Marked absences: Mayor Ravenstahl criticized for missing many major events
August 28, 2011 4:00 AM
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hugs a mourner after funeral services for Mary Saflin at Oakmont's St. Irenaeus Catholic Church. Ms. Saflin, 72, of Oakmont, was one of four people who died in the Aug. 19 flash flood in the East End. Mr. Ravenstahl was out of town when the flood hit.
By Joe Smydo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl was at Seven Springs during last year's blizzard, out of town during the Aug. 19 fatal flood and on vacation while city council debated the city's amended financial recovery plan in 2009.
Mr. Ravenstahl missed last year's Labor Day parade, the June 10 announcement of plans to bring a new medical school to the city and the grand opening of the Consol Energy Center last year.
He missed the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, held Aug. 1 to 6 in the city, but donned a football uniform Aug. 6 for a part in the Batman movie during filming at Heinz Field.
The mayor's five-year tenure repeatedly has been punctuated by criticism about where he has and hasn't been. While Mr. Ravenstahl likes to promote his role in the spate of development some call the Third Renaissance, other milestones in the city's life -- some tragic, others triumphant -- have been marked without him.
"The message that this is sending is extremely negative," said Gerald Shuster, professor of political communication and presidential rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh.
In a statement, Mr. Ravenstahl said he attends as many events as possible but misses some because of the sheer number of invitations. In addition to meetings with staff, he listed 21 events and meetings he's attended in the past two weeks, including the graduation ceremony for his inaugural Youth Civic Leadership Academy, a tour of an East Liberty building poised for redevelopment, a charity luncheon with the Boy Scouts and a meeting with wounded veterans.
The list also included a meeting with U.S. Attorney David Hickton on police-community relations, a meeting with university leaders on opportunities for collaboration and a meeting with the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh about the possibility of bringing the 2012 One Young World Summit to the city. His office noted that many of the listed engagements occurred outside of public view.
"Despite that busy schedule, I still 'missed' many other engagements that one could make a strong case I should have attended and that I would have liked to attend," Mr. Ravenstahl said.
"It's the nature of being mayor. Those who suggest otherwise clearly have no comprehension of the facts, or more likely a political ax to grind."
Mr. Ravenstahl, who is divorced, added that "my attendance at events on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and every other weekend is not what it once was. I do my very best to spend that time with my son. I made that decision and am committed to fulfilling it. Some people may not agree with that position and I respect their opinion. I simply hope that, in return, they respect mine."
Yet Mr. Ravenstahl's approach to the job has aroused criticism in an era defined by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's calm, hands-on response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Councilman Patrick Dowd said the city needed to see Mr. Ravenstahl and hear from him in the aftermath of the flooding.
"That's part of the responsibility of being mayor," he said.
Citing the mayor's appearance at certain events and absence from others over the years, Mr. Shuster said Mr. Ravenstahl either has bad schedulers or misplaced priorities.
"He makes Ben Roethlisberger's wedding, and he makes the PGA tour, but he can't make other things that are more fundamentally appropriate," Mr. Shuster said. The mayor attended Mr. Roethlisberger's wedding July 23 and U.S. Open events in Oakmont in June 2007.
Questions about Mr. Ravenstahl's scheduling choices surfaced early in his tenure.
In March 2007, Mr. Ravenstahl missed a meeting on development around Consol Energy Center. He was traveling back from New York, where he had gone with Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle.
At a September 2007 meeting on design of the Pittsburgh casino, frustrated North Side residents began chanting, "Where is the mayor?" Mr. Ravenstahl was in Boston, where he met with that city's mayor, attended a Red Sox game and talked with a developer doing business in Pittsburgh.
The city had sent out a mailer with Mr. Ravenstahl's signature, asking residents to "please join me" for the casino meeting. He later said the Boston trip had been scheduled long in advance and he didn't know that the invitation to the casino meeting indicated he would be attending.
In June 2009, Mr. Ravenstahl was on vacation as council debated an amended version of the city's financial recovery plan. In a rare move, council passed a motion compelling the mayor to return to the city.
"I suggest that the mayor find a flight from the beach and get back to work," Councilman Bill Peduto said.
Mr. Ravenstahl was celebrating his 30th birthday at Seven Springs when a blizzard paralyzed the city Feb. 6, 2010, and was trapped there for two days as the city mounted snow-clearing efforts many residents considered inadequate. He said he supervised the city's efforts by phone.
Days later, the mayor lashed out at reporters who had been pursuing rumors that he had gone to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Hours later, he said he wasn't in New Orleans, hadn't planned to go there and kept a low profile in the city all day to foil reporters who were looking for him.
In April 2010, Mr. Ravenstahl was on vacation when U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. held a news conference on the North Side to say he would seek additional money for neighborhood security cameras. The announcement came days after a camera helped police identify suspects in the slaying of a retired city firefighter.
Council President Darlene Harris said the senator's staff asked her to attend in place of Mr. Ravenstahl. "I'm happy to go if the mayor can't be there," she said.
In August 2010, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and then-Gov. Ed Rendell attended a grand opening of the Consol Energy Center. Mr. Ravenstahl missed the event, though the city-county Sports and Exhibition Authority built the Penguins' new home.
The city's annual Labor Day parade gives local politicos face time with an important constituency, so Mr. Ravenstahl caused a stir when he missed last year's event.
Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea said he couldn't immediately recall another time when a mayor missed the event. He said he expects Mr. Ravenstahl to attend this year's parade Sept. 5.
Saying the region isn't graduating enough doctors, West Penn Allegheny Health System and Temple University's School of Medicine announced June 10 that they're joining forces to bring a new four-year medical school to the city.
Mr. Ravenstahl was invited but didn't attend.
At 11 a.m. Aug. 19, police Chief Nathan Harper held a press conference to decry a weeklong series of shootings that left five dead. Community leaders attended the event; Mr. Ravenstahl did not.
Late that afternoon, more than 2 inches of rain fell on the city in about an hour, triggering a flash flood on Washington Boulevard. A Plum woman and her two daughters drowned when their minivan slid beneath waters 9 or 10 feet deep. Also killed was an elderly Oakmont woman, whose body was found in the Allegheny River.
Mr. Ravenstahl's first comments on the flood came in a three-sentence news release issued by his office at 4:15 p.m. Aug. 20. His next remarks came at a news conference Tuesday, when he said he was out of town Aug. 19 and supervised the response by phone before returning to the city Aug. 20.
"If I could have stopped the rain, I would have ... I don't know if my location at the time of the rain would have changed anything," he said.
Mr. Shuster said that was the wrong response. "However long it would have taken him to come back that evening, that's what he should have done," he said.
The mayor's office said many positive things happening in the city -- such as again being designated America's Most Livable City -- reflect Mr. Ravenstahl's "vision for, and dedication to, Pittsburgh and our people."
"To pick out specific instances of events that I may have not attended is disingenuous and doesn't fairly reflect my responsibilities on a daily basis," Mr. Ravenstahl said.
Mr. Dowd said the mayor can't attend all events, but wonders why he misses some of the events he does.
"I've often asked, is that appropriate? Is that how we would all want it to be? The answer is no."