The Penguins' trip to the Stanley Cup final became the latest loose puck in Pittsburgh politics yesterday, as officials faced off over banners that will never be, and the ethics of landing a ticket.
It all started with a hard-hitting question: Who killed a plan to hang giant posters of Penguins stars on Fifth Avenue Place, Downtown?
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he believed "one or two council members" were intent on "making [a Penguins sign] a political issue." So he nixed the idea.
"I've heard the term 'political' being used, and that's just a bold-faced lie," Councilman William Peduto countered. "I don't think that anybody wanted to oppose it."
The Penguins floated a plan to adorn the skyscraper with huge pictures of captain Sidney Crosby and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, wearing Reebok logos. The shoe company's name and slogan, "Your Move," also would appear on the banners.
Council heard about the plan at a Monday afternoon meeting between administration officials and some council members and staff. The administration brought draft legislation that would have created a special section of the zoning code to allow 40-by-85-foot Penguins banners on Downtown buildings for the next few weeks.
Is that good lawmaking?
"I would've called it sketchy at best," said council President Doug Shields. "We felt there was a way to work through it."
Maybe the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership could sponsor the signs, and they could be auctioned off for charity after the finals, and a council resolution declaring it a "Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Holiday" could provide legal cover. At the meeting, cell phones buzzed with efforts to make it work.
"There were no ultimate decisions made," said Councilman Bruce Kraus. Council drafted the holiday legislation, and he was ready to introduce it -- until he heard the administration had dropped the plan.
Mr. Kraus previously authored a moratorium on new advertising signs, approved by council April 1. That came in the wake of Lamar Advertising's no-bid, no-hearing, no-public-vote deal to place a 1,200-square-foot electronic billboard on the Grant Street Transportation Center, and efforts by Lamar and other firms to put up 58 other signs citywide.
The mayor has seen political carnage caused by signs. He supported the Lamar sign before he stopped its construction, and saw the permit's prime mover -- Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford -- ensnared in a net of gift-taking stories and a State Ethics Commission investigation.
"I didn't feel comfortable unilaterally making that decision" to permit the Penguins banners, he said. "I didn't want to put a cloud over [the finals], and have a back-and-forth disagreement with City Council. ... That began, and that's unfortunate."
"It's unfair to say that council is trying to block this," said Mr. Peduto. "What we asked the administration to do was a little bit of work to find a way to make this legal."
It's all moot now. Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan said the team abandoned the banner idea over the weekend, even before the meeting. "We decided that it just wasn't practical," he said.
Mr. Shields' advice for Penguins fans who want big signs: "Get a bedsheet and hang it off your front porch."
Next question: What's a mayor to do when his team goes to the finals, but ethics rules bar him from accepting a gratis ticket?
Mr. Ravenstahl said he asked the Law Department to review that question in advance of the first finals contest Saturday night in Detroit.
"I'd like to go," he said. But given the media flak and Ethics Hearing Board encounter he endured for attending a high-dollar charity golf outing last year as a guest of the Penguins and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, he's not sure how to handle tickets, accommodations and travel.
The city code bars him from taking anything of value from anybody with business before the city, with exceptions including official travel and sporting event tickets worth no more than $100. A lone finals ticket costs more.
Home games aren't a problem.
"I've used the [Sports & Exhibition Authority] tickets for all of my trips to Penguins games this year," the mayor said, referring to a pool of tickets allocated to the authority, which owns Mellon Arena.
If he chooses to represent the city in Detroit, taxpayers shouldn't pay anything, said Mr. Ravenstahl, who earns $98,924 a year.
So should he classify it as an official trip? Use campaign money? Pay out of his own pocket?
He expects city lawyers to report back today.
"There's an easier way," said Mr. Peduto, a Penguins season ticket holder. "Write a check."
Rich Lord can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542.