O'Connor left behind one-page 'vision' for city through 2010

Eleven weeks after his inauguration, Bob O'Connor and key staff met with a consultant and began summarizing the vision critics had said he lacked and setting a course for the city during what they hoped would be just his first term as mayor.

That meeting started a behind-closed-doors process that resulted in a one-legal-size-page statement of 45 goals and strategies for the new administration. It was to be made available to all Pittsburghers in an effort to quiet the critics and give voters the means to decide if he was fulfilling his promises.

The final version arrived in the mayor's office in early August 2006 when Mr. O'Connor was in the hospital suffering the effects of a rare central nervous system lymphoma. He died on Sept. 1.

The vision statement, not released until now, reflects a novel attempt to plot the city's recovery on a single page. It also provides the clearest indication of what the late mayor was trying to achieve, and a means of gauging the legacy of his short-lived administration.

It's also a yardstick measuring the extent to which Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has followed his predecessor's lead.

"We, as an administration, have essentially done the same thing, except perhaps putting it on a single sheet of paper," Mr. Ravenstahl said, after getting his first look at the O'Connor plan sheet when the Post-Gazette presented it to him on Friday. The nuts-and-bolts, neighborhood-oriented focus expressed in the sheet mirror his own philosophy, he added.

O'Connor's vision

It took Mr. O'Connor three bids to win the mayor's office, in part because critics said he lacked a clear vision -- or at least wasn't able to communicate one. It's a critique that always rankled his family and supporters.

"He always had a vision," said his widow, Judy O'Connor.

"Let's get our city back in order," summarized Corey O'Connor, his son.

Debunking the claim that the mayor lacked vision "was an element" of the process, said Dick Skrinjar, the late mayor's campaign and administration spokesman, now the assistant director of city parks and senior interests. "Bob had the overall vision and the plan."

The vision was summarized in 33 words. "By 2010, Pittsburgh is one of the safest, cleanest cities in the country. It is a vibrant, developing city that is financially sound. All of us as Pittsburghers are proud of our city."

Mr. O'Connor made sure that the vision and the strategies with which he would achieve it were concise. His years in the restaurant business taught him "that you had to have a clear sense of where you were trying to get to, and make it understandable so people can get behind it," said Kate Dewey, a consultant paid by a foundation to facilitate the effort.

The effort went on to involve heads of all departments, who met during the week and on Saturdays, at the Downtown office of McCrory & McDowell, where Ms. Dewey was a principal.

A set of goals emerged that were constrained by the city's iffy finances, but were all to be reached by 2010.

By early August, the plan "was wrapped up," said Ms. Dewey. "It was given back to the administration, and then so many things happened."

Under safety, Mr. O'Connor wanted to increase the visibility of the police force, the perception of safety, and the raw number of arrests. He was planning to launch a "youth-directed gun hotline," use data to target crime "hot spots" and upgrade equipment in all public safety bureaus.

He also wanted to get police out of their cars and walking streets -- a goal Mr. Ravenstahl has embraced -- improve paramedic response times and reduce fire fatalities. Potholes would be filled within 48 hours of a complaint.

He viewed cleanliness as part perception, part hard fact. He intended to track the number of clean-ups, number of residents involved in them, and how many tons of illegally dumped trash removed.

He intended to boost street resurfacing efforts and eliminate the backlog of 1,200 structures that the city condemned, but could not afford to demolish.

"I think around clean and safe, I feel that we really turned the corner with O'Connor," said Ms. Dewey. "Redding up" has become a citywide priority.

Mr. Ravenstahl has added a second Redd Up Crew to the one his predecessor launched. The backlog of condemned buildings, though, has grown to 1,400.

Mr. O'Connor set the ambitious goal of getting the city out of fiscally distressed status under state Act 47 and shedding both of its state oversight agencies by 2010.

Mr. Ravenstahl said he shares the goal, but he isn't setting an "artificial date." He said he's reducing health insurance costs, trying to save the pension fund, and taking some measures on Mr. O'Connor's to-do list, such as finding users for vacant city facilities.

"We didn't issue debt [this year], we're not going to issue debt next year," Mr. Ravenstahl said. His draft budget, due this month, will be balanced without spending savings or relying on one-time revenues, he said.

A "vibrant, developing city," according to Mr. O'Connor's plan, was one with more building permits, more jobs, rising wages, affordable housing and growing population. Getting there would require a streamlined permit process and zoning, improvement of Downtown's retail core, wireless Internet access for the entire city and more public art.

Mr. Ravenstahl switched on the Downtown-only wireless Internet network that Mr. O'Connor helped launch, and has invited firms to submit ideas for a citywide Wi-Fi system. Mr. Ravenstahl's administration has also shepherded the Downtown development boomlet his predecessor set in motion, and helped facilitate construction in the South Side, the North Shore, East Liberty and other neighborhoods.

Finally, Mr. O'Connor sought "customer satisfaction." That included concrete changes like the institution of a 311 help line and better city Web site, and intangibles like "a can-do attitude." It included returning Pittsburgh "to its status as the most livable city in America."

Mr. Ravenstahl launched the 311 line and his administration is redesigning the Web site.

The new mayor reaped the political windfall from the April announcement by the Places Rated Almanac that Pittsburgh again ranks as "most livable." He emblazoned the award on billboards bearing his name, along with the same photo of the Golden Triangle that appears on the O'Connor vision sheet.

O'Connor family members said they felt that the late mayor should have gotten more credit for the most-livable-city honor.

"His name wasn't even mentioned," Mrs. O'Connor lamented. "And he started it."

The vision sheet "was something he was working on even while he was at Shadyside Hospital," said Mr. Skrinjar. Before Mr. O'Connor's precipitous decline, the administration hoped that it would be able to roll out the blueprint in the fall of 2006.

Mr. Skrinjar said it was meant to be part of an effort that started with the July 11, 2006, Major League Baseball All-Star Game to boost Pittsburgh's national profile. Mr. O'Connor intended to angle for a speaking role in the 2008 Democratic National Convention "to communicate Pittsburgh's turnaround," he said.

"This was Bob's vision. This was Bob's team's vision," Mr. Skrinjar said. "Sept. 1 changed all of that."

Ravenstahl's approach

Mr. Ravenstahl's approach to the O'Connor agenda has shifted with time.

He spent his first three months in office cleaving to the safe-clean-and-thrifty O'Connor mantra and keeping most of his predecessor's staff.

"I was certainly very fortunate to take over a city that, in my opinion, had a tremendous amount of momentum," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

Starting in December 2006 and continuing until June, he set his own course, pursuing a tax break for new housing, proposing college aid for city high school graduates, improving diversity in city government, shedding Mr. O'Connor's insiders and gathering other mayors across the state in a search for solutions to pension problems.

This summer he's weathered controversies over the promotion of police officers who faced domestic abuse accusations, his request for resignation letters from 11 directors, Hill District demands for pledges related to the replacement for Mellon Arena and ethical questions about a golf event at which he was sponsored by the Penguins and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"I don't know that we've been sidetracked or slowed down," he said. "We, internally, have continued to put a very aggressive agenda forward."

Now he faces an election challenge from Republican Mark DeSantis. If he prevails, Mr. Ravenstahl said, he "won't necessarily make decisions based on what would Bob have done or not done," though their philosophies are similar.

As for the original O'Connor plan, the effort to focus the city on a single page full of basic goals appears to be over even though some of its elements are very much alive, Ms. Dewey said.

"It's a shame his administration was so short," she said.

Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. First Published September 2, 2007 4:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?