Ravenstahl tells 10 top officials to resign

Mayor: 'Changes will be made'

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V.W.H. Campbell, Jr., Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hustles away from an impromptu news conference outside Peabody High School, where reporters gathered to question him about his request that several top city administrators resign. After answering questions, the mayor ran off to a Pittsburgh Fire Department graduation ceremony.
By Mark Belko and James O'Toole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nearly a year after becoming mayor under tragic circumstances, Luke Ravenstahl is moving to put his own stamp on city hall, seeking the resignations of 10 directors or authority chiefs he inherited last September.

During an impromptu press conference yesterday, Mr. Ravenstahl said he has offered all of the directors the opportunity to reapply as part of a national search for candidates and indicated that some may be retained. But he also acknowledged that others may go as part of a potential shake-up.

   
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Listen to excerpts of comments by Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl about asking for department head resignations.

   

The affected directors are holdovers from either the administration of the late Bob O'Connor, who died in office Sept. 1, elevating Mr. Ravenstahl to the mayor's office, or former mayor Tom Murphy. All have been asked to stay on in an acting capacity as the search is conducted.

Mr. Ravenstahl said part of the consideration was simply to get his own people in place, an opportunity delayed given the tragic way in which he came to power. But he also tied the decision in large part to dissatisfaction with "the condition of city government," without being specific.

"The status quo is unacceptable. We need to make sure that we're doing everything we can to move this city forward and move this city in the right direction. This is part of the process," he said.

Mr. Ravenstahl requested the resignations at a director's meeting Thursday. Those asked to resign included Public Works Director Guy Costa; Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Jerome Dettore; Parking Authority Executive Director David Onorato, brother of county Chief Executive Dan Onorato; and Bureau of Building Inspection Chief Ron Graziano.

None of them could be reached for comment yesterday. Another of those asked to resign, Phillipe Petite, director of the Equal Opportunity Review Commission, said he planned to reapply for his position.

"I definitely think I'm the most qualified,'' he said.

Unaffected by the request are five directors Mr. Ravenstahl appointed since taking office, including Police Chief Nate Harper, Fire Chief Michael Huss, Planning Director Noor Ismail and Budget Director Scott Kunka.

In calling for the comprehensive review of the city's top executives, Mr. Ravenstahl portrayed himself as an agent of change, a contrast from the image that his critics have sought to impose.

"I think this city needs to change, I really do,'' he said. "Look where we've been for the last 12 years. City government has not performed for the residents of the city of Pittsburgh, in my opinion, and I think change is what people in this city want, and change is what I believe I offer and this is part of that change."

Political opponents have tried to characterize Mr. Ravenstahl, despite his relative youth, as a product and defender of the status quo in city politics. During his abortive campaign for the Democratic nomination for mayor, Councilman William Peduto painted the incumbent, whose father and grandfather were active in North Side politics, as a throwback to an age of machine politics.

Mark DeSantis, the GOP write-in nominee who will challenge the mayor in November, has similarly based his nascent campaign on general calls for reform in city policies. He reacted with skepticism to the potential city hall changes.

"I think reforming government is much broader and much bigger than a few personnel choices,'' he said. "If you really want to talk government reform, let's talk about real profound reform rather than rearranging a few deck chairs. I would start, in my mind, with the very core services we provide and work backward into what structure we need, and then, based on that analysis, put in the right people.''

With polling numbers that even his opponents describe as formidable, Mr. Ravenstahl was unopposed in the Democratic primary. But the results suggested some appetite for change in city government as Democratic voters ousted three incumbent council members -- Leonard Bodack, Twanda Carlisle and Jeff Koch. While the issues varied in those three districts, in each case, the successful challenger campaigned as a voice for reform.

"Number one, I think he wants to show himself as a young, reform-minded mayor, and two, he wants to develop a cadre of people who are loyal to him as he goes into the campaign,'' Morton Coleman, of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics, said in assessing the mayor's announcement. "He may want to counter any of these old-boy-network attacks that he anticipates.''

In calling for new directions, Mr. Ravenstahl never mentioned any of his predecessors by name, but his comment that "the city has not performed for the residents'' over the last 12 years was an implicit criticism of the administration of former mayor Murphy, who served for most of that time.

Apprised of the Ravenstahl assessment of those years, Mr. Murphy said, "One of the advantages of getting older is that you get a little perspective on life. I appreciate that the successes that I might have had were built on the efforts of people like Sophie Masloff and Dick Caliguiri. Luke was 15 [years old] 12 years ago. So maybe he needs to recognize there's a certain perspective he needs to get.

"There wouldn't have been an All-Star Game last year, or a Super Bowl to celebrate if it weren't for some of our decisions,'' added Mr. Murphy, who once ran against and defeated the mayor's grandfather in a state legislative contest. "He wouldn't have been negotiating an arena deal if it weren't for some decisions we made."

Mr. Peduto criticized the mayor's request for resignations, saying he should have waited until after the general election in November.

"I guess it's becoming a pattern. It's now three purges in less than a year. That's greater change than the Italian government," he said, referring to the mayor's earlier personnel moves.

Council President Doug Shields, a close associate of Mr. O'Connor, said the mayor's decision took many in city hall by surprise.

While Mr. Shields said Mr. Ravenstahl had every right to make changes, he urged the mayor to be upfront with the public and workers about his intentions. He said uncertainty could affect morale.

"You've got to be careful that people aren't shutting down on you," he said.

Mr. Shields also questioned whether Mr. Ravenstahl would be able to recruit top candidates for the jobs. He said the city has had trouble finding qualified candidates for jobs the last three or four years. Mr. Ravenstahl said he may hire a headhunting firm to assist in the national search.

"I believe, as the mayor, I owe it to the city to put the best team forward, and that's what this process will determine, and changes will be made," he said.

The officials whose futures are under review are, for the most part, homegrown figures who rose from other positions within city government.

"It will be interesting to see if his new hires fulfill his promises of good government and diversity,'' Mr. Coleman said.

Mr. Ravenstahl's decision to re-evaluate his top staff came two months after he moved out spokesman Dick Skrinjar, senior secretary Marlene Cassidy, and government affairs manager Anna Dobkin, offering them lower-paying jobs elsewhere in city government.

Another aide, Dennis Regan, Mr. O'Connor's former chief of staff, resigned in December, amid accusations -- never proved -- that he quashed disciplinary action against Ms. Cassidy's brother, city police Officer Francis Rende.

Former police chief Dominic Costa retired shortly after Mr. Ravenstahl took office. Grants and Developments Officer Bernadette Lynch later left the mayor's office.

The mayor has 90 days to appoint new directors. He has yet to find a permanent replacement for Mr. Skrinjar or acting solicitor George Specter, who has served in that capacity for nearly a year. Mr. Specter is among those who were asked to resign.


Mark Belko can be reached at mbelko@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1262. James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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