Pittsburgh Mayor Ravenstahl takes backseat, leaves driving to others

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In the past month, the city's former chief of police was federally indicted, shootings that left a police officer critically injured rocked the East End and state-appointed overseers threatened to revoke the city's budget approval, a move that could have grievous consequences for the city coffers.

But in that time, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl remained largely out of the public eye, declining numerous requests for interviews from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters. The mayor's spokeswoman Marissa Doyle, however, has continued to respond to inquiries. The mayor has said little in response to questions from the media: 285 words to be precise, all in emailed statements from his Ms. Doyle. Using his Facebook account, he also posted two comments to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's website, criticizing a letter to the editor written by Pittsburgh Promise executive director Saleem Ghubril.

His appearances have been scant since he announced March 1 that he would not seek re-election, news that stunned many because it came just 11 days after he launched his campaign. He said holding public office was taking too great a toll on his personal life.

At the news conference where he announced his withdrawal from the race, he seemed to suggest that no longer being hamstrung by campaigning would leave him free to pursue bolder policy objectives.

That's the tact that other lame-duck mayors have taken. Tom Murphy, for instance, used his last six months in office to continue his aggressive development efforts and to goad Harrisburg into aiding the city. Mr. Murphy took some criticism for his vigorous end game.

But the alternative -- a nearly silent mayor leaving issues unaddressed for the bulk of a year -- could create its own crises. In the past month, for instance, an acting department head wrote to city council about "a serious need" in staffing the city's information systems department, and Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, a state-appointed overseer, has grown impatient at the city's failure to meet the obligations it outlined as a condition for signing off on the city's budget.

For a few weeks after Mr. Ravenstahl's departure from the race, he was fairly visible, holding news conferences to announce the launch of a bike-share program in Pittsburgh and the creation of a business district based around the city's last remaining dairy in Carrick, during which he announced his intention to fire a Pittsburgh police officer whose encounter with a South Side reveler raised allegations of police brutality. On March 19, he spoke at the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership meeting.

His final news conference was March 20, when he boldly announced that the city would sue the nonprofit medical giant UPMC to strip it of its tax-exempt status, a move that has created backlash among other nonprofits as the city attempts to hammer out another agreement for voluntary contributions.

Two days later, when former police Chief Nate Harper was indicted by a federal grand jury on conspiracy and tax charges, the mayor was in Bradenton, Fla. His spokeswoman emailed reporters a 41-word statement.

Friday, the mayor spoke at a luncheon hosted by CitiParks to honor senior citizens for community service at the Sheraton Station Square on the South Side and later presented to the Municipal Analysts' Society about the city's financial progress at the society's conference at the Fairmont. Neither engagement was publicized by his office. Ms. Doyle did not respond to requests asking about other engagements or meetings attended by the mayor in the last month.

But while he remains largely out of public view, problems continue to fester in his administration.

In February, the acting head of the Department of City Information Systems, Tajuana Stephenson, retired. Kate DeSimone, who was serving as the acting assistant director and senior counsel of the department, was promoted to acting director, but no one else was hired to fill the position from which she was promoted. In late March, she wrote a letter to the Director of Operations Duane Ashley, asking him to fill the assistant director position by transferring energy and utilities manager Jim Sloss to the department.

For several years, the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, a body appointed by the state to oversee the city's budget, has pushed the city to install a more streamlined financial management system. Last fall, the ICA told the city it would rubber-stamp the 2013 budget if the city agreed to install certain parts of the system before Dec. 31.

But the city missed that deadline and still has not held up its end of the agreement. Henry Sciortino, executive director of the ICA, said city officials repeatedly told him they were working on the project, but still had not completed the required modules. On Friday, he sent an email to city solicitor Dan Regan saying that if the city did not provide a firm timeline for fulfilling its end of the bargain, there could be severe consequences for the city.

"If there is no written response with specific actions and timetables by the close of the business on Friday, April 26, the ICA will conclude that the city has abandoned its efforts to comply with the conditions," he wrote in the email.

In an interview, Mr. Sciortino said the ICA board intends to take action if the city fails to comply and "one of the options the board is contemplating is the revocation of the budget approval."

If the ICA board withdraws its approval of the city budget, it will prevent the city from borrowing money and from receiving millions in gaming revenue that's controlled by the ICA.

In approving the budget, the ICA also required the city to create a task force to hammer out an agreement for voluntary contributions from nonprofit organizations, which pay no taxes.

The task force was not appointed until the end of January, and the mayor's announcement of a suit against UPMC, the region's largest tax-exempt entity, has jeopardized relations with other nonprofits. The task force has still not met, nor does it have any meetings scheduled, Mr. Sciortino said.

Ms. Doyle said that the ICA had not communicated any of these concerns to city finance director Scott Kunka, who is also an ex-officio member of the ICA board.

"The City has complied, and will continue to comply with ICA conditions," she wrote in an email.

The city's lobbyist, Charles Kolling said the administration doesn't have him pushing much legislation right now, or trying to affect Gov. Tom Corbett's budget, but is very active in lassoing capital grants.

He said the city has been effective in getting state Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program grants for projects including the coming expansion of Bakery Square, and recently applied for funding for "a whole list of projects" including the reuse of the former LTV Steel site in Hazelwood and the redo of Downtown's Mellon Square.

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Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. Staff writer Joe Smydo contributed. Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.


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