Business official at odds with city controller

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Debate over a contract at the region's top planning organization, and an e-mail that went awry, had Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb and local businessman Charles Zappala at odds Thursday.

Their exchange started on Monday, when Mr. Lamb wrote to Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission President James Hassinger, referring to a Post-Gazette story that morning on contracting at the 10-county planning organization. The story focused on communications consultant John Verbanac's $84,000-a-year contract, which has been renewed -- occasionally at lower amounts -- for 10 years since it was first awarded through a competitive process. SPC doesn't require formal bidding or board approval on pacts of less than $100,000.

Mr. Lamb wrote to Mr. Hassinger that it "creates the impression" of "a scheme to avoid the bid process" and "casts a very negative light" on SPC. He called the unbid renewals a "glaring lapse of fiscal control."

Eight hours later, he got a response -- but not from Mr. Hassinger. An e-mail from Mr. Zappala read: "Are you fiiiiiing kidding me! Put him squarely on the list."

Mr. Zappala said he got Mr. Lamb's e-mail from Mr. Verbanac, a fellow executive at Summa Development. He said he meant to respond to Mr. Verbanac, and inadvertently copied Mr. Lamb -- but did not regret the sentiment.

"I read [Mr. Lamb's e-mail], and frankly ... was appalled by the letter and its tone," Mr. Zappala said. "Jimmy Hassinger does not need to be lectured."

Mr. Hassinger could not be reached for comment.

As a former SPC board member, Mr. Zappala found Mr. Lamb's language "vile, and sanctimonious, and just sad," he said. "That is moralistic, pompous, supercilious, and that's what I reacted to."

He said "the list" was "perfectly metaphorical" and referred to some Pittsburghers' tendency to tear down and root against each other. "I look at the community and I say, 'When are we going to stop this?'

"There's no list. It's a metaphor for the notion" of negativity.

Mr. Zappala said the SPC, where commissioners and professionals from 10 counties and the city collaborate to plan transportation improvements, is threatened as a forum for regional collegiality.

"This nonsense that's going on now, this constant tearing apart, is ridiculous."

Mr. Lamb, who is not an SPC board member, said he's merely suggesting that the agency adopt a lower threshold -- the city's is $25,000 -- for competition in contracting, and other reforms to avoid the impression of "backroom dealings, shadow governments, undue influence and 'pay to play' politics," as he put it in a letter delivered to Mr. Hassinger.

"And Jim Hassinger was an absolute gentleman and agreed," he said. "It's an interesting and, I think, unfortunate response on Charlie's part."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542


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