Pittsburgh city hall lacks old hands, has fresh faces

Lack of experience worries some, others like new viewpoint

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When Mayor Bob O'Connor died a month ago, Pittsburgh got not only its youngest mayor but also its least seasoned group of city leaders in nearly a century.

   
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Since 1911, when the city's government changed to its current form with a mayor, controller and nine-member council, there has never been a time when it more markedly lacked an elder statesman. Not one of today's top city officials was in elected office as recently as 2000.

The lack of tenure has manifested itself in small ways, such as open struggles over zoning issues and bitterness over council machinations. It remains to be seen whether it will affect the city's just-started budget process and how it will play out next year in a potentially wild election season.

To Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, 26, the relative newness of the city's leadership isn't a negative.

"I think it's important to note that there are some fresh faces there that can apply some new thinking and move this city forward," he said Friday. He pointed to his planned investments in automation for the Bureau of Building Inspection, a new complaint line, mobile computers in police cars and hybrid vehicles as examples of innovations that might not have occurred to a previous generation of leaders.

Some of those who exited city government in recent years, though, noted that experience can lead to depth of analysis.

"The debates that we had went much more deeply into policy than council does now, and I think that will be missed," said Sala Udin, a councilman from 1995 through last year, and now president of the leadership development group Coro Pittsburgh.

Six years ago, the city had a mayor, Tom Murphy, with seven years in office on top of 15 years in the state House. It had four elected officials -- Controller Tom Flaherty and Councilmen Gene Ricciardi, Jim Ferlo and Dan Cohen -- each with more than a decade in city office.

Since then, a combination of advancements to higher office, electoral defeats and, finally, Mr. O'Connor's brain cancer, has cleared the city's political deck. With 51/2 years in, Councilman Jim Motznik is now the most tenured elected city official. (Mr. Ravenstahl's former council seat is vacant, so another newcomer will be picked in a Nov. 7 special election.)

That's unusual. Pittsburgh traditionally has had at least one, and usually several, longtime officials in its government. Councilman Robert Garland, for instance, sat from 1911 through 1939. Thomas Gallagher legislated from 1934 through 1965, interrupted by one year as interim mayor. Councilman John Counahan served from 1952 to 1970, Eugene DePasquale from 1972 to 1984 and again through 1988 and 1989, and Michelle Madoff from 1978 through 1994.

There also are those who moved up within city government, like Sophie Masloff, who spent 12 years on council and nearly six years as mayor, and Mr. Flaherty, a councilman for four years and controller for 22.

Only in the early 1930s did turnover rival that seen in the last few years.

"Ideally, you'd like to have a balance between experience and fresh ideas," said Mr. Cohen, now a telecommunications attorney. In his practice, he deals with municipalities statewide, and he says the current average tenure of Pittsburgh's elected leaders -- less than three years -- "is shorter than what you'd find in most Pennsylvania cities."

Philadelphia's 16-seat council includes three members with more than 25 years in office, and three more with 10-plus years. That city's mayor, John F. Street, became a councilman a month before Mr. Ravenstahl was born.

"Running a large city like Philadelphia is something that requires a lot of expertise and experience," said Tony Radwanski, spokesman for Philadelphia Council President Anna C. Verna, who first won office in 1975.

"Fresh blood is good," countered Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts, who was a city councilwoman from 1994 through 2001. "I would side more with fresh blood than having the same faces for decades and decades."

That's the argument most of the city's new leaders make.

"The city of Pittsburgh has changed," said council Finance Chairman Dan Deasy, who took office in June 2005. "We haven't been ingrained in the political system for years. We bring new ideas."

Of the city's 10 top officials, all but Mr. Ravenstahl and Councilman Len Bodack were city employees before joining council. Six were aides to the people they replaced, and three were Department of Public Works employees. (Mr. Motznik was a council aide and a public works foreman.)

Though most have city experience, elected office has presented new challenges, and strained relationships.

In May, for instance, when Mr. Ravenstahl, then the council president, proposed changes in council's spending procedures, colleagues William Peduto and Doug Shields proposed amendments to further curtail the hiring of consultants and funding of pet groups.

In years past, such an effort might have sparked counter-amendments and procedural jousting, said Mr. Peduto, who was an aide to Mr. Cohen. Instead, the amendments were summarily shot down, and their sponsors were accused of grandstanding and ostracized for weeks.

These days, "when there's a diverse opinion, it becomes personal quickly," Mr. Peduto said. "It makes it difficult to push issues. You have to consider that the response may not just be negative to the policy, but negative on a personal level."

Personal attacks reached a high volume following the Sept. 5 election of Mr. Shields as council's new president, following Mr. Ravenstahl's ascent to mayor.

In the past, president votes were settled behind the scenes in negotiations that followed unwritten rules. An aspirant would start with a few close allies, offer the coveted finance chairman's post to woo some fence-sitter, then tell other members that they had four votes and wheel and deal for the decisive fifth. Commitments were binding.

Last month, Mr. Motznik thought he had it sealed up, only to learn less than an hour before the vote that all of his presumed support had shifted to Mr. Shields. Other members accused him of politicking while Mr. O'Connor was dying, and he accused them of welshing on deals and being puppets.

New council members have had to learn the art of legislating and working the city's levers without help from veterans like Mr. Ferlo, who became a state senator in 2003.

"It's taken time to get acclimated to how slow the process is," said Councilman Jeff Koch. He has spent much of his six months in office crafting legislation to give neighborhoods control over bars moving in and pushing the bureaucracy to remove graffiti and to seek an operator for the shuttered Neville Ice Arena.

Some members turn to Mr. Shields, who was a council aide to Mr. O'Connor, or to City Clerk Linda Johnson-Wasler for advice.

City government's political maturity will be tested next year, when the ballot will include the controller, five council seats and, possibly, the mayor.

The county Board of Elections is expected to rule this month on whether the mayor will be on the ballot next year or in 2009, resolving differing interpretations of city charter language on what happens after a sitting mayor dies or leaves office.

Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Peduto are expected to run for mayor. Acting Controller Tony Pokora and Mr. Shields may face off for controller, along with county Prothonotary Michael Lamb. At least four, and possibly five, council seats are expected to be vigorously contested.

"It definitely is going to be a test," said Mr. Pokora, who spent 23 years as an aide to Mr. Flaherty, now a Common Pleas judge. "If we can weather this political storm, with the majority of council, the controller and the mayor running at the same time, and maintain some continuity in the city's government, I think that would be for the best."

Fresh leadership may not be all bad, said Mr. Ferlo.

"Whether they're new or old," he said, "the issue is whether they dig in and try to understand the operations of city government. Maybe they lack a certain amount of institutional knowledge. But I think a certain amount of turnover is healthy."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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