More than 500 volunteers for Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Bill Peduto's transition teams met for four hours in Oakland Saturday afternoon, exhorted by transition chief Kevin Acklin to "take the reins of the hottest city on the planet."
Exciting as that may sound, the work really revolved around such commonplace but important city government problems as remediating vacant lots, improving computer information systems or tracking low-income housing needs. The Peduto team divvied the crowd up into eight teams to study ways to make government better, which will only have until the end of the month to make recommendations.
The largest group was "education & neighborhood development," which covered a wall at the University of Pittsburgh's David Lawrence Hall with dozens of Post-It notes full of ideas, many of them circling back to ways to improve city public education, and the dialogue between schools and city leadership. The group's moderator, Curtiss Porter, who Mr. Peduto is naming his chief education adviser, had a challenge for his team that could have related to all 500 volunteers in the room.
"It is vital that we get to the action end of the agenda," said the outgoing chancellor of Penn State Greater Allegheny. "The challenge will be in the doing."
The eight groups broke into about 50 subcommittees that will have until Dec. 28 to make two sets of recommendations: one short-term that the Peduto administration can seek to fulfill in its first 100 days, and the other long-term structural changes.
"I told him, 'God bless you for attempting this.' It's a very difficult thing to do, which is why most people avoid it," said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference. He is a veteran of many community sessions like Saturday's, including the citywide meetings Mayor Tom Murphy held when taking office in 1994.
"Will it work? Who knows," Mr. Fatla said. "There's a long way to go."
More than 1,000 people were invited to serve on the transition committee. At Saturday's event, many faces from past mayoral administrations were in the crowd, interspersed with real estate developers, attorneys, investors, and nonprofit and community officials, as well as current and past city workers. One of them was Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's longtime spokeswoman Joanna Huss, who joined the "innovation & performance" group. She was impressed at how well-organized the meeting was: She and husband Michael Huss, the city's current public safety director, had worn extra-warm clothes to the event, thinking they would be lined up outside on Forbes Avenue waiting to get in.
After they entered and signed in quickly, "My first impression was 'Wow, they really know how to run things,' " said Ms. Huss, who now has her own media relations firm. "I was skeptical."
Mr. Peduto has not yet named his public safety director, so the meeting on that subject was moderated by former director (and city paramedics chief) Bob Kennedy, currently vice president of government affairs at UPMC. Mr. Peduto addressed that session first, telling the room, which included some current and former police, that he wants to focus on improving police morale and their relations with the community. In the end, members of the public safety transition team would end up talking mostly about problems with guns, changing police recruitment strategies and improving the city's building inspection bureau.
"There was a little bit of [police] bashing but it wasn't bad at all. I sat through the whole thing and never had to stand up and defend police," said Jim Malloy, a retired officer and current member of the Fraternal Order of Police executive board. "It was a good meeting, I'm glad they did it."
Mr. Peduto, dressed in jeans, a white sweater and a blue ski vest, served as sort of head cheerleader, noting for the crowd that his last time in Lawrence Hall was to see the band Violent Femmes in the mid-1980s. He also turned serious, thanking the crowd and asking it to have ambitious goals for its city.
"I need your help. I need your commitment," he said. Gesturing to his cabinet members he said, "find something that's a challenge to us."
Tim McNulty: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at www.post-gazette.com/earlyreturns or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.