Four members of Pittsburgh City Council walked of the May 13 meeting, claiming they'd been "effectively gagged" by a legal opinion from the city solicitor's office -- which had just threatened their immediate removal from office.
Council was preparing to act on a bill to pay $10,706 in legal fees incurred by councilors Doug Shields, Bruce Kraus, Bill Peduto and Ricky Burgess. Together, the councilors had hired attorney Hugh McGough to appeal a permit for a Downtown electronic billboard issued to Lamar Advertising. (Fans of Grant Street soap operas take note: McGough used to work in the solicitor's office himself.) The four joined a complaint that Councilor Patrick Dowd previously filed as a private citizen; all five were later sued by Lamar, alleging they'd conspired to keep the company from acting on its permit.
With the matter headed to court, the solicitor's office offered up bad news for both sides.
On the one hand, city solicitor George Specter issued a legal opinion April 2 that the process used to grant the permit needed to be changed. Lamar is now going through a full approval process. But although Specter's opinion largely supported the councilors' objections, he didn't exactly thank them for raising the issue.
On May 7, the four councilors sought reimbursement for McGough's fees. But since the entire nine-member body never voted to authorize the lawsuit, there were questions about whether city money should be used to pay for McGough's services. Dowd paid for his attorney with private money, and councilor Jim Motznik sought an opinion from the city solicitor's office. The solicitor works under the authority of the mayor, whose actions have often been challenged by the four councilors.
In a May 12 memorandum, assistant city solicitor Kate DeSimone contended that the four councilors should never have introduced legislation to have their legal bills covered with city money. "[A] conflict of interest has already occurred," DeSimone wrote. Under the city charter, she said, voting on the final bill could trigger the councilors' removal from office.
To avoid that fate, all four councilors left the room when the reimbursement came up for a final vote on May 13. The remaining five councilors tabled the vote when they couldn't get a majority vote either way. Dowd, Motznik and Dan Deasey voted no. Darlene Harris abstained because she hadn't seen the legal opinion. Tonya Payne voted to approve the payment.
Shields later called the solicitor's opinion politically motivated. "We received this opinion after 5 p.m." the day before, he said. "I think it's disingenuous to give us a late opinion threatening forfeiture of our office when this bill has been on the table for three weeks." Shields said he intends to get a separate opinion -- from the state's Ethics Commission -- on the matter.
Kraus says the city solicitor's opinion was intended to keep council "effectively gagged." Part of the problem, he added, was that the city's attorneys work in the executive branch, making it hard for council to contest administration actions in a courtroom.
"It's very important that council gets its own solicitor," he said.