Broken leadership: The pension crisis reveals a Pittsburgh in trouble

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It was not your average Grant Street imbroglio. It was a noisy, months-long political brawl that laid bare the inadequacy of leadership in Pittsburgh government.

At its core was a crisis full of financial risk for city taxpayers, the threat of losing local autonomy over something as basic as the city's pension fund and the prospect of ceding control of something so key as parking assets to an out-of-town operator.

Even now, after months of proposals and counterproposals by the mayor and City Council, after extended work sessions this week by council members (give them credit for that much) and now the notion, in theory at least, that the city has met the state's deadline for shoring up its pension fund and thereby averted the need for a takeover -- Pittsburgh has no guarantee that it is out of the woods.

That won't be known for months, until the Pennsylvania Employee Retirement Commission has completed its actuarial studies. That extensive examination will tell whether council's just-inked commitment of $735.7 million in parking tax revenue over 31 years, at the rate of $13.4 million annually for the next five years, will be enough to assure that the pension program is at least 50 percent funded.

What is certain today, though, is that Pittsburgh's elected officials, by forwarding to Harrisburg a dicey bailout that had council but not mayoral backing, did not cover themselves in glory. This cleavage of disagreement is emblematic of a larger crisis of leadership that, unfortunately, will dog the city until new representatives are elected or influential civic voices -- from business, the universities, the foundations -- make their displeasure known and felt.

How to save the city's ailing pension fund from a state takeover was an issue of the first magnitude. It demanded action by the mayor and council long before now, yet it culminated in a political tug of war that climaxed with council twice overriding the mayor's vetoes of its last-ditch, patched-together solution. It ended Friday with council sending a funding plan to the state and the mayor abdicating his leadership role while clinging to his own proposal, which was dead in October.

It is hard to imagine this scenario of dysfunction playing out under previous Pittsburgh mayors -- David L. Lawrence, Pete Flaherty, Richard Caliguiri, Sophie Masloff. The question is, whom or what to blame?

For starters, you can blame the Democratic Party. Blame the Republican Party, too. This is what a city gets with one-party rule. The lack of political competition, except for intra-Democratic rivalries, yields little in new ideas for a city facing 21st-century problems. A revitalized Republican Party in Pittsburgh, with real choices on Election Day, would make a difference. A forward-thinking Democratic Party, offering solutions instead of the same old same old, is a must.

You can blame a City Council that, when divided over its choice for council president five years ago, compromised by selecting a 25-year-old government novice. When fate intervened nine months later upon the death of Mayor Bob O'Connor, Luke Ravenstahl stepped into the chair at age 26. Rather than replace him with a real leader at the next election, the Democratic powers-that-be let him stay in office. That's a punishing sequence of events that Pittsburgh has been paying for ever since.

Finally, you can blame the city's home rule charter, which contains no provision for the recall of a mayor or council member based on a lack of ability and leadership. Voters in other states have the right to throw such officials out of office, after a broad-based petition drive to call the question and the expressed will of the public at the polling place. Pittsburghers deserve the same right, too.

The city's pension funding crisis has been an eye-opening experience in several ways. It has revealed the warts of present-day leadership, the inadequacy of the political parties to provide alternatives and the failure of the city charter to offer relief.

It also shows what can happen when the region's civic leaders outside government leave too much on Grant Street to chance. Even though the immediate crisis has passed, the culture that allowed it to fester remains.

Pittsburgh needs a grass-roots effort led by citizens to effect a fundamental change in city government. They need to fix their parties. They need to hold their representatives accountable. They need to repair the charter to make officeholders more responsive to the public.

Those who think such efforts are doomed from the start can take heart from the reforms enacted in Cleveland, where a reorganized Cuyahoga County government takes over this year, and in Allegheny County, where a similar structure replaced the status quo in 2000. The city of Pittsburgh must shake off the past, and the pension fund donnybrook is proof it must happen sooner than later.


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