Best of 2013: Pittsburgh's top news stories


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Surprises in a mayoral race and baseball season became the top Western Pennsylvania stories of 2013, containing plenty of twists that would have been hard to foresee when the year started. Some big news events, such as the UPMC-Highmark feud, simply drew upon past headlines. Other developments seemed long overdue, like new state transportation funding. And one newsmaker was unprecedented -- a giant rubber duck that drew hundreds of thousands of spectators. Here are the top news stories of 2013, as voted by Post-Gazette staff:

1. Ravenstahl's startling saga

Luke Ravenstahl was 11 days into a re-election campaign seven years after ascending to the mayor’s office when he stunned the local political world on March 1. The Democrat announced he was withdrawing from the race, citing “grueling demands” of a job that he said attracted too many nasty allegations against him. For the rest of the year, he was seldom seen in public amid reports about a federal grand jury investigation tied to him, with many of his associates called to testify. Mr. Ravenstahl, 33, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. He leaves office in a week after spending a decade in city government, and he has not announced his future plans.

 

2. Astounding Pirates turnaround

The Pirates entered 2013 carrying a record streak of futility that had been well-publicized after 20 consecutive losing seasons. There was little reason to expect much would be different when the season started, but a combination of preseason trades, free agent signings, success stories among young players and a most-valuable-player season from Andrew McCutchen captured the fancy of baseball fans nationally as well as long-suffering Pittsburghers. Manager of the Year Clint Hurdle’s Bucs went 94-68 and defeated the Cincinnati Reds in a delirious, wild-card playoff game before succumbing to the St. Louis Cardinals in the divisional playoff series.

 

3. The downfall of Nate Harper

Low-key Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper spent 36 relatively non-controversial years with the police department, including seven years heading it, before a bombshell hit: He was charged with, and admitted to, diverting to his personal use more than $30,000 in funds the city had received for services of off-duty police. He resigned at the mayor's request in February, and Mr. Harper pleaded guilty Oct. 18 to conspiracy and failure to file tax returns. He is to be sentenced Feb. 25. He is also appealing a city panel’s decision to deny him his $5,620 monthly pension benefit.

 

4. UPMC-Highmark: bitter as advertised

The acrimonious business rivalry between UPMC and Highmark became only more public in 2013, as television viewers had to endure an onslaught of political-style advertisements in which the health care giants trashed one another as unscrupulous profiteers. Their lawyers kept one another busy in court as well with antitrust litigation. Highmark completed its long-anticipated purchase of West Penn Allegheny Health System to place it under a new umbrella, the Allegheny Health Network, intended to compete on more equal footing with UPMC’s hospitals. UPMC's reaction has been to refuse to renew its contract covering patients who have Highmark insurance after 2014.

 

5. Marcellus Shale developments

Natural gas drilling across the state doubled from the year before, with Pennsylvania in the process of becoming the second-largest gas-producing state in the nation after Texas. As in the past, the expanded Marcellus Shale activity attracted controversy. Allegheny County agreed to let Consol Energy drill beneath Pittsburgh International Airport property starting next year, which is supposed to bring the county $50 million in revenue up front and a potential $450 million over 20 years, though the deal still stirred protests. The gas industry took a hit at year’s end, however, when the state Supreme Court overturned key parts of the 2012 drilling law, which had prevented local moratoriums.

 

6. A duck gets our attention

One addition to Downtown Pittsburgh had everyone exposed to it smiling — a 40-foot-tall yellow duck, sitting in the Allegheny River from Sept. 27 to Oct. 20. The brainchild of Dutch artist Florentjin Hofman, versions of the rubber duck had captivated onlookers in countries around the world previously but never in the U.S. until the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust brought it here. The trust estimated that some 1 million people came to take a gander at it near the Point, while buying all kinds of duck merchandise and otherwise boosting the local economy. The duck may have left for good in October, but it will remain forever in the untold thousands of photographs taken by Pittsburghers.

 

7. Another Orie sister found guilty

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, like her sister who served in the Pennsylvania Legislature, left office in disgrace due to illegal use of public staff for campaign purposes. Melvin, who won election to the state’s highest court in 2009, was found guilty of theft of services, conspiracy and misapplication of entrusted property. Her unusual sentencing drew large attention — it contained no jail time while placing her on three years of house arrest with a $55,000 fine and requiring her to circulate a public apology with a photo of herself wearing handcuffs. That requirement and the rest of her sentence are on hold while she appeals her conviction.

 

8. Peduto reaches his ambition

Bill Peduto had spent a decade on city council and more years before that as a council aide before winning the post he had long wanted — mayor. The progressive Democrat from the East End lost his first mayoral race in 2005. He later became council's most vocal critic of the Ravenstahl administration and benefited the most among candidates when the incumbent mayor decided not to seek re-election. Mr. Peduto easily defeated former state Auditor General Jack Wagner in the primary and overwhelmed token opposition in the general election. He takes office Jan. 6 with a pledge to bring a fresh approach to governance of the city.

 

9. Heinz has a big sale

H.J. Heinz Co. doesn't make any food products in Pittsburgh anymore, but it has been based here since the 1800s, so it was big news when a joint venture of Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital bought Heinz for almost $29 billion. The deal included a requirement that Pittsburgh remain the company’s headquarters, but that didn’t protect the local economy and employees from cost-cutting moves. The new ownership group, aiming to reduce the heavy debt it took on from the acquisition, announced some 350 local layoffs in August that will reduce Heinz’s regional workforce to about 800. Retirees also had their health care benefits slashed late in the year.

 

10. Transportation funding arrives

During years of chronic underfunding, Pennsylvania's roads and bridges deteriorated and its municipal mass transit systems were constantly piecing together budgets amid service cutbacks or threats of them. That is expected to change as a result of a $2.3 billion annual funding plan that plows about 40 percent more into transportation infrastructure than the state had been allocating. Gov. Tom Corbett and others pressed heavily for the Legislature to finally approve the plan in November, after one failed vote in the House made the measure appear dead. Pennsylvanians will begin paying for the upgrades in 2014 with higher gas prices and motorist-related fees.


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