Ferlo's presence looming larger at city hall

Mayor's business friends thicken their web in his absence

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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, far right, after the dedication of the historical marker of Forbes Fields in Oakland in July.
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Mayor O'Connor has business friends who wield clout

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Three years gone from city hall, Jim Ferlo is anything but forgotten.

A former City Council president, Mr. Ferlo has loomed large in the young administration of Mayor Bob O'Connor, and his presence is, perhaps, greater than ever after last month's purge of three top aides.

Yarone Zober, a former aide to Mr. Ferlo, now a state senator, is serving as deputy mayor while Mr. O'Connor recovers from surgery to drain excess fluid from his brain. Scott Kunka, who was appointed finance director in the shake-up, worked with Mr. Ferlo for years in City Council.

And some believe Mr. Ferlo, who was appointed by the mayor this year to serve on the influential Urban Redevelopment Authority board, could be in line to become its chairman with the firing of B.J. Leber, Mr. O'Connor's former chief of staff.

Just how much influence Mr. Ferlo, a former adversary turned friend of Mr. O'Connor's, carries within the administration is a matter of conjecture among City Council members and others.

But there seems to be little doubt that Mr. Ferlo, a one-time rabble-rouser who once was carried out of council chambers by police, has clout, maybe a lot of it.

"I feel he is one of about five people that's in the inner circle from outside the mayor's office," said Councilman William Peduto, who lost to Mr. O'Connor in last year's mayor's race.

"I think the sort of fast-track promotion of [Mr. Zober], who essentially came out of nowhere, speaks volumes of the influence of Senator Ferlo," said Joseph Sabino Mistick, who was an aide to former Mayor Sophie Masloff.

In a bit of political irony, Mr. Ferlo acknowledges that he might have more pull now than he did in any of his 15 years on council, including four as its president, when he was often on the outs with the mayor's office.

"Do I have the ability to get things implemented more now because of my relationship with the executive branch? Absolutely, yes. And because of the position that Bob gave me, the honor and privilege of serving on [the Urban Redevelopment Authority] board? Yes," he said.

But in the next breath, Mr. Ferlo said he had no interest in using his influence for personal gain as much as to pursue neighborhood and policy initiatives that long have been dear to him and to help Mr. O'Connor implement his agenda.

"I have no personal agenda. I don't have friends or relatives looking for a job. I have no business ventures in the city of Pittsburgh. Maybe that's why it's so good to work with me, because I don't have anything," he said.

Some in and outside city hall saw Mr. Ferlo's hand in the July 27 firings of Ms. Leber, Finance Director Paul Leger and Solicitor Susan Malie, or, at least, in the administration's public statements after the purge.

"When the three people were fired, the first voice we heard was not a member of the city administration or City Council, but state Senator Jim Ferlo," said former county Chief Executive Jim Roddey, who has criticized the dismissals.

But Mr. Ferlo, who helped to lead an attempted coup to remove now state Sen. Jack Wagner as City Council president in 1993, denies having anything to do with the purge.

"That's just not true," he said.

He acknowledged taking a lead in defending the firings, saying there seemed to be a brief "communications gap" in getting the administration's position out to the public, one he sought to fill.

Mr. Ferlo said he pushed Mr. O'Connor's top aides to make Mr. Zober available Monday, his first full day as deputy mayor, as did many in the media, and that happened before afternoon's end. He also has direct access to many of the city's directors.

One doesn't have to look far to see Mr. Ferlo's fingerprints on administration or URA initiatives.

At Thursday's meeting, the URA board awarded a loan of up to $196,000 and a grant of up to $50,000 for a mixed-use retail and housing project on Bryant Street in Highland Park, one favored by Mr. Ferlo.

He had lobbied Mr. O'Connor before he became ill to sell three buildings in the Fifth and Forbes retail corridor, Downtown, to the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation for a restoration project, a sale authorized by the board at the same meeting.

"When people say I have access, it's access that I'm helping to use or utilize for this group that has unmet needs and wants access to change, to progress," he said. "Bryant Street has languished away. So can I be a better link? Yes."

Still, the senator insists he has not "cornered the market" in terms of clout, and whatever amount he has is designed to serve the mayor.

"Whatever influence I do have is based on mutual respect and is something that makes sense in terms of Bob's background, and goals and objectives," he said.

"I'm trying to work in sync to fill out, to complement, the mayor's agenda. ... I've tried to be a positive influence and work positively with the administration."

He has not always been a yes-man, voting against two administration-supported URA purchases of buildings in the Fifth and Forbes corridor in March.

The relationship between Mr. Ferlo, a onetime far-left activist who was arrested as a councilman for trying to stop the demolition of Syria Mosque in Oakland, and Mr. O'Connor, the jovial button-down businessman who cut his teeth in the restaurant business, wasn't always so cozy.

In 1994, Mr. Ferlo outmaneuvered Mr. O'Connor for the council presidency, a job Mr. O'Connor thought he had locked up. Mr. O'Connor even chastised Mr. Ferlo afterward for the way he had handled it.

But out of those seeds of discord grew reconciliation and, ultimately, friendship. Four years later, Mr. Ferlo worked behind the scenes to help throw the council presidency to Mr. O'Connor, who used the post as a steppingstone to his campaigns for mayor, with Mr. Ferlo becoming one of his staunchest supporters.

City Councilman Doug Shields, a former aide to Mr. O'Connor, said he believed the friendship had its genesis in efforts to save the City Pride bakery, a campaign in which Mr. O'Connor assisted Mr. Ferlo in arranging a meeting with key business leaders. The Lawrenceville bakery, started by former Braun Co. employees, closed in February 1994 after two years in business. City leaders tried, but failed, to resuscitate it.

"That was kind of one of those moments where they learned to work together," he said.

According to Mr. Shields, both bring something to the table, Mr. O'Connor, his ability to work with the business world, and Mr. Ferlo, his knowledge and penchant for getting things done in community development.

"I think they complemented one another in a lot of different ways," he said.

And if anything cemented the friendship, it was Tom Murphy, who fought both on numerous policy issues.

"We got to be close and became good friends.We got to be personal friends," Mr. Ferlo said. "I think we reinforced each other on policy issues."

Mr. Ferlo met Mr. Zober in 1997 at the City-County Building. Mr. Zober, an avid Pirates fan, stood toe-to-toe with Mr. Ferlo when the then-city councilman questioned Mr. Zober's support of an increase in the sales tax to fund new stadiums. Mr. Ferlo, a critic of the plan, was so impressed, he hired Mr. Zober the next day.

In addition to being an aide to the councilman, Mr. Zober worked on Mr. Ferlo's campaign for the state Senate, a job he secured in 2003, and then joined Mr. O'Connor's campaign for mayor last year.

Despite the high-level connections, Mr. Ferlo dismissed the suggestion that he is running the mayor's office, a thought whispered by some at city hall and elsewhere.

"Go and interview 25 other people," he said, "because they have the same influence."

And if Mr. Ferlo is calling the shots, Mr. Zober isn't letting on. He said in an interview last week that his focus is in implementing Mr. O'Connor's goals while he remains hospitalized with primary central nervous system lymphoma.

"The agenda for us is Mr. O'Connor's agenda," he said. "We're just picking up where he left off."

Asked about Mr. Ferlo's influence, mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar replied, "Senator [Jay] Costa, Senator Ferlo, and Senator [Wayne] Fontana have influence on the administration of the city of Pittsburgh. They represent the citizens of Pittsburgh in Harrisburg and influence the state Legislature and Senate on their behalf."

Councilman Jim Motznik said he believed Dennis Regan, the chief of staff who is Mr. O'Connor's longtime friend, and senior secretary Marlene Cassidy, have far more influence than Mr. Ferlo.

"I personally don't think it's much at all," he said.

But others believe Mr. Ferlo's clout increased by necessity. There are few with his knowledge of the inner workings of city government, which could be a key asset to a young administration, particularly with their leader ill.

"I think his leadership and experience have been called upon by those in the administration," Mr. Peduto said. "He's the smartest man at city hall. Jim Ferlo knows the city code inside and out. He wrote much of it."

Mr. Peduto is one who believes Mr. Ferlo's influence could be for the better. He said he had been working with the senator and Mr. Zober on a green building policy for the city.

"Would that have been Mr. O'Connor's priority for a policy agenda? Probably not. There's the potential that his influence can help bring progressive ideas as well," he said.


Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262.


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