With a week of campaigning to go, mayoral challenger and city Councilman Patrick Dowd resurrected last year's long-running billboard controversy -- complete with what he termed "corruption" and "hush money" -- in an effort to persuade voters to oust Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in next Tuesday's Democratic primary.
The Ravenstahl campaign swiftly raised two of Mr. Dowd's more controversial votes when he was a school director. His votes to pay former school Superintendent John Thompson and Chief Academic Officer Lynn Spampinato were "two hush-money buyouts in less than two years," according to Ravenstahl campaign manager Paul McKrell, showing that Mr. Dowd "speaks out of both sides of his mouth."
The back-and-forth started with Mr. Dowd standing across the street from the Grant Street Transportation Center, with its unfinished Lamar Advertising electronic billboard. His campaign staff brought a cardboard check for $101,000 -- the approximate amount of post-resignation payments and benefits that former Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford is getting as part of an agreement that bars him and city officials from disparaging each other.
"That's hush money!" Mr. Dowd shouted, as his neck reddened and passers-by stopped to listen. "That's a sign of corruption. That's unacceptable in this city."
That arrangement stemmed from winter 2008 revelations that the city -- with guidance from Mr. Ford -- let Lamar have a permit and a no-bid contract to put a 19-by-58-foot sign on the center. When Mr. Ford confirmed that he'd received Christmas gifts from a Lamar executive, a State Ethics Commission review ensued, Mr. Ford accused the administration of a "culture of deception and corruption," and the two sides reached the settlement that Mr. Dowd brandished yesterday.
"Our mayor, duly elected by the people in 2007, is required by the public to keep his mouth shut," Mr. Dowd said.
Mr. McKrell criticized the challenger's votes to let Mr. Thompson go with a $95,575 buyout, and to pay Ms. Spampinato $213,000 for what he called "a do-nothing consulting contract in return for Dr. Spampinato's promise not to disparage or sue the district."
Mr. Dowd said that those agreements included "no penalty for speaking," unlike the one between the city and Mr. Ford, in which a violator can be made to pay $25,000.
Mr. Thompson's payment was required by contract, he said. "Spampinato's relationship with the district was not one that worked out well," he added, adding that she did do consulting work for the money.
Mr. Ford's attorney, Lawrence Fisher, noted that the agreement allows parties to talk with law enforcement, and said his client "continues to cooperate with authorities on matters of mutual interest" -- language he has been using since July.
The tone of the campaign is increasingly harsh.
Mr. Dowd yesterday said the city shouldn't "tolerate this form of garbage governance."
Mr. McKrell called the councilman's challenge "one of the most negative campaigns ever waged by a candidate for an office in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh deserves better than desperate mud-slingers."
The case of the billboard, by contrast, has quieted after coloring much of city government's activity last year when five council members challenged its permit -- four of them as public officials, and Mr. Dowd as a private citizen.
As a result of a settlement reached by Lamar and Mr. Dowd, the firm took its sign plan to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which reached a tie vote, effectively rejecting the sign. Lamar appealed, and Common Pleas Judge Joseph James has received briefs but hasn't ruled.
No matter which way the court rules, said Mr. Dowd, the sign "will cost us as far as losing confidence that our government is making decisions in the interest of the public."
Rich Lord can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542.