City Council possessed by presidency politicking


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Pittsburgh City Council will pick a new leader Monday, and the biennial jockeying is in full swing.

On its surface a contest between Councilmen Ricky Burgess and William Peduto, it is also an opportunity for council to declare either a more collaborative approach to the mayor's office or a more independent stance. The last two years have seen the city's nine lawmakers swing wildly between those poles.

With a week left before two new members are sworn in and a president is picked, the post could still easily go to some other member.

"I have issues with both [declared contestants], to be honest," Councilwoman Theresa Smith said yesterday. Mr. Burgess seems too close to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, she said, and Mr. Peduto seems too far away.

Doug Shields has held the presidency since the September 2006 ascent of Mr. Ravenstahl from the post to the mayor's office. The last two years included notable achievements, such as the passage of a new fiscal recovery plan, many governmental reforms, environmental initiatives and prevailing wage legislation for subsidized development sites.

The years also were marked by strenuous disputes over billboard permits, take-home cars, campaign finance reforms, tuition taxes and many other issues.

Mr. Shields said yesterday that council should continue the recent trend toward spirited debate and autonomy, but that the body and the mayor should try to mend fences. "It's got to change," he said.

Mr. Burgess' focus is on going from "independence to interdependence," he said yesterday. "The emphasis should shift away from personal, political ambitions to policy and progress," he said. Ideally, the president should be "someone who does not want to be the mayor."

"I've always been suspicious of politicians who claim they don't have ambition," said Mr. Peduto, who ran for mayor in 2005 and launched, but then aborted, a run against Mr. Ravenstahl in 2007. Ambition in politics "is the nature of the beast."

He said he's working with Mr. Shields and Councilman Bruce Kraus to ensure that council remains a vigorous check and balance to mayoral power.

On Sunday, the three of them talked about the presidency and other issues at Mr. Kraus' South Side home, along with incoming Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak. When Ms. Smith and Councilwoman Darlene Harris arrived, Mr. Kraus left to avoid having a five-member quorum that might have been interpreted as a secret, illegal meeting.

A similar tango occurred Dec. 17, when Mr. Burgess, Ms. Smith, Ms. Harris, Patrick Dowd and departing members Jim Motznik and Tonya Payne shuffled in and out of the mayor's office, talking about the since-killed tuition tax and the presidency.

Participants in those meetings said that if Mr. Peduto wins, he has pledged to give the high-profile post of finance chair to Mr. Kraus. Mr. Burgess is said to have promised that job to Mr. Dowd.

The choice of one or the other -- or neither of the above -- may be made by incoming member R. Daniel Lavelle. Members agreed that he's a likely swing vote, being wooed by both sides.

Complicating matters, Mr. Lavelle's former boss, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, faces an electoral challenge from Ms. Payne, a mayoral pal. Council members wondered yesterday how that race might play into Mr. Lavelle's vote for president.

Mr. Lavelle could not be reached for comment.

If neither Mr. Peduto nor Mr. Burgess can assemble the five votes needed, then almost any of the veteran members could emerge as a compromise candidate.

Ms. Harris is a former school board president who puts in long hours. Members yesterday talked about scenarios that could put Mr. Dowd, Mr. Kraus, Mr. Shields or Ms. Smith in the big chair on council's dais. Ms. Smith said she doesn't want the job.

Conventional wisdom holds that the departure of two mayoral allies -- Mr. Motznik and Ms. Payne -- likely means trouble for Mr. Ravenstahl. Mr. Shields, though, cautioned against assumptions.

"Every time you swear a council in," he said, "you have one expectation, and then it turns into something completely different."


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


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