Mayor, critics spar over board ousters

Dismissals eliminate dissent, Peduto says

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Amid a reshuffling of city boards and commissions this week, the Ravenstahl administration dismissed the author of a Zoning Board opinion that blocked a controversial electronic billboard proposed for the city's Grant Street Transportation Center with the support of the administration.

Alice Mitinger, a lawyer with expertise in zoning issues who had been appointed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment by the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, was informed by the administration this week that she would not be named to another term. Ms. Mitinger wrote an opinion supporting a 2008 ruling, which was upheld yesterday, that denied a permit for Lamar Advertising to erect an electronic billboard on the transportation center.

The administration also chose not to reappoint David Toal, another board member, who had recused himself from the Lamar case because his firm had represented it on unrelated issues. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl did reappoint the third member of the board, Wrenna Watson, who wrote a dissenting opinion in support of the Lamar application.

Those personnel decisions were among more than a score of changes to city boards and authorities conveyed to City Council earlier this week. They included the previously reported dismissal of Debbie Lestitian as chair of the Stadium Authority. Ms. Lestitian had clashed with the administration on North Shore development issues.

Joanna Doven, Mr. Ravenstahl's press secretary, said the changes on the zoning board were unrelated to the Lamar case or to any dissatisfaction with the previous members.

"I'm happy to have served the city," Ms. Mitinger said, while adding that she had not been given any reason for the decision. "I applied the law to the facts that have been presented to the board.

"I have never publicly taken on the administration," she said when asked about the action. "I wish I knew more about the background of it."

Ms. Doven sought to make a distinction between the zoning board moves and the decision to end Ms. Lestitian's tenure on the stadium panel.

"The mayor didn't agree with Debbie's decisions on the board," she said. "He has a vision for development on the North Shore and she doesn't agree with his vision, so it shouldn't come as a surprise."

"I wouldn't make a similar point about the [zoning board] changes," she added.

But two councilmen did suggest a pattern in the personnel moves.

"There are at least a few board members who are being replaced that have had alternative opinions than the administration on development," said Councilman Bill Peduto. "Last year I was removed from the Stadium Authority for that reason. I think it's a loss for Pittsburgh that professionals like Alice, David Toal and Debbie Lestitian are being removed; their independence was one of their greatest strengths."

Council President Doug Shields said of the zoning board realignment: "The message is, we don't want thorough; we want compliance. It's interesting that Alice Mitinger, who wrote a very thorough opinion, was not reappointed; Wrenna Watson, who didn't make any sense in her dissenting opinion, she's getting reappointed."

Ms. Doven declined to respond to the council comments, but she did strongly defend the overall bloc of appointees. The new zoning board choices are Kirk Burkley, a partner in the Bernstein Law Firm who is active in civic issues in his Mexican War Streets neighborhood, and Manoj Jegosothy, a shareholder with the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

"The mayor looked at a lot of impressive, diverse candidates," Ms. Doven said of the overall board and authority moves. "If you've looked at the appointees of the Murphy and O'Connor administrations, and we have, I think you'll find that compared to past administrations this is a more diverse group of appointees ... in gender, race and geography."

Overall, in the personnel moves sent to council Tuesday, Mr. Ravenstahl declined to reappoint eight members of various boards and authorities while appointing or reappointing 25 members of those panels.

Another political rival assailed the administration's personnel moves yesterday. Kevin Acklin, an independent candidate for mayor, decried Ms. Lestitian's ouster. In a press conference in the shadow of Heinz Field, Mr. Acklin said that all city board appointments and removals should be subject to City Council approval. He also said that, if elected, he would create a nonpartisan commission to evaluate candidates for the city panels.

"The mayor should value the independence of these public servants who serve on organizations whose very purpose is to conduct the city's business insulated from the whims and influences of politics," Mr. Acklin said.


Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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