Taint of politics colors city's Redd Up work

Crew members wearing campaign T-shirts just one example of forces at play in city Public Works Department

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When four members of the city's Redd Up Crew were photographed a week before the primary election wearing campaign T-shirts, it provided just more evidence of the Public Works Department's political nature, long a fact of life in city government.

One of the shirt-wearing workers, Steve Hladonik, is a Democratic Committee member. The man who apparently provided the Re-elect Jeffrey Koch T-shirts was public works driver Ray Sansone, Councilman Koch's campaign treasurer. The manager of the crew was Kevin Quigley, a Democratic Committee member from Brighton Heights. Mr. Quigley's boss is Assistant Director Robert Kaczorowski, a ward chairman from Crafton Heights.

The politicization of public works is likely to emerge as a top issue in coming months, as Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration attempts to computerize city management, Councilman William Peduto pushes for reform legislation, and new council members take office.

The 600-employee, $31 million-a-year department is headed by Director Guy Costa, but some of its parts are subject to the dictates of administration officials, council members and politically active middle managers.

Nowhere is that more clear than in the Redd Up effort, a single work crew created in March 2006 to fulfill the late Mayor Bob O'Connor's commitment to tidy up the city.

Mr. Quigley, who served on Mr. Ravenstahl's City Council staff, decides where the Redd Up Crew puts its efforts, largely freed from the obligation to report to Mr. Costa, according to department sources.

Mr. Koch has said that he contacted Mr. Quigley directly to ask for cleanups in his South Hills district.

In the month prior to the May 15 primary that ousted Mr. Koch, the crew worked six days in the South Hills district, working there on April 14, 16, 23 and 30, and on May 4 and 8.

The South Hills focus was unusual. So far this year, the North Side, where both the mayor and Mr. Quigley live, has gotten the bulk of the Redd Up Crew's attention.

According to records provided by the city, 48 percent of the locations in which the Redd Up Crew cleared lots this year were in the Public Works Department's First Division, which covers the North Side, with the rest spread around the other five districts. Of the 2,415 tons of debris the crew removed through May 9, 45 percent came from the North Side.

Administration officials said that's not because the mayor and Mr. Quigley hail from there.

Mr. Costa said other areas are cleaned up in other ways. Lots owned by the city or its Urban Redevelopment Authority, for instance, are cleaned by a nonprofit contractor, South Side-based City Source Associates. So areas in which much of the land is publicly owned don't need as much attention from the Redd Up Crew.

Calls to the city's 311 help line drive a lot of the crew's activities, he said. Council members' requests are also considered.

Council member William Peduto, whose district is composed mostly of well-off East End neighborhoods, said he has called on the crew to clean up hillsides above busways that have become illegal dumps, but had not received any service.

Mr. Costa said that he has used regular public works crews in that area to do "mini-cleanups" rather than calling in the Redd Up Crew.

Redd Up is not the only area where fairness has become an issue. Paving is another.

Since 2000, the city has paved around half of the 80 miles a year that it should to keep up with natural wear and tear, leaving many residents feeling their street has been left for dead.

A mayoral candidate in 2005 and this year until he withdrew from the Democratic primary in March, Mr. Peduto said paving can be used as a political weapon. He said his district got the least streets on the list last year and this year, in spite of high traffic and poor road conditions. He said he believed the administration excluded some streets in his district intentionally.

Yarone Zober, the mayor's chief of staff, and Mr. Costa say that the list was built based on complaints, followed by eyeball inspections of streets and condition ratings of zero to 100. Then it was reshuffled based on traffic estimates, so busy streets are repaved first.

"I didn't see the list before it went out," said Mr. Zober. The mayor has said he didn't view the list prior to its finalization.

This year, one in every 20 miles of city roadway will be resurfaced. Nonetheless, 46 members of the Democratic Committee are slated to get fresh asphalt on the roads in front of or right next to their homes, and three of nine council members have parts of their streets, or streets very close to their homes, on the paving list.

Mr. Peduto said that's "symbolic of the political machine mentality that controls city hall." He has introduced legislation demanding a pavement management system, which is on hold pending an as-yet-unscheduled special meeting on the topic.

Other council members have defended their ability to get streets put on the paving list, and have said that it's coincidence that dozens of committee members' streets made the list.

It's notable, though, that some of the shortest stretches of road slated to be repaved -- 250 feet on Walton Avenue and 433 feet of Fernland Way in Overbrook, 271 feet of List Street in Spring Hill, 515 feet of Alice Street in Knoxville, for example -- are right outside of committee members' front doors. In some cases, the section to be paved appears to be nothing more than the block in front of the committee person's house.

Mr. Zober said that the list is influenced not so much by politics as by the squeaky wheels getting the grease. "A lot of these [committee members] are the most active people on their blocks in many respects," he said. "A lot of it is complaint-based, as opposed to having a systematic approach, and that's what we want to remedy."

The city on May 4 put out a request for proposals from firms that would provide software and hand-held computers to streamline the permitting process. All proposals must feature the flexibility to allow the city to build a unified information system that would help manage paving, building code enforcement, policing and more.

"What we're hoping for is that 2008 is the year of the computer," Mr. Zober said.

In the meantime, though, some of the people involved with evaluating streets are Democratic Committee members. Three of the department's six streets maintenance supervisors are committee members, as are the department's deputy director, operation manager and one assistant director.

Mr. Zober noted that many workers throughout the department have been there for decades, from the days when "we had a lot of patronage in the city."

"I think it's just an interest in public service" among many public works employees, Mr. Costa said, "and that includes being a committee person or a chairperson."

When workers overstep the bounds between public service and politics, the administration argues, discipline is swift.

Five workers were suspended without pay for five days as a result of the T-shirt incident, and are appealing through the grievance process. The administration will ask the city Ethics Hearing Board at its June 8 meeting to see if they violated the city charter's ban on politicking while on the clock, Mr. Zober said.

He said the grievance process would also provide a means of investigating whether others were involved in the dress code violation.

Mr. Quigley said on May 8 that he "chewed out" the campaign-shirt-wearing workers. On primary election day, though, he was seen leaving a Carrick polling place at 4 p.m. wearing a Koch campaign T-shirt and entering a truck with Koch signs in the back window.

The city Personnel Department did not respond Friday to questions about Mr. Quigley's work status or schedule that day.

Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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