Pittsburgh City Council debate over a take-home car policy led to charges of political intimidation and bitter debate over the Law Department's credibility today, before council gave it a tentative nod by a 4-2 vote.
The heated debate reflected rising tension between what appears to be a tentative council majority and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration. They have also sparred recently over billboard permit approvals and development budgeting.
Councilman Ricky Burgess, who authored legislation that would force Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to cut the number of take-home cars from 59 to 29, said he has experienced "the ugly side of politics" since introducing the proposed ordinance.
"I'm tired of my colleagues being threatened. I'm tired of my staff being threatened," he said. "Let me personally bear any political consequences of my legislative actions," he urged the alleged intimidators, whom he did not name in council proceedings.
"I certainly know that I have never threatened you," said Solicitor George Specter.
Mr. Burgess amended his legislation's key provisions to match parts of the Act 47 recovery plan that council and then-Mayor Tom Murphy approved in 2004.
Mr. Specter called it illegal, characterizing it as "micromanagement of the day-to-day operations of the city."
"The facts are that the administration makes the decision on take-home vehicles, and not this council body," said Councilman Jim Motznik, adding that it's "a bill that's going to be illegal, that the administration is not going to follow."
Mr. Specter told Councilwoman Darlene Harris that voting for the legislation would be illegal, because it infringes on mayoral power.
That sparked a fiery interrogation by Councilman Patrick Dowd.
"Is it illegal, then, for us to exercise our authority?" he asked. "If we were to bring all of the Act 47 recommendations to the table, would it be illegal for us to pass those recommendations?"
"We can talk about any one of them," Mr. Specter said. "Council is overstepping its charter and code prerogatives."
Mr. Dowd then asked if the exact same legislation would be legal, or illegal, if it were proposed by the administration.
"I think it would be legal," Mr. Specter said.
"It's illegal if it comes from the legislative branch," Mr. Dowd sniped back. "All we can do is wait for the executive branch to bring things forward to us? . . . That's amazing."
Attorney James Roberts, the co-leader of the state-picked Act 47 recovery team, has backed the take-home vehicle reduction bid. "The current legislation adopts standards to determine who should have 24-hour vehicles that are taken almost verbatim from the Recovery Plan," he wrote in a recent e-mail. "In short, council's current legislation is consistent with its 2004 ordinance adopting the Recovery Plan, all with the concurrence of the mayor."
Mr. Burgess said that Mr. Specter said at a prior special meeting on take-home cars that council could pass legislation that matched the Act 47 plan.
"This is sad," the councilman said. "It is sad for our solicitor to come here and change his opinion, on air. . . . Let's just go home. Why are we here? Why should we introduce bills?
"I'm not stupid. I don't like to be treated stupid," he continued. "How do we run a city when, if we don't like things, at any time, we just say, 'Hup! Let's change the rules.' "
"On the worst day of my career, never have I disrespected, or derogated a council member," Mr. Specter responded.
A final vote on take-home cars could occur Tuesday. It would then go to the mayor, who can veto it, sign it, or allow it to become law without his signature.
More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.