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Bob O'Connor: Schroedinger's Mayor

Thinking out of the box about city government

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How weird are things in Pittsburgh? The Cubans have a firmer grasp on who's in charge than we do. When their leader gets sick they get to see a photo, at least.

By contrast, almost no one has heard directly from Mayor Bob O'Connor since he was hospitalized with cancer in July. Doctors sound upbeat about O'Connor's prognosis, but as acting chief of staff Dennis Regan recently told KDKA radio host Rob Pratte, "[M]ost people are reading in between the lines of what the doctors [say]."

Some of us aren't taking Regan at face value either. Partly because we have to rely almost entirely on Regan's secondhand accounts about them mayor's wishes, there's rampant speculation that Regan is pulling the strings. This despite 31-year-old Yarone Zober's appointment as O'Connor's deputy.

So who's in charge? If you ask me, it's Schroedinger's Mayor.

You may have heard of Schroedinger's cat, an imaginery creature created by physicist Erwin Schroedinger. The "cat" illustrated a paradox in quantum mechanics: At the subatomic level, things don't actually happen until they are observed. So if you put a cat in a box and made its survival dependent on a subatomic event going on inside, what would happen? Nothing, Schroedinger surmised, until the box is opened. And until it's observed directly, the cat is both alive and dead, both here and there.

That's the kind of limbo we're all in now.

On the surface, little has changed. Zober's has already picked up where O'Connor left off: Conducting walking tours of neglected neighborhoods. But it can't go on forever.

Zober's appointment came in the wake of the "Thursday morning massacre," a power struggle in which three O'Connor aides, two of them women, were ousted. O'Connor staffers say those officials will be replaced, but the charter prohibits deputy mayors from hiring anyone. Mistrust over the massacre will fester, then, for as long as Zober serves. And no one can say how long that will be: The charter says deputy mayors can serve during periods of "temporary disability," but it doesn't define "temporary." In theory, Zober could serve three weeks or three years.

In practice, it may not be that simple, says Joe Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor. "Let's say [Zober] signs a zoning change I'm unhappy with," Mistick says. "I could go to court and challenge whether the mayor was competent at the time he named his deputy" — thus challenging Zober's authority to sign the legislation.

"It could get ugly," Mistick says.

The charter allows a mayor to be impeached for "mental incapacity," but that's unlikely. You'd have to be an asshole to do it — I feel like one just bringing it up — and the impeachment procedure was declared unconstitutional in 2003, during an attempt to oust Mayor Tom Murphy.

If O'Connor's illness lingers, he could step down (though no one wants to think about this, and aides say it won't happen). He'd be replaced by the City Council President, 26-year-old Luke Ravenstahl. But that outcome has drawbacks too.

"[S]tate law [does] not permit a special election [for] the office of the mayor," the charter says. So we wouldn't pick a new mayor until the 2007 municipal elections, and the winner wouldn't take office until 2008. For a year or more, we'd have a mayor only one-ninth of the city voted for. (And because the charter does allow special elections for council, they'd choose a new councilor much sooner than we'd get to pick our mayor.)

I'm not trying to be ghoulish. I expect O'Connor to get better and leave Schroedinger's Box behind. But when he does, I hope he'll do some, well, out-of-the-box thinking, so we're never in this limbo again.

First, hire some women and minorities — and not just to replace the victims of the "massacre." Second, start pushing to clarify the charter's rules of succession. While we're at it, put some teeth in its impeachment provisions. Right now, City Councilor Twanda Carlisle constituents are trying to get her impeached, thanks to her habit of giving her friends five-digit contracts as "consultants." But Carlisle's opponents, like Tom Murphy's, will likely find that impeachment is a paper tiger. That's an insult, especially because Carlisle just hired one of her "consultants" full-time.

Will O'Connor do any of this when he returns? Will he return at all? There are doubters, certainly. But all we can do is what Pittsburghers have always done, and are doing even now: Assume the worst, but pray for the best.

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