Mayor's veto catches council off guard

Prevailing wage rule derailed as override falls short

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A proposed new development rule that had seemed well on its way into the city of Pittsburgh's code book was surprisingly derailed yesterday by a mayoral veto.

Some City Council members made a last-minute effort last night to override the veto, but the attempt fell one vote short of the six votes needed for an override.

The legislation said that when $100,000 or more of city aid goes to a large-scale development, any hotel, grocery store, office maintenance and cafeteria workers in the development must earn a prevailing wage, reflecting the average paid to similar workers in the city.

The ordinance was approved 9-0 by council on Dec. 21.

Mr. Ravenstahl had said long before the vote that he did not "anticipate being a strong advocate against it." But at 3:54 p.m., his office sent over a veto message saying that the piece "has too many vague and ambiguous terms, needs additional input from the entire community, and, most importantly, has the potential to hurt Pittsburgh."

Because the veto came about eight hours before the end of the two-year council session, there was no way, under the city code, for the body to meet to vote to override. Special meetings can be called only with 24 hours notice.

Council President Doug Shields scheduled a 6:30 p.m. special meeting last night anyway. Council then voted to waive its 24-hour notice rule, fell one vote short of the required six votes to do so, but considered them waived anyway.

"I recognize that this may be fraught by all manner of legalities," Mr. Shields conceded during the meeting. But he wanted council to be on record as responding to the veto.

Councilman Patrick Dowd, summoned from celebrating his wedding anniversary, objected strenuously, saying before the meeting that such tactics were "exactly how fascists do business."

He said tolerance of such a dark-of-night "bend-the-rules event" risks "endangering the public. ... Who's to say that under the exact same principles we couldn't pass a malignant bill?"

Councilman William Peduto countered that the last-day veto was meant "to deny the people of the city of Pittsburgh the right that every other legislative body in America has" to override.

Councilman Ricky Burgess, also celebrating his wedding anniversary, participated by phone from a restaurant in Baltimore. But he joined Mr. Dowd in refusing to vote on the override.

Outgoing Councilwoman Tonya Payne did not attend, and Jim Motznik has resigned from council to become a district judge. That left just five of the bill's supporters voting for an override: Mr. Shields, Mr. Peduto, Darlene Harris, Bruce Kraus and Theresa Smith.

Mr. Shields admitted the failure but said he will introduce an identical bill Monday, when a new council with two new members takes office.

Mr. Ravenstahl, in his veto message, pledged to work with council next year on a rewrite of the legislation. But he also criticized some of the bill's intended effects.

By having a wage rule that isn't matched by any similar rule in neighboring communities, the mayor wrote, the legislation would "put us at an incredible disadvantage with respect to the county and region as a whole.

"This bill will all but ensure that [large] projects will look to other geographic areas without the constraint of its restrictions."

The mayor wrote that he was concerned that the wage rules could be triggered by mere road improvements related to a development, calling such a result "absurd." He also cited a recent state Supreme Court decision nixing legislation meant to protect janitors' jobs, suggesting this legislation could face a similar fate.

"None of the basis of his veto is factually borne out by experiences anywhere in the county," said Gabe Morgan, Western Pennsylvania director of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which was joined by other unions, environmental groups, community organizations and churches in backing the legislation.

He called the end-of-session veto "a blatant abuse of power geared toward overturning the legislation that was unanimously approved by City Council, and doing it in the most unscrupulous way possible."


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


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