Thursday, April 10, 2008

Constant Bearing, Decreasing Range

First off, for my out of town readers I have to admit this is all kind of embarrassing.

Secondly, you just can’t make this stuff up. If you were writing this as fiction, it would not be believable enough to sell.

What am I talking about? I would recount the story du jour here in Pittsburgh, but it’s quite convoluted and still in flux. The current version goes like this.

Clearly an important local story, but is it anything bigger than that? Allegations of conflict of interest are not that exciting in the end and certainly not things that have been absent from government since… well, since there has been government. What’s the bigger story?

So if you have not read the news, don’t even try to follow this. Even if you have read the news, it’s hard to describe. It’s kind of in the middle, but one starting point for this is when one Alecia Sirk was hired as the spokesperson for the mayor. At the time there was this little issue of a blog she had been writing for some time. Nothing wrong with blogging (I hope!). It was a bit of a personal blog, but who should knock anyone for speaking from the heart. Nonetheless, it was a little too far out there to be continued while the same author was also speaking in an official capacity. The blog was, unsurprisingly, quickly taken down. So keep in mind is that none of this would have played out as it has if there had never been this hyper-honest blog out there in the first place.

I would say it’s mostly rational behavior at this point. The blog was taken down, new job accepted and everyone moved on.. There was this little technical sidebar that nothing on the Internet is ever really eliminated. What was that Oliver North quote? “I thought when I hit erase, the email was erased”… or something like that. Of course that was 20 years ago. So thanks to Google cache many many folks out there retrieved and content of the blog and most certainly saved it for future posterity. Who were they? Historical preservationists? Voyeurs? Political malcontents or just neb-noses?........ Or none of the above?

Now the following is speculation, but I don’t believe much in coincidences. I suspect that the content of Ms. Sirks blog was deconstructed in fine detail some time ago. I would call it forensic blogging if that is a term. Nonetheless, somebody out there figured out that a vague reference to “JV” in Ms Sirk’s blog was also Lamar Advertising real estate manager Jim Vlasach. It appears that the blog described a gift that JV had given to her which at the very least had the appearance of a conflict of interest with her job, and more importantly with her husbands job either with City Planning or the URA. If that had come out say 6 months ago, it might have looked bad for all concerned, but it might not have been as big an issue… at least not as big an issue as quickly as this all transpired yesterday. Whomever was smart enough to sleuth this out was probably smart enough to sit on this little unverified fact. Wait until when? Who knows, but then opportunity always comes knocking.

In recent weeks the big political story in town became a tussle over a permit to put a billboard on the new transportation center downtown. The details of that story are pretty boring and the short version is that the public debate gets a bit ugly from both a political and personal perspective and in the end city council votes to disallow the billboard. You now edge into the bizarre a bit with Tuesday’s news (yup, that was all just two days ago… or a political month at least down on Grant Street) that the same Lamar Advertising filed a lawsuit against the city council folks who were opposed to the new billboard.

So maybe it was all just a low probability event that the revelation of a possible passing reference to the real estate director of Lamar Adverting in just a single line of a long ago deleted blog surfaced the day after Lamar Advertising filed a suit against 5 sitting council persons.

Sure it was.

Since that is almost too hard to believe, you are left with the conclusion that the filing of the lawsuit provided an opportune time to inject this little fact into the public discourse. Would it have made it out there eventually? It might have been thrown out there in due course to minor effect, but given the timing of this the effect was magnified.

So one summary could be that Lamar Advertising thought it was playing hardball not realizing that it didn’t have the winning hand. No matter what happens with their legal case at this point, they lost their own ace in the hole if a new URA head gets appointed. You could say that they chose to play with fire and got more than a bit burnt.

But…… something still nags at me a bit. From the first news on this, I will tell you that I always found the whole topic of the billboard important, but nonetheless a bit overblown in how much political machination it was producing. Again, I am sure it’s an important issue, but given all the other dire things going on in city government it’s a question of priorities. Something never really added up to me.

Clearly this is speculation on my part, but this all leads me to another hypothesis…. Did someone know about the potential hammer hanging over Lamar? Could that explain why the issue of blocking the billboard was pressed farther than it might have been in other circumstances? Makes an awful lot of sense to me at least if you think Lamar was baited into their lawsuit. Poking the tiger is one thing, but what if the goal was really to get Lamar to do something extraordinary, like say filing a fairly high profile lawsuit? If even partially true, who knew Henry Kissinger was moonlighting on the Mon?

Where does that leave us? Just the other day the Mayor had successfully moved out in front of an issue by announcing his fairly unqualified support for city county merger issues. Instead of perpetually reacting to issues being generated by others, for a few days everyone was reacting to him which was probably one of the goals. It was a fairly brilliant political move if nothing else. It worked for all of a couple days. And while I said recently that mayor-council relations may have appeared strained of late, they actually were not as bad as periods not that far in the past. Now I presume the worst. I think it’s a matter of public record that the mayor and Pat Ford were pretty close. His untimely ouster may necessitate a green line being drawn down the middle of the 5th floor of the city county building. Brace for collision.


Blogger Richmond K. Turner said...

Given the title of the post, I have to ask... are you ex-Navy?

Thursday, April 10, 2008 10:35:00 AM  
Anonymous infinonymous said...

I am not persuaded that a cunning trap caught Lamar, Ford, Sirk (and, eventually, Ravenstahl). When I call these folks the junior varsity, or apologize to amateurs for labeling the Ravenstahl administration "amateur hour," it isn't entirely for humorous effect.

As I discuss at my blog, Lamar's conduct was not readily predictable. Neither was the administration's.

Recent developments are far more likely -- naturally, even -- attributed to the sheer ineptitude of the currently ensnared. The confluence of inexperience, arrogance, power, and (as Boone told Katy) "a morally casual attitude" is more than enough to sink most ships.

Some people expected this (indeed, quoted odds). The open questions were which point of exposure would become the flashpoint, and when it would occur.

Now that we have reached the flashpoint, I expect the blaze to spread. There is no shortage of kindling lying about Grant Street, Ross Street and a few city neighborhoods.

Thursday, April 10, 2008 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Chad said...

Just the other day the Mayor had successfully moved out in front of an issue by announcing his fairly unqualified support for city county merger issues. Instead of perpetually reacting to issues being generated by others, for a few days everyone was reacting to him which was probably one of the goals. It was a fairly brilliant political move if nothing else.

You're kidding, right, Chris?

It is awfully difficult to move out in front of an issue when lots of other people -- County Executive Dan Onorato for one, mayoral candidate Mark DeSantis for another -- were out in front of it a year ago. And all the more so when, during that last year, you hemmed and hawed and cried "Garbage collection in Wilknisburg!" every time someone mentioned City/County consolidation in a public forum.

It is also rather silly to suggest that the Mayor was not reacting to issues generated by others when he expressed his sudden, near-death-bed-conversion support of City/County consolidation only after Chancellor Nordenberg's advisory committee -- which did not contain a single finding or recommendation that could even be charitably described as a surprise -- published its report.

Those are only brilliant political moves if you count as brilliant finally falling into line with political and financial reality. I, for one, do not.

Thursday, April 10, 2008 12:31:00 PM  
Anonymous M (not Matt) H said...

I certainly hope that somebody opposed to Luke is cunning enough to hold their cards until exactly the right moment.

But, I believe that you are over-thinking why the sign controversy got such big play even before the conflict of interest issue hit. The city and schools take more and more money each year and the services we get have been steadily decreasing. I’ve lived in many places and never seen taxes this high or roads this bad. Given what I pay and what I get back, I assume that everybody elected is somehow corrupt until proven otherwise. And, then the Democratic committee pulls an inexperienced mayor out of its collective ass and still has an easy win in the election.

I realize that my circle of friends is hardly representative of the city at large, but these sentiments are not exactly rare on the East End. My guess is that these smallish scandals get big play because even the Post-Gazette is smart enough to figure out there is an audience for them. Pittsburgh needs sober discussion about a way out of this mess, but until somebody who isn’t machine endorsed can win a city-wide election, that sober discussion is academic. In the mean time, watching machine officials get harassed, forced from office or jailed counts as entertainment.

From my point of view, this sign issue is certainly the most entertaining thing in the paper in weeks. I don’t see how a big political fight between city council can be anything but good for the taxpayers. I certainly hope somebody is actively trying to stir things up. Since I’m sitting here sweating about what will be taxed next or how frequently I need to get my car re-aligned, I don’t see why I shouldn’t cheer when the people running things have problems. If whoever did this runs for office, I’ll send them a campaign contribution. We need someone who is DeSantis in public and Lee Atwater behind the scenes.

Thursday, April 10, 2008 12:38:00 PM  
Blogger EdHeath said...

Well, it will be interesting to see if your questions are answered. The "Burgher" of the Burgh Report has suggested he will do so. Certainly the fallout from this particular set of events hasn't settled to the ground yet. Lamar is now refusing to listen to the Zoning Board. Considering their 40 or so applications before the ZBA, you would think they would take a more conciliatory approach. If Lamar continues down this path, one of my favorite legal phrases, "the thing speaks for itself" (Res ipsa loquitur), may become the new phrase heard round the Burgosphere.

Thursday, April 10, 2008 12:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Chris. RKT obviously doesn't read your blog very often.

I think that letter from HUD that Rich Lord reported today forced Ford's hand. Absolute hubris though. Thought he could control perceptions and events by saying yes, he took the gifts, but there was nothing wrong with it. Really, that desperate stance was his last resort, with the report of the HUD letter pending. Don't forget, the HUD letter came out Monday, Rich probably had it and called Ford, so Ford went to the Trib, thinking he could screw the PG and protect himself. At least that's one possible scenario. And yes, I know that HUD targeted his Housing Authority position and not URA, but still, he's probably just not thinking straight at this point, if he ever did.

Although, now that I think about it--and to get on board with your conspiracy theory--how did HUD get on to him? A call from some local pol, perhaps?

In the end though, I have to come down on the side of coincidence intersecting with incompetence to explain most of this week's developments.

Thursday, April 10, 2008 3:00:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

Hmm… I’ll try to reply to specific points.. the bigger political debates are well beyond any point I was making.

Chad. In particular I think you miss my point. But if you think LR had some other motivation in changing his position on city/county stuff I would be interested, but I am pretty sure his goal was to try and get ahead of the media cycle. Whether that was successful or not is almost a moot point given that everything is being swamped by all of this. Its hard to deny that for a brief period the mayor's opponents were confused by the change of heart. As for what the chancellor’s report said or didn’t I will defer comment due to the obvious conflict of interest.

Admiral, I think the minor public record answers that for the most part. I guess you never noticed the “navy chiefs” animation I had on my web site for 7 years.

MH: all I can say: You really mean to invoke Lee Atwater? Before or after conversion?

Anony: I am pretty sure I don’t say or imply ‘conspiracy’ which would mean an unlawful act on the part of blog-archiver-decoder (for lack of a better moniker. I think TheBurgher and Bram ought to give the source a name..... something like Deep Blog). Is hubris and panic there in the mix? For sure though I think of that was more an oxidizer yesterday and not the fuel.

On this general idea that it all came to pass exactly as has been reported online and elsewhere… I will often make the case that a lot of what is attributed to malice is really incompetence in disguise and I am sure there are pieces to this where that has to be the case. But to write off all that I speculate as being improbably means you must take all that is written on the record at its face value and as the complete record. My speculation may be neither complete nor accurate, but I bet the same can be said of what we think we actually know now. Any bets on that we will learn some more surprising things before this is over with?

Thursday, April 10, 2008 6:34:00 PM  
Anonymous M (not Matt) H said...

George H. W. Bush + Lee Atwater = president

George H. W. Bush - Lee Atwater = not president

I know, gross over-simplification, not in the least because Dukakis and Clinton are hardly comparable in political talent. But I don't see how anybody can win against an entrenched elite without a negative campaign. If you have another operative you'd prefer to use as an example, I'm open to suggestions.

I'll admit that negative campaigning has some bad effects on the political fabric, but so does 80 years without a change in power. I don't even see why it would be that hard. Put up unflatterning pictures of city workers who get take-home cars, point out how much it costs the rest of us for gas and parking, and then note that Luke vetoed a bill to control those cars. I'm sure this sign thing will fuel another negative ad before it is done. Its not even lying in a strict technical sense. The point would be to supress turn-out because I don't see any hope in persuading enough people to vote against the endorsed Democrat. Might not work, you clearly can't win by appealing to good governance issues alone.

Thursday, April 10, 2008 9:47:00 PM  
Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

I misplaced this comment onto another post, but I suppose it is still fresh:

I'm with you on the idea that whoever constructed the information held onto it until an opportune moment. However, when you write this:

"Did someone know about the potential hammer hanging over Lamar? Could that explain why the issue of blocking the billboard was pressed farther than it might have been in other circumstances?"

That strikes me as way far-fetched. The issue of the billboard may not have been public priority #1, but when council was getting nonsensical answers to its many questions about it, and was subjected to a s#$%storm of retribution for even asking those questions, I think that provided the motivation to keep moving forward with the issue. And you could have never predicted Lamar would sue the council persons.

It was that last part that convinced me the close friendship was data that should be out there.

Thursday, April 10, 2008 11:50:00 PM  
Anonymous M (not Matt) H said...

I believe it was Gandhi who said "Be the change you want to see in the world." Taking that advice to heart, I'm going to start writing attack ads. I know this is a little rough, but I've never done this before and haven't seen many campaign ads thanks to the remote control.

Opening image: A family room with much nicer electronic equipment that I have. An obviously expensive bottle of scotch and a wooden box of cigars are positioned prominently on a coffee table in front of a leather sofa.

Voice-over: Mayor Ravenstahl's appointees watch movies with state of the art surround sound equipment they get from fat cat business interests who get favors from the city. These rich lobbyists get no-bid contracts while local officials get top of the line audio quality. The rest of us get potholes bigger than the nicest woofer.

Switch scene to a cramped living room with lots bright and clean, but slightly worn, upholstered furniture and an old style (CRT) TV that measures is no more than 21 inches. (Maybe rabbit ears on the TV?). The Challenger walks in and sits down on the couch.

Challenger: You don’t need surround sound to hear the people. I’m **** and I promise to work for Pittsburgh, not special interest groups who hand out nice speakers. As long I can work for a bright future for Pittsburgh, I’m fine with just the little speaker that’s built into the TV. I’m **** and I approve this message.

Just a first draft.

Friday, April 11, 2008 12:11:00 PM  
Anonymous M (not Matt) H said...

From the lack of response, I've decided to stick with my current job and not try to break into the field of writing attack ads. But, I can't shake the feeling that I've let Gandhi down.

Thursday, April 17, 2008 10:54:00 AM  

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