City government works better than you think
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Twenty of us gathered around an oval wooden table, beneath portraits of Pittsburgh's 44 previous mayors. We had come to this ornate conference room in the City-County Building for the first session of the Civic Leadership Academy. We were unsure what to expect and maybe a little nervous. One woman leaned over to me and whispered, "We're supposed to pick a foreman now, right?"
She was joking. A jury summons hadn't brought us here -- we were chosen from a hundred applicants for a 10-week class in Pittsburgh city government. We represented a broad spectrum of neighborhoods and interests, and our motivations varied.
"A colleague at lunch told me this would be something that I would like," Louis Stamerra of Brookline related later. "I thought to myself, 'What do I need to know about Pittsburgh? This is my city, I know everything.' Well, I found out I didn't."
Cathy Moir had been impressed by city government as it worked to bring a new police station to Allentown, where she owns a business: "This administration provided the South Hilltop with an opportunity for new life. This community was tumbling into despair, and on target to disgrace our grand city."
Felimelia Abenes-Douglass of Shadyside immigrated from the Philippines to Pittsburgh, her husband's home town. "It is a great honor to represent the immigrants who find Pittsburgh as their second home," she said. "Learning in person from the government officials and employees is still the best way to disseminate vital information about the city's services, functions and operations."
Ellen Roth of Point Breeze: "As a relocation consultant, I already know a lot about the quality of life in our region. It was a privilege to be part of this diverse class, and to learn how city government handles routine matters, as well as the tough ones." An alumna of Leadership Pittsburgh, she has demanding expectations of herself and of her city.
A cynic by nature, I suspected that this course, as an initiative of the mayor's office, would be a self-serving political exercise. Since I've lived here "only" 10 years, initially I asked around for Pittsburgh natives to serve as fact-checkers in case of "spin." After the first session it was clear they wouldn't be needed. The simplest story to tell is the truth, and we received a refreshingly honest look behind the public scenery.
Over the next two months we met weekly at various locations with directors and staff who explained the operations of city departments and bureaus. Academic presentations were supplemented by hands-on demonstrations and tours. We climbed on fire trucks and took a stunning trip through the gargantuan waterworks. We learned the physical and fiscal challenges of maintaining century-old infrastructure, and the mechanisms which guide demolition and construction in Pittsburgh's evolving cityscape. We were shown the effort required to maintain the beauty, safety and quality of life we enjoy here.
The biggest revelation was the integrity and candor of our dedicated civil servants. And it was gratifying to see our tax dollars so diligently at work.
"City employees have passion about their jobs, and compassion about the people that they serve; they work hard and they care about their city," Louis observed. Cathy added, "All those I've encountered are very bright, extremely pleasant and professional. And they have a unique quality of listening skills."
To the mayor's credit, we were even afforded a glimpse into the machinations of city government when the gears were not meshing smoothly. There is an old admonition against watching laws or sausages being made, and during this course we saw the shredding of various parking proposals and the feeding of the unsightly pension-fund mess through the legislative grinder for repeated turns of the crank. We will all be given a taste of that particular kielbasa for years to come.
The mayor's office is focused on youth. Felimelia proudly told of her son learning aspects of local legislation in the Mayor's Youth Council, an initiative she believes "shows the importance of the young generation in the future governance of this city."
Louis said, "I attended the academy to show my son about responsibility, to show him at the age of 16 how you must get involved in the city in which you live."
Cathy pointed out a practical advantage of having young people in leadership: "I believe the youthful vision of this thirtysomething administration helps start our required change. Not a single department appeared frozen in the old world of steel."
This city takes its future seriously, as evident in PLANPGH, the strategic plan for the next 25 years. Public comment meetings are being held on this draft plan, which is backed by a wealth of data and can be accessed online. The savvy organization and mining of this information is already drawing attention and garnering city planning awards.
We are all stakeholders in this process, for, as Ellen says, "Every person is a partisan of where they live, takes pride in their neighborhood, and is a proponent of new development, redevelopment and sustainability."
It is hard for a cynic like me to admit, but I'm coming around to the view that Pittsburgh isn't a city of the past which is half-empty, it's a city of the future which is half-full.
Much of what we learned in this course was news to us, because the machinery of the city generally makes little noise when it runs smoothly: I can run clean water over my toothbrush in the morning; I can carry trash and recyclables out to my curb and they are removed; I can ride a bus down passable streets, through large city parks with green ball fields and past new business parks on former brown fields.
If I see something needing attention, I can call 311, the mayor's response line. If I myself need emergency attention, I can call 911.
In 2009 I visited Haiti, where none of this is true. That was a useful "vision test," learning to see many things we take for granted. I recommend it. I also recommend city residents apply for future offerings of the Civic Leadership Academy for the very same reason.
First Published January 25, 2011 12:00 am