A referendum drive to cut the size of Pittsburgh City Council from nine members to five may have unprecedented momentum, council members and their foes agree.
Slashing the city's oft-maligned legislature is an idea that's been trotted out repeatedly, without result. But a petition push, started last week, to force a binding referendum has organized support at a time of dissatisfaction with council and government in general.
Swinging behind it are the firefighters union and the city Republican Committee, both of which say they are joined by other groups that do not want to be identified. They say reports of lax council spending rules and general dissatisfaction with government may play in their favor.
If they get the signatures of 8,494 city registered voters by Aug. 8, the measure will be on the ballot Nov. 7.
"Would it pass? Probably," said Council President Luke Ravenstahl. "If it comes to a vote, and the voters decide to reduce council, then so be it."
That's the choice Joe King wants voters to make.
The city "can no longer afford the services and the number of employees we've had over the years," said Mr. King, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1, who has seen his ranks trimmed by budget cuts. "I have never seen plans that have ever suggested reducing the number of elected officials, and I think it's time."
The city's population is less than half what it was at its peak, and council members now represent just 35,000 people each. What irks Republican Committee Vice Chairman Joseph Weinroth most, though, is council's "walking-around money."
News reports on Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle's $178,000 in spending on consultants and neighborhood interests since 2002 convinced him that "politicians are in it for themselves, rather than for their communities," he said. Some of the consultants were family friends or Carlisle campaign helpers.
He's rallying the 180 Republican Committee members in the city to join the referendum drive. Add to that many of the 589 active firefighters, and you've got a potent petitioning force.
"It would pass if it makes the ballot," said Councilman William Peduto. "I have no doubt about it."
No one on council relishes the politically charged task of melding nine districts into five, which could pit members against each other as early as next year. Already, members are speculating about what a five-district map might look like, who would face off against whom, and who would survive.
They're also crafting arguments that could dampen voter enthusiasm for a smaller council.
Some argue that the savings would be, at most, $600,000 -- the salaries of four council members and their aides, plus discretionary money and overhead. That's a tiny fraction of the city's $427.5 million budget.
Compared to some councils, they're already cheap, said Mr. Ravenstahl. He pointed to press reports from Philadelphia showing that council's 17 members have city-owned cars, and rafts of staff and consultants whose pay approaches six figures.
Pittsburgh council members' salaries and budget are in the bottom half of comparable cities for which data was available.
With five districts, each would represent around 63,000 people. "It would be difficult for a council member to be present in the community if the district is that large," said Mr. Peduto.
"It just would be far too much," said Councilwoman Tonya Payne.
Residents who get their impression of council from the media "don't see all the papers here, or all that, which I have to go through," she said, gesturing at a table laden with stacks of reports. "They don't see when my car is parked here seven days a week and when I leave out, sometimes, at 9" at night.
She said reducing the number of council districts could reduce the number of African-American members from two to zero.
"I suspect that there would be federal court action filed by minority community members," said Councilman Doug Shields.
Members also say the firefighters and Republicans have ulterior motives.
Firefighters are smarting from their repeated failure to stop state oversight of the city's finances, which curbs their collective bargaining power. They think firefighter-friendly council members would survive a reduction, some members say.
Republicans, who haven't held seats on council since the 1930s, want to whack offices they can't win, said Mr. Ravenstahl. "The closer they get to dissolving the city into non-existence, they better off they'll be."
"This is not [about] party affiliation," said Mr. King, a Democrat. "This is a citizen's issue."
City residents, whose numbers include every firefighter, have long been ignored by council, he said, and a referendum "is the only way we can have our voice heard and recognized."
Rich Lord can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542.