Peduto making presence felt

Bill Peduto's first three-plus months in the mayor's office a stark contrast to his predecessor's final year on the job


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About noon on Wednesday, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto makes a beeline to grab a banana from a table at a wellness fair before bursting out the side door of the Thelma Lovette YMCA and shoving it into his mouth. He adjusts his suit jacket to prepare for a stand-up interview, handing the peel off to his spokesman, Tim McNulty. His left shoe is untied.

In the next 10 minutes or so, with a news camera running, Mr. Peduto answers questions about: the Penguins' playoff prospects -- "the Penguins in six"; President Barack Obama's visit -- "this is huge!"; and the day-to-day challenges of his office. He attempts to hawk a pair of playoff tickets, pulling them out of his jacket pocket and flashing them before the camera. He can't use them, he says, because he was invited to sit in box seats that night "and I can't eat $310."

It was an apt way to spend his 100th day in office, one that captured the energy, freneticism and mild chaos that defines his nascent administration. He started his day shimmying to Zumba at the YMCA in the Hill District. ("I think we just did a half-dozen Dukakis moments," he said, in reference to the former presidential candidate's ill-fated photo op in a military tank.) Then he was whisked off to see Mr. Obama speak and catch a few words with him before returning to Consol Energy Center, where he watched the Penguins edge out the Columbus Blue Jackets. He ended the day taking in a bluegrass concert at the Park House on the North Side, a bar where discarded peanut shells crunch beneath the feet of customers.

In his first four months in office -- marked by two bruising legislative battles, a historically taxing winter and trips to the nation's capital to build the city's profile -- Mr. Peduto has emerged in stark contrast to his cooped-up predecessor Luke Ravenstahl, who was virtually invisible during his final year in office.

Most of Mr. Peduto's colleagues and observers gave him strong marks for his first months in office but cautioned that challenges lie ahead and that his bold and broad vision might be too big for one administration.

"He does have big plans," said Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who noted that she has largely been impressed with his performance thus far. "I just hope that he has the budget to match it."

Drinking from a fire hose

Back in mid-February, a delegation of journalists and cultural ambassadors from Pittsburgh's sister city in China, Wuhan, gathered in the mayor's conference room with Mr. Peduto and a predecessor, Tom Murphy, for some photos and a brief interview. As he wrapped up the engagement, Mr. Peduto grimaced a bit and said to the former mayor, "Right now I'm drinking water from a fire hose."

"It feels sometimes like there's a million things coming at us all at once. The biggest goal is prioritizing what it is we're going to do and when it is we're going to do it," Mr. Peduto said in a recent interview.

A million might sound hyperbolic, but a thousand would not be. While campaigning, he published 100 policy papers -- on everything from infrastructure to attracting immigrants. Then, late last year, he accepted nearly everyone who applied to be a member of his transition team -- around a thousand people in all -- and they created reports filling binders that are inches thick.

He is taking on matters that have been typically out of the mayor's purview -- tackling public school funding and children's health care and lobbying to bring pre-K education to the city with the help of federal grants.

Is it too much? Mr. Peduto says no.

"I've got a good team," he said. "Each person has responsibilities that fall within everything we talk about. ... We have a capacity now to work in education where past mayors haven't."

That team includes his chief of staff, Kevin Acklin, a former attorney and notorious workhorse who often arrives at the office before dawn. Curtiss Porter, the former chancellor of Penn State-Greater Allegheny who has a doctorate in education, was hired to oversee educational initiatives.

Despite numerous achievements during his first months in office, though, critical issues are yet to be resolved. The city is without a permanent police chief and public safety chief, roles that are especially critical in the wake of a scandal last year that saw the conviction of former police Chief Nate Harper on charges that he misdirected public funds from city coffers into his own pockets.

After repeatedly claiming that a hire for the public safety chief was imminent, Mr. Peduto now says his top candidate turned the job down and there is no timeline for filling the position. Another search has been conducted. Mike Huss, who is a finalist for the job, continues to hold the post in an acting capacity.

And Mr. Peduto's relationship with the police and fire unions continues to deteriorate. Neither supported him in his run for office, which he has said gives him more independence. But since the start of the year, the former head of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 1, wrote to the mayor to say the union no longer recognizes the public safety director as the mayor's representative, and the firefighters union, furious at him for keeping the city under financial oversight, has sued the city.

Meanwhile, the city has yet to fill positions left vacant by a mass exodus of finance personnel, which has hampered efforts to draft a new recovery plan that will be due in the summertime. The city is without a finance director and without a head of the newly formed office of management and budget since Mr. Peduto's pick, Edward Kiely, withdrew his application after it became public that he owed $80,000 in taxes.

Mr. Peduto said Wednesday that the hires in finance, too, are forthcoming. Nick Varischetti, chairman of an oversight authority that keeps tabs on the city's budget, said his board believes it "will be able to have a greater impact once the directors of finance and budget are hired."

"For analogy sake, Mr. Acklin is running a team and is without two important players," Mr. Varischetti, chairman of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, wrote in an email. "I believe once the team is at full strength we will be able to move more efficiently."

Reaching across the hall

Mr. Peduto, who served for more than a decade as a city councilman, has so far proved himself to be deft in his work with the sometimes-acrimonious body. A longtime Peduto backer, Councilman Bruce Kraus, was elected council president at the start of the year, and Mr. Peduto has kept regular meetings with some council members.

And though he's yet to mend fences with all council members, he has been able to muster support for two pieces of legislation central to his agenda. One, a buyout package to help with staff reductions, eventually gained the support of all but one council member, Darlene Harris.

Another bill to create a land bank, introduced by Councilwoman Deborah Gross and backed by the Peduto administration, raised ire among council members who did not want to lose their authority over land sales. But after weeks of heated public forums, Mr. Peduto and his staff eventually convened stakeholders in his office for two meetings to work out compromises that drew opponents to the other side.

Councilman Dan Gilman said Mr. Peduto's willingness to be flexible -- to hear out concerns of council members and amend legislation -- marks a departure from the previous administration.

"This administration took council's input, and it led to two 8-1 votes," he said.

Ms. Harris said she has not, thus far, enjoyed a good relationship with the mayor and she pinned it on long-standing tensions. She and the mayor did not speak for two years before he was elected, and since then she has had one sit-down with him. She recently pocket-vetoed legislation from his office for technology upgrades and maintenance by declining to introduce them out of her committee. And she has complained that she can't get hold of the mayor and his staff, prompting her to file a Right-to-Know request for their cell phone numbers.

"I have no problem at all trying to work with this mayor. It's just not being able communicate," she said.

On Friday, a city holiday, Mr. McNulty said he would be happy to look into her concerns when city offices reopen Monday.

Ms. Kail-Smith said that Mr. Peduto has proven incredibly accessible to her, responding to middle-of-the-night emails and taking several tours of her district -- a collection of neighborhoods that stretch to the city's western borders where Mr. Peduto fared relatively poorly in the primary last year.

"He's been here probably a half-dozen times since the election," she said. "It means a lot to me."

That kind of relationship marks a dramatic shift for the mayor's office, since Mr. Peduto's predecessor rarely spoke with council members in his final year in office. And that accessibility has extended far beyond council chambers.

On one evening this month, he and top-level members of his administration held a "Mayor's Night Out" in the sweltering basement of a Beltzhoover recreation center amid the din of a basketball game being played in the gym above. Dozens packed the room to bring their complaints about drugs, idle youth and derelict property directly to Mr. Peduto and his staff.

Kelli Organ, 27, a city recreation leader, stood up and told him there's not enough money to buy materials for after-school activities, so she pays for them out of her own pocket. She asked the mayor if he would be willing to work directly with her to help kids in the community who are left with nothing to do. He referred her to Mr. Porter, his new education liaison.

"I always felt like they're not going to care about some little rec [center] and some collages," she said. But she said Mr. Peduto seemed genuine in addressing her concerns. "I feel like I actually got to the right people today."

For an elected official, Mr. Peduto is unusually relaxed and informal, even in public settings, a quality that communicates a sincerity and authenticity to residents such as Ms. Organ. He has told reporters when he's grumpy, he still patronizes a neighborhood watering hole in Shadyside, and he manages his own Twitter account -- a colloquial mix of city news, geeky policy analysis, hockey and snapshots of his day, including, on Wednesday, a photo with Vice President Joe Biden.

And in the end, he gave his Penguins playoff tickets -- which he called "the best [seats] in the house" -- to a man celebrating his birthday Wednesday on the frigid lawn outside Consol Energy Center. Tony Harpel, a college student from Butler County, did not even know who Mr. Peduto was. But on his 19th birthday, the mayor was serenading him with "happy birthday" and handing him a pair of tickets.

"I didn't really know you, but I'll definitely not forget you now," Mr. Harpel said he told the mayor, before giving him an ecstatic hug.


Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.

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