Mayor, council escalate discord over cars
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A divided Pittsburgh City Council set its wallet on fire yesterday, and some members accused Mayor Luke Ravenstahl of supplying the match. By day's end, the flames of council-mayor discord threatened to spread throughout city government.
The spark was legislation by Councilman Ricky Burgess to compel the mayor to halve the number of officials who take city vehicles home -- a measure that mirrors the city's four-year-old Act 47 recovery plan, but is viewed by the administration as micromanagement. That set off chain reactions in which council eliminated its own mileage reimbursements, erupted over legislation to cut staff salaries and considered embarking on a rewrite of the $424 million budget.
Councilman Bruce Kraus said Mr. Ravenstahl was behind the escalation in tensions, pointing to a "threat" he said occurred last week at a fund-raiser.
"[The mayor's] exact words were, 'We're coming after you. Try working on $60-plus-thousand dollars a year in your council salary budgets,'" Mr. Kraus said. "And I said, 'If you feel that best serves the interests of the city of Pittsburgh, to cripple City Council, have at it.'"
Mr. Ravenstahl confirmed the conversation, but not the tone.
"It certainly wasn't a threat, and to suggest that it was I think is unfortunate," he said. "If they feel that Act 47 is a binding document, then they, themselves, should live by that. ... Don't throw stones when you live in a glass house, and that's what they've been doing."
The blowup followed six weeks of spats over the permitting of billboards, the Urban Redevelopment Authority's budgeting practices and the 58 employees who can take home city cars. Council has sought codified practices, while the administration has argued for flexibility.
The take-home-car reduction passed 5-3, with Jim Motznik, Darlene Harris and Tonya Payne voting no. Dan Deasy abstained. Mr. Ravenstahl has 10 days to let it become law or veto it, and it takes six votes to override a veto. The mayor said he has made no decision.
Mr. Motznik, a mayoral ally, then proposed legislation to strip $150,000 from what he called council "slush funds" and steer it to public safety uses, plus cut council staff spending from $82,872 per district office to $65,000, with those savings going to police. He said Finance Director Scott Kunka helped him write it. "If we're going to live up to what [Act] 47 says, by the book, here's a good opportunity to do so," Mr. Motznik said.
Most members spread their staff allocation among three or four aides. The allocation has dropped from $99,445 in 2004 but has never reached the $65,000 in the plan.
"It seems that my actions to take away the perks of the highest-paid people in the administration have now caused us to receive a firestorm of retaliation," said Mr. Burgess. "Mr. Motznik has become an instrument of brutality to this council and to this city."
"It's not an attempt to punish anyone," Mr. Motznik countered. "Reality is that if you're going to live by the sword, you're probably going to have to deal with both sides of the sword."
Council President Doug Shields said Mr. Motznik's proposed staff salary cuts would require a reopening of the entire budget. That would open up the mayor's office and departments of public works and public safety to adjustments controlled by a council majority seemingly upset at the administration.
The city charter allows budget amendments this far into the year only with "the approval of the mayor." Mr. Ravenstahl said he opposed a reopening.
The sword hit council pockets with a vote on legislation lifting monthly mileage reimbursement caps to $378.75. Mr. Deasy amended it to bar elected officials from getting any reimbursements. Last year all council members received reimbursements, mostly at the cap of $150 a month, but this year some members including Mr. Motznik and Mr. Burgess have not requested it.
Councilman William Peduto's mileage reimbursement showed he reported 400 miles per month in business mileage in both January and February, then submitted detailed logs showing 322.7 miles in the first month, and 415.1 in the second. The logs included trips from home to the office, which the city code says should not be reimbursed.
He got a $150 reimbursement for each month.
Mr. Peduto said council members have customarily gotten reimbursement for home-to-office travel, and that he and Mr. Shields tried to limit council spending in 2006 but were thwarted by Mr. Motznik and Mr. Ravenstahl. He said logs have never been required, but he put his together after Mr. Motznik demanded them from all members on Monday. "This is a setup," Mr. Peduto said.
Likely coming at today's council meeting: a critique of Mr. Motznik's spending, including an $80 bill for coffee service on this week's invoice list.
"I don't think this solves any problem," Ms. Harris said during the debate on mileage reimbursement. "I think it's ridiculous. ... All this is is child's play, and I wish somehow, some way, we could get back to the business of this city."
First Published March 26, 2008 12:00 am