A leadership guide for Pittsburgh's next mayor

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Kevin Acklin has a present for the team already laying the groundwork for a Peduto administration.

He's distributing copies of "Prayer for the City,'' Buzz Bissinger's acclaimed chronicle of Ed Rendell's mayoral years in Philadelphia.

"I purchased copies for all of the senior staff; it's required reading,'' he said.

One of the heroes of that work is David Cohen, Mr. Rendell's brilliant, seemingly tireless, chief of staff. The Pittsburgh election is still to come, but the Peduto team, understandably confident of victory, has been working for months on the transition to the power and position Mr. Peduto first sought nearly a decade ago.

Mr. Peduto and Mr. Acklin traveled to Philadelphia last month to meet with Mayor Michael Nutter. On the same trip Mr. Cohen briefed them at a meeting in Comcast headquarters where the former aide is now a senior executive.

"He walked us through his roles as chair of the transition for Mayor Rendell and for then for Gov. Rendell, he shared their transition book with us," Mr. Acklin said.

Spurred by Pittsburgh Foundation CEO Grant Oliphant, members of the city's foundation community unveiled a website last week that was designed to be portal to a professionalized hiring mechanism for key department officials in the next administration, but that is just one component of a much broader planning effort.

The website, talent-city.org, is the public face of a personnel process in which panels of civic leaders will evaluate candidates for posts with the city's operating departments. At the same time Mr. Peduto is in the process of identifying his own choices for members of a restructured office of the mayor.

There was a time when the onset of a new administration entailed widespread hiring and firing. But in an era of civil service rules and municipal unions the days of mass patronage purges are long gone. The actual number of positions that will change hands early next year can be counted in the dozens.

"The stuff that the foundations are doing, there's probably about 30 positions. Within the mayor's office itself there's probably about another 20," Mr. Peduto said last week. "These are rough numbers ... but there's maybe 80 positions total that are not covered by civil service or unions."

Mr. Peduto already has announced that Mr. Acklin, a former Republican and onetime independent candidate for mayor, will be his chief of staff. Mr. Acklin also is quarterbacking the overall transition effort and, following the pattern of recent chiefs of staff in the city, he'll also chair the Urban Redevelopment Authority once Mr. Peduto takes office.

Over the next few months, Mr. Peduto also will be identifying his choices for public safety director, chief legal officer and solicitor, and the new positions of chief performance officer, chief administration officer and chief operating officer.

The foundation power base

The Democratic nominee is also talking with foundation officials on the possibility of creating two further positions in the mayor's office that would work in conjunction with the foundation community and other civic groups that would at least temporarily be supported from foundation dollars. Those would be a director of urban affairs, to coordinate city and community group efforts in the city's neighborhoods, and an office of technology innovation, charged both with improving city operations and making the city more responsive to businesses.

Mr. Peduto's new commercials pledge that he won't be influenced by big Downtown interests. But, by any measure, the city's extensive foundation community represents a central and powerful part of the region's establishment. Mr. Peduto, however, sees a crucial distinction between the established interests he's railed against in city government and the foundation community.

To the question of whether he's substituting the influence of one set of elite interests for another, he said, "There are very few contracts that go to foundations. They're not in the same category as those who live at the public teat of finances, the people that have worked the system. So I would argue that although the foundations do have power, no question of that, the power they wield is not for their personal benefit.

"They're the natural partners in building a new Pittsburgh. I view it very much the same way that Davey Lawrence worked with the corporate community and his partnership with Richard King Mellon."

Separate from the foundation-led personnel panels, Mr. Acklin said that within a week of the Nov. 5 election, Mr. Peduto would be announcing a series of task forces charged with making recommendations for initiatives and improvements in city operations.

Mr. Acklin said that one of the things he took away from his conversations with Mr. Cohen, the Rendell aide, was that "You have to give transition teams clear directions on what you want.''

And, he said, those teams will be working on a tight deadline, with recommendations due by the end of the year.

"We're going to focus on implementation teams organized around the department ... involving folks that are there, as well as people from the community," he said.

"I don't want to waste anyone's time," he added. "I don't want pie in the sky, I want tangible proposals that we can implement."

Looking over the immediate horizon, Mr. Acklin said the new administration would consider another Rendell model -- the possibility of the city tapping the expertise of local businesses.

"In the long run long, we would love to put together programs with business, allowing them to [temporarily loan] executives to the city," he said.

"We have big plans, we have lot to accomplish, It's not all going to happen in the first quarter or the first year, or the first term," he said. "We really intend on changing the course of city government."

Mr. Rendell, the first beneficiary of Mr. Cohen's transition counsel, said in an interview last week that while a thorough staff effort was essential, the mayor-elect's own evaluations were the core of the process.

"The one thing I did, even before I ran, I looked at reams of reports that had already been done ... things like controllers' reports. Some of them turned out to be off the mark, some of them had gold in there."

He recalled that during his transition he traveled to New York City to consult then Mayor Ed Koch, who had shared with him a 1,000-page report on recommendations on how to improve New York's finances and operations.

"He asked if I'd read it. I said I did, and he said you may be one of five people who have.''

"You've got to read them yourself," Mr. Rendell said of reports from government and civic groups. "Don't rely on your transition team to do it for you."

Checking out other mayors

Mr. Peduto also has compared notes with former Mayor Tom Murphy about his transition effort when he succeeded former Mayor Sophie Masloff after the 1993 election. Mr. Murphy recalled that one of the most useful things he did in the months before he was sworn in was to travel and spend time with the chief executives of a handful of other cities.

"I just went and hung out for a few days," he said of the visits with figures including former Mayors Victor Ashe, of Knoxville, Tenn., Kurt Schmoke, in Baltimore, Md., and Jerry Abramson, in Louisville, Ky.

In a lesson with obvious relevance to a mayor taking over in the wake of a grand jury investigation that ensnared the city's former chief of police, Nate Harper, Mr. Murphy said, "One common theme that really, really helped me, one common theme through all five mayors, was, don't mess with the guys in blue until you understand the culture of your police department.

"The police department, any police department, is full of cliques -- people were partners, people were classmates. You need to understand how all that plays out."

More broadly, Mr. Murphy said, barring a historic upset by Republican Josh Wander or independent Les Ludwig, Mr. Peduto will, from his first day in office, face the challenge of serving the needs of the city's today and its tomorrow.

"The other piece of it, when I went and visited people, it reinforced the idea of the need [for] that balance between day-to-day operations and looking forward to how the city can move forward," he said.

"Operations can eat you up," he said.

Beyond inevitable surprises and crises, "There's always another pothole to be filled, another road that needs to be paved."

Dealing competently with such operating details is central to the success of any administration, Mr. Murphy said, while warning that those concerns can compete for resources with longer-term demands of development.

And on the development front, he said, "There's the difference between being strategic and being transactional. Bill needs to be strategic.

"I would have developers coming to me all the time saying, 'This is a great deal.' I [would say] I know it's a great deal for you; explain to me why it's a great deal for me. The temptation will be to do the transactions without having a sense of how it all fits together ... how he creates the strategic vision of the city is very important."

But Mr. Murphy also noted that all the strategic planning can be overtaken by the unexpected once the landing craft actually hit the beach.

"The month before I took office ... the president of Pittsburgh Pirates came to my [legislative] office in Harrisburg and gave me a letter saying that they intended to sell the baseball team," he recalled. "When I ran for mayor that wasn't part of the conversation. Right away ... my whole agenda got knocked off the rails by the Pirates."

Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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