4 accused of lobbying city council on gas drilling ban
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Despite what he called behind-the-scenes opposition from Allegheny County executive candidate Rich Fitzgerald, two civic leaders and a union official, Pittsburgh city Councilman Doug Shields predicted that he will have the votes today to advance legislation that would let voters decide whether to include a natural gas drilling ban in the city's home-rule charter.
In an email to reporters, Mr. Shields said Mr. Fitzgerald, the Democratic nominee for county executive; Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development; Barbara McNees, a conference official and one of Pittsburgh's state-appointed financial overseers; and Richard Stanizzo, a union official and another state-appointed overseer, were "putting significant political pressure on council members" to vote down the referendum bill.
"None of them, seemingly, have the gumption to go public with their opposition," Mr. Shields' email said. "I would be happy to debate them ... They also can come to city council to offer their perspectives during our public comment period as to why they think it's a bad idea to allow the public to express themselves on this most significant issue."
In an interview Monday, Mr. Shields said the four had contacted council members Bill Peduto, Natalia Rudiak and Bruce Kraus in attempts to influence their votes.
Nonetheless, Mr. Shields said he believes the legislation authorizing a referendum will win preliminary approval today with "five good votes" -- his and those of Mr. Kraus, Mr. Peduto, Ms. Rudiak and council President Darlene Harris. A final vote would be held next week.
If council approves the legislation, a referendum on the November ballot would ask city voters whether they want to amend the home-rule charter to include a "community bill of rights" that bans drilling. A simple majority of "yes" votes would be enough to amend the charter.
Mike Mikus, Mr. Fitzgerald's campaign manager, said the candidate talked with council members about the economic development potential of the gas industry but didn't consider the discussions to be "backroom" talks. He said Mr. Fitzgerald did not pressure council members to vote against the referendum or speak to them at the request of the gas industry.
Mr. Fitzgerald supports a carefully monitored drilling industry. "As with any industry, you have to make sure residents get the best deal," including environmental safeguards, Mr. Mikus said.
Ms. Rudiak confirmed that Mr. Fitzgerald had called her to discuss the development potential of the gas industry but still intends to support Mr. Shields' legislation.
Catherine DeLoughry, spokeswoman for the Allegheny Conference, said the group has concerns about Mr. Shields' proposal. Although the issue primarily has been cast as a referendum on gas drilling, she said, voters would be asked to enact a "community bill of rights" asserting broad and little-tested legal prerogatives that could apply to other issues.
Last year, Mr. Shields and his colleagues pushed through an ordinance banning drilling in the city.
Now, Mr. Shields, who leaves office at year's end, wants to include the ban in the charter to make it more difficult for future councils or activists to repeal it.
Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said her trade group hadn't asked anyone to lobby council. However, Ms. Klaber, a former official of the Allegheny Conference, said she understands why officials there would be wary of a referendum suggesting that Pittsburgh is "not open for business."
First Published July 27, 2011 12:00 am