Report card on Pittsburgh's mayor: Not bad

Ravenstahl making progress on more than half his goals

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Nearly 10 months ago, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl took office pledging to do little more than implement his predecessor's platform. Now he finds himself the owner of a challenging agenda, pressed by a looming general election to prove he can fulfill it.

 Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl dashes after holding an impromptu press conference on the sidewalk outside Peabody High School earlier this month. He was on his way to a Pittsburgh Fire Department graduation ceremony.
View the mayor's report card. 

He's made scores of pledges -- on diversity, public safety, neighborhoods, development, education and the function of city government -- since the Sept. 1 death of Bob O'Connor put him in the mayor's seat.

On the Post-Gazette's report card of 38 pledges, Mr. Ravenstahl gets A's in seven for meeting his goals, B's in 17 for making substantial progress, C's in 13 for little progress and D in just one for making no improvement.

Some are natural extensions of Mr. O'Connor's platform. Others, like the Propel Pittsburgh Commission to advance young professionals' concerns, spring from the mind of the 27-year-old mayor. A few seem cribbed from the playbook of his frequent foe, Councilman William Peduto, or were ad-libbed to address the day's news, whether it was a shooting or a spat among his staff.

Whether that agenda is aggressive enough, and whether it's being achieved, is likely to be an issue in the race with Republican mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis.

"My impression is that Luke Ravenstahl is focused on the right things," said Maxwell King, president of The Heinz Endowments. The agenda and its implementation, he said, "are a little scattershot, but you would expect that in a new administration, and you would expect that in someone who is new in management."

"Most of these are pretty realistic," said Morton Coleman, former director of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics, as he looked over a list of mayoral pronouncements. What's lacking may be an overall strategy for revitalizing the population-losing, financially struggling city, he said. The mayor's pledges "seem like unrelated activities, and I'd like to see how he'd like to connect them all."

Mr. Ravenstahl said his strategy has two main thrusts.

"Number one is continuing the financial recovery of the city," he said. He's trimming health insurance costs and has started seeking a solution to the $484 million shortfall in the city's pension fund.

"On the second side, the economic development climate in Pittsburgh is certainly a priority of mine."

He made a new arena a top development goal with a September letter saying he'd do everything possible to keep the Penguins here. That cemented his role as a junior partner with Gov. Ed Rendell and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato in talks that resulted in an arena deal.

Check that off the to-do list.

On the other hand, December's announcement of a multimillion-dollar plan to guarantee college funding to all graduates of city schools starting next year is far from fulfilled, with just $10,000 raised so far.

That could change. By multiple accounts, fund-raising efforts are starting to gain traction.

"I am very, very confident that we will have the necessary funds" to award the first scholarships next year, said school Superintendent Mark Roosevelt. "We'll have something in place for these kids."

Many of the mayor's other promises relate to improving government's responsiveness and function. The 311 help line, for instance, became reality in October, while efforts to bring more automation and accountability to city decision-making on everything from permitting to paving are just starting.

A committee led by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg is seeking ways to improve efficiency in city and county government, with suggestions likely this fall. The mayor said he'll "consider them."

Questions on integrity
An October vow to uphold the integrity of his administration, driven by controversy over then-Operations Director Dennis Regan, remains a question mark.

Mr. Regan quit and was exonerated, despite the acting solicitor's view that he overstepped his role in police discipline. His primary accuser, police Cmdr. Catherine McNeilly, was demoted, only to be restored to her post by a federal judge, and granted an $85,000 settlement.

In May, Redd Up Campaign workers were caught wearing a candidate's campaign shirts on the job, again raising integrity issues. They were suspended without pay for five days, but allowed to return to work after two days while they appealed.

On the neighborhood level, some key pledges have brought change. Council approved tax abatements for new housing Downtown and in 28 neighborhoods, set to go into effect next month. The buyback of old tax debt sold in the 1990s has allowed community groups to move scores of properties closer to redevelopment. The new Community's Technical Investigative and Preparedness Section, or C-TIPS, police squad has impressed neighborhood leaders.

"I love C-TIPS," said Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. The squad is "focused on identifying key actors that, if I take these out, it'll make a huge difference."

Mr. Ravenstahl's record on diversity is incomplete. The Mayor's Office staff is two-thirds female, but most directorships are filled by white men, with many empty or in flux thanks to an ongoing reshuffle.

No action has yet been taken to improve the demographic balance of the police and fire bureaus, though a program to hire minority paramedics is starting.

So far, the Ravenstahl agenda could translate into "a more progressive, greener, more knowledge-oriented, desirable city," said Allyson Lowe, director of Chatham University's Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. But it falls short of changing "the underlying structure of government," which she thinks the city needs to do in light of huge shifts in population and economics.

If the city emerges from the next few years with a scholarship fund, a new arena, more accountable government, safer neighborhoods, more housing, better city-county cooperation and improved diversity, "it'll be a home run for Pittsburgh and a home run for Luke," said Mr. King.

If not? "If I fail," Mr. Ravenstahl said, "then we as Pittsburgh will have taken a step backward. I don't think we will, and I think the people of the city understand that change is needed."


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


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