As mayor's health deteriorates, Pittsburgh has a day of prayer and uncertainty

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It has been a day of uncertainty and prayer in Pittsburgh, after Mayor Bob O'Connor's condition was described as "hour-by-hour" in his battle against a rare brain cancer.

City Council opened its first session since its summer break this morning with a moment of silence for the mayor, and then many officials headed to a Mass and 12:30 p.m. interfaith prayer service for Mr. O'Connor at St. Mary of Mercy Church, Downtown.

Amid the somber ceremonies, Council President Luke Ravenstahl, next in line to become mayor, said he is ready to take the reins of the city if it becomes necessary.

Late last night, administration spokesman Dick Skrinjar announced to reporters that Mr. O'Connor's condition had deteriorated. "The mayor has gone from day-to-day to hour-by-hour," Mr. Skrinjar said. He added that Mr. O'Connor was surrounded by family members and friends and that he was not on any life support at UPMC Shadyside Hospital, where he has been since July 10 for treatment of central nervous system lymphoma.

No new updates on the mayor's condition were provided through the day.

The daily noon Mass at St. Mary was dedicated to the mayor today, followed by an interfaith prayer service hastily arranged by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. Mr. Ravenstahl, Councilman Jim Motznik, Allegheny County Sheriff Pete DeFazio, State Sen. Jay Costa, Jr., acting city Controller Tony Pokora, Deputy Mayor Yarone Zober and other city and county officials were among the 150 who filled the church.

Pastor Donald Green of Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania called Mr. O'Connor "a witness who has cheered on family and friends and indeed a whole city" and saw his destiny as a place "where there is no more pain or sorrow."

And in reference to his heir apparent, Mr. Ravenstahl, Green said, "For your sake we will cheer him on."

Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai said, "We know that sometimes we can leave this world whole and healed, even if we are not cured."

And Bishop Paul Bradley, administrator of the Catholic diocese, read the Beatitudes, which famously begin in the Matthew version, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."

Bishop Bradley praised Mr. O'Connor as "a good man, an honest man, a man of faith, a man who has used the Beatitudes as the standard to guide his own life."

Diocesan spokesman the Rev. Ron Lengwin said former Pittsburgh bishop Donald Wuerl, now the archbishop of Washington, D.C., was being kept informed of the mayor's condition and was hoping to return to Pittsburgh should a funeral be necessary and should his schedule permit it.

Earlier this morning, uncertainty permeated the city council session. The first meeting back after the summer is usually little more than ceremonial, but today's session was heavy with significance. Mr. Ravenstahl, who as council president is next in line to become mayor, opened the meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence for the mayor.

"We ask you to keep Mayor Bob O'Connor, his friends and family in your thoughts during our moment of silence this morning," said Mr. Ravenstahl as he opened today's session.

The meeting followed a late night for officials who waited at the City-County Building for the update on the condition.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bob O'Connor
Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Dick Skrinjar, spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor Bob O'Connor, offers some comments in City Hall today.
Click photo for larger image.

After today's meeting, Mr. Ravenstahl said he is ready to serve as mayor if he is needed.

Asked what qualifies him, the 26-year-old Summer Hill resident said his experience is sufficient.

"I think my experience and my actions here on council over the past two and a half years [qualify him], but I will let the people decide that," he said, in reference to a mayoral election that would eventually follow the ascent of a new mayor.

His youth "is an issue that many will raise," he said. "But I am here. I have been the president. I have been elected by my district, I have been elected by my colleagues, and I'm more than confident that if and when I'm called upon, I'm here to serve the residents of the city. That's the way I've approached my job from day one, and I will continue to do so if I'm called upon to be the mayor."

He said he had not been told what the mayor's current condition is and depends on updates from the mayor's staff.

"I was with the family briefly yesterday in the hospital and spent some time with them," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "They're just in grief, and I was there to console them and counsel them, as a friend of the family, to be honest with you. There was not much discussion, other than grief."

He said no judicial official has yet been chosen to conduct a mayoral swearing-in ceremony, should that be necessary. He said he would not be sworn in by his father, District Judge Robert P. Ravenstahl, Jr.

"There's really been no plans and contingencies for transition at this point. If and when that does happen, we will deal with it then."

Throughout the afternoon today, friends and admirers of the mayor visited his office to comfort his staff.

"Bob had his family have been in our constant prayers," said the Rev. John Dinello, pastor of Immaculate Conception-St. Joseph Parish. "He's been a great asset to us in Bloomfield. He's been moving on many of the projects we've wanted to have done for several years," Father Dinello said.

"He's part of our family," added Bloomfield advocate and developer Janet Cercone-Scullion. She said Mr. O'Connor agreed in January to serve as grand marshal of the neighborhood's upcoming Halloween parade.

"We are heartbroken," she said, breaking into tears.

Earlier yesterday, before the news from the hospital had darkened, city officials forged ahead with major projects and initiatives.

Public Works Director Guy Costa led a representative of contracting firm R.G. Friday Masonry through the shell of the City-County Building to review the condition of the facade. Then he accepted the company's winning $374,000 bid to fix ornate-but-crumbling stonework that has long been covered with a shroud-like debris net.

That was just one example of efforts to follow the path set by the mayor, even as his condition worsened.

"It's difficult," said City Councilman William Peduto, "but it doesn't stop the city from moving forward."

Deputy Mayor Zober worked on legislation to fix a glitch in the city's car towing law. Right now, if a car is stolen and then abandoned and towed for parking illegally, the owner is a victim twice -- first at the hands of the thief, and then at the hands of the city when they're hit with towing and storage charges.

John Heller, Post-Gazette
City Council President Luke Ravenstahl, who would succeed Bob O'Connor as mayor, leaves the City-County Building last night.
Click photo for larger image.

Now, the scores of people who suffer that fate face a month-long court battle to get those charges waived. Mr. Zober's proposal would allow them to go before a designated city official for a prompt hearing and a waiver of the storage charges, and possibly the towing fee.

"That goes along with the legislative agenda we're following of providing better customer service and a cleaner, safer city," said Mr. Zober, echoing the mayor's mantra.

He also was putting the finishing touches on a new Green Government Task Force that will be charged with scouring the $427.5 million-a-year operation for opportunities to save energy, spare resources, and incorporate environmentally friendly building techniques. "Important to the mayor and us is cost reduction," he said.

That's especially crucial in light of the impending Sept. 21 deadline for submission of a 2007 budget. "We want to make sure that the budget reflects Mayor O'Connor's priorities," Mr. Zober said.

Those priorities include better public service and further advancement of the "redd up" campaign through more demolition of abandoned buildings and better rodent control, he said.

While the city may not be able to plunge money into more and better mousetraps, it can do things like work with the Allegheny County Health Department to train existing workers to distribute rat bait, he said.

"We're all focused on balancing the budget and trying to put aside money for a rainy day," he said.

That's as it should be, said Mr. Peduto. "There shouldn't be any delay in presenting a budget," he said. Nor should there be any slackening in city services or pause in legislative efforts.

Instead there was all that yesterday, and one thing more. "We're just all continuing to pray and hope for a miracle," he said.

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.


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