Straight-talking, passionate Shields leaves city council

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When a poll last summer put Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's approval rating at an unflattering 19 percent, city Councilman Doug Shields seized the moment.

He wrote "19 %" on a makeshift sign and stuck it in his office window, where it was sure to be seen by mayoral staffers who have offices facing his on the opposite side of the City-County Building.

Blunt communication has been a trademark for Mr. Shields, who leaves office at year's end after two high-spirited terms, including sundry battles with Mr. Ravenstahl's administration.

This year alone, he's called the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority a "failed" agency, said he didn't trust the city law department, skewered the parking authority for what he considered a lack of cooperation with council and temporarily buried Mr. Ravenstahl's transit legislation amid bickering over the capital budget.

Then there was the "19 %" sign, which Mr. Shields said was intended to send Mr. Ravenstahl a pointed message: "You've got to change your style."

"My job isn't to defend the government," Mr. Shields, 58, of Squirrel Hill, said in a farewell interview. "My job is to represent the people it serves."

He'll go out swinging. At his final meeting today, Mr. Shields plans to introduce a non-binding resolution calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would strip corporations of citizenship rights--an outgrowth of his year-old battle with the natural-gas industry.

"Doug is driven by passion," said Councilman Bill Peduto.

In council chambers, the passion translated into lengthy speeches that once earned him an armful of egg timers from weary colleagues. Off camera, Mr. Shields sometimes bursts into profanity.

A former paralegal, Mr. Shields spent 11 years as chief of staff to Councilman Bob O'Connor, who became mayor in 2006. With Mr. O'Connor's death months later, Mr. Ravenstahl moved from council president to mayor.

Mr. Shields took office in 2004 -- when Mr. O'Connor was out of office -- and served four years as council president. This year, foregoing a council re-election bid, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for district judge. He said his career prospects now include government consulting and managing a municipality.

Replacing him on council Tuesday will be Corey O'Connor, the late mayor's son.

Mr. Shields said the elder O'Connor's summer-long battle with brain cancer in 2006 was an awful period--"the whole government shut down for three months"--but the succeeding years haven't been easy either.

Council and Mr. Ravenstahl have clashed repeatedly, with the biggest battle involving council's rejection of a 50-year lease of parking garages and meters that Mr. Shields said would have been "the biggest giveaway in the world." While Mr. Shields has been part of a five-member majority that's tangled with Mr. Ravenstahl, he often has been the lightning rod of the group.

"We see Doug's exit as an opportunity for us to improve relationships with city council," mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said.

Mr. Ravenstahl hasn't been Mr. Shields' only target. He's also earned the wrath of the billboard industry and natural gas producers with efforts to restrict the former and ban the latter, whom he called "quick-buck artists."

Last year, Mr. Shields won his colleagues' support of legislation banning natural-gas production in the city. About two weeks ago, he won final approval of another bill aimed at holding drillers and government regulators liable for any pollution the city experiences because of production in upstream municipalities.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group, called the bills illegal. But the threat of litigation didn't faze Mr. Shields, who said he would look forward to industry insights that might be gleaned from the discovery process.

At the heart of both bills was a populist, anti-corporate stance that Councilman Bruce Kraus said he often saw in his colleague's work. "He and I are something of leftovers from the '60s," Mr. Kraus said.

In recent months, Mr. Shields has traveled throughout the state to help other communities fight gas drilling. The coalition declined comment on his departure from council.

A lover of policy and legislative minutiae, Mr. Shields said he fancies himself more "watchmaker" than politician.

However, he relishes the thrust and parry of debate and possesses a politician's savvy.

Mr. Peduto recalled a winter day many years ago when he and Mr. Shields--the former working for Councilman Dan Cohen and the latter for Bob O'Connor--were discussing the city's lackluster snow-clearing efforts. Mr. Peduto casually mentioned that other cities put snow plows on garbage trucks.

Hours later, he said, Councilman O'Connor issued a statement demanding that the city put plows on garbage trucks.

"I knew exactly where that had come from," Mr. Peduto said.

Mr. Shields said he was buoyed by the election of Mr. O'Connor -- a "people's mayor" -- and disappointed that council and Mr. Ravenstahl have been rowing in opposite directions.

"I think his biggest mistake was not tapping into the talent that was here, and good mayors will do that," Mr. Shields said.

Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548. First Published December 30, 2011 5:00 AM


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