by Chris Potter
Here's an argument that really hasn't surfaced in the commentary surrounding the city council president shenanigans: "The district made me do it."
Obviously, a big part of what drove events this week was the fact that councilor Bill Peduto, who sought the presidency, was counting on the vote of newcomer Robert Daniel Lavelle. But Lavelle, formerly a long-time Peduto ally, ended up supporting Theresa Kail-Smith instead.
A few tweets by Kimberly Ellis -- aka Dr. Goddess, a one-time CP columnist -- seem to suggest a defense for Lavelle's actions. In a Twitter exchange with KDKA reporter Jon Delano, Ellis notes that Lavelle "was elected to serve his [district], not Bill Peduto."
The conventional wisdom, after all, is that Lavelle backed the mayor's choice to secure two plum positions: council's finance chair, and a spot on the board of the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
The question Ellis raises is: Would that be so awful? The Hill District in particular needs as much leverage as it can get. There is that whole new arena-related development taking place, after all. Being on the URA board would give Lavelle a seat at the table at a critical moment. If backing the mayor's choice for council president was the price of that seat ... well, so be it.
OK, maybe. But the problem here isn't just Lavelle's decision to switch allegiances. It's the way he went about it. I'm told that the former council president, Doug Shields, wouldn't have put the presidency in play in the first place if he didn't think Peduto had it locked up. Rest assured that Peduto isn't the only person who feels betrayed by Lavelle. In more than a decade of covering local politics, I've never seen a council newcomer antagonize his colleagues the way Lavelle has.
The other complaint is that Lavelle was getting w-a-a-a-ay ahead of himself by seeking council's finance chair. That's the number two spot on council -- an appointment you just can't expect to be given before you've even warmed the chair.
Still, Ellis' tweets do remind us of the dynamics that often thwart the progressive agenda.
Infinonymous, for example, suggests that Lavelle should forego a URA appointment ... partly as a gesture of atonement, and partly as a step toward pulling council together, so it can focus on pension debt and other existential threats confronting the city.
It would be a noble gesture on Lavelle's behalf. But I'm not sure his constituents would see it that way. I doubt they elected him to pass up a chance to help shape development in the Hill District. Infinonymous is right that the city's long-term prospects hang in the balance. But so do the Hill's: The decisions made in and around the new Penguins arena could shape the neighborhood's fate for an entire generation.
Maybe this is what always happens when you have a council elected by district. There's an incentive for councilors to focus on their own backyards, while problems confronting the entire city are always easy to dish off on someone else. So councilors have an incentive for leaving the tough choices to the mayor -- especially when the mayor controls appointments to powerful boards and commissions.
(I'm hearing word, by the way, that Ravenstahl is poised to make some appointments to the chronically understaffed Parking Authority board. That could be a critical moment in deciding the future of those assets.)
Of course, Pittsburgh used to elect its council members at-large ... but scrapped the system in order to improve minority representation. (Though as Chris Briem points out, even that solution hasn't worked out as well as it could.) Maybe a more realistic reform would be rejiggering the way board appointments are made, so that council has a bit more leverage.
In any case, if I'm Lavelle, I'd be trying to think of something I could do to mend fences. Because payback is a bitch: Lavelle may get a spot on the URA, but he has frittered away the good will he would have enjoyed from those now calling the shots on council. We'll see if the way he has represented himself compromises his ability to represent the district.