Pittsburgh's Democratic mayoral hopefuls debate issues

Topics included consolidation, neighborhood development

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The final four of this year's many Democratic candidates for mayor joined in a relaxed scrimmage Saturday, trading thoughts on issues including city-county consolidation, neighborhood development and employment opportunities for ex-offenders.

Their consistently even-tempered exchanges came during a 90-minute debate at the Pittsburgh Obama school in East Liberty, sponsored by a variety of groups including the Black Political Empowerment Project, the NAACP and the League of Women Voters.

The candidates had wary reactions to the concept of city and county consolidation, a goal that's attracted much political lip service but little concrete momentum in recent years. None of the contenders spoke in favor of a full merger of the two local governments but there was support for more joint efforts in delivering specific services. State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, said he favored more functional coordination of public safety services, a proposal rejected by city Councilman Bill Peduto. Jack Wagner, the former state auditor general, joined Mr. Peduto in advocating other case-by-case instances of cooperation.

Mr. Peduto said he would be guided in assessing increased cooperation by whether individual initiatives fostered efficiency and equity, while noting that he had been a critic of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and former Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato in their vague plans to bring the governments closer together.

Mr. Wagner said, "We should continue to move in the direction of consolidation,'' but emphasized that the city and county should remain separate governments.

The candidates were again united in saying the city should be open-minded on employing ex-offenders when asked whether they supported full implementation of so-called "ban-the-box'' legislation, a proposal by city Councilman Ricky Burgess that would ban a criminal background question from initial city employment applications, instead deferring such questions until the job-seeker's interview.

Mr. Wagner was unfamiliar with the term when the question was first posed, but when it was explained, said that he favored the idea that minor transgressions should not be held against an otherwise qualified applicant. Candidate A.J. Richardson, the community activist and school bus monitor who made headlines with a DUI arrest last week, said, "Most of you know I just came out of jail recently.''

Noting that his wrists were still sore from being handcuffed, he said, "People need to be given second and third chances.''

Mr. Peduto said that he had supported the legislation in council and supported its full implementation not just in city government, but citywide.

Answering another question, Mr. Peduto repeated his belief that the search for a new police chief should cast its net nationwide. Mr. Wagner had said earlier that he believed the search should start within the bureau. Somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Wagner took the question on a new chief as an opportunity to praise the fired and discredited old one, Nate Harper, who is under indictment for his personal use of city funds deposited in a clandestine bank account. Despite that record, Mr. Wagner said that Mr. Harper had acknowledged his accountability and "didn't dodge that issue at all" when confronted with his indictment. It took a grand jury investigation and subsequent indictment, however, to elicit that accountability.

Mr. Wagner said the diversion of the city funds was "a systemic problem'' that should have received the scrutiny of city officials years earlier.

On other police issues, Mr. Wagner said the city administration should work with schools and community groups to improve the diversity of the force.

Mr. Wheatley said that police officers called before the Civilian Police Review Board should not be allowed to invoke the Fifth Amendment to avoid testimony. On the review board, Mr. Peduto said, "The best thing the mayor can do is get out of the way and let them do their work ... [that] hasn't happened in 10 years.''

Asked for their chief priorities if elected, Mr. Richardson said that stopping police brutality was at the top of his list.

In an assertion heard in mayoral races for a generation, the candidates said repeatedly that the next administration should pay more attention to the city's neighborhoods. Mr. Peduto said the distribution of federal Community Development Block Grant funds should be more community centered and less controlled by developers.

Mr. Wheatley, in a view seconded by Mr. Wagner, said a greater proportion of the funds should be steered to the city's poorer neighborhoods, rather than relatively thriving areas such as Downtown and the South Side. Mr. Richardson said the federal dollars should go "to the people,'' in particular to schools and teachers' salaries.

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Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. First Published April 7, 2013 4:00 AM


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