"We're going to override the veto," vowed Pittsburgh City Councilor Jim Motznik just prior to council's Aug. 25 special meeting. For the next two hours, Motznik barely stood still, racing in and out of council chambers and buttonholing colleagues in an effort to preserve council's dwindling powers that would, in the end, be in vain.
Council has been in retreat for months, and Motznik has been the guy taking up the rear, fighting for every inch of ground and creating a confusing crossfire of seemingly contradictory votes and positions. In June, Motznik was on the losing end of a 5-4 vote for a recovery plan, drafted by state-appointed experts, that would trim the city's workforce and either raise occupational and business taxes or impose a commuter tax. He has subsequently argued that the city should try to impose the commuter tax.
On Aug. 8, he voted for amendments to a "cooperation agreement" that would cede much city budgeting power to a state-appointed oversight board. Those amendments called for adding diversity to the all-white-male oversight board, and giving council two seats on a "conference committee" that would meet if the oversight board, recovery team and city couldn't agree on a budget. Then Motznik was the only councilor to vote against the amended agreement, saying it still gave away too much power. When Mayor Tom Murphy vetoed the agreement because he didn't like the amendments, Motznik led the fight to override the veto and thereby approve the very agreement he had voted against.
Confused? So was Motznik's frequent council sparring partner, Sala Udin, who asked him to explain his positions. Motznik replied that a veto override would toss the amended agreement past the mayor, to the oversight board. "Let them say they don't agree with it," he said. The city, he argued, could then go to court and ask for a commuter tax. That would scare suburban state legislators into approving other, less onerous taxes the city wants to levy.
Later, Motznik explained that he's also defending democracy. "A council representative represents neighborhoods," he says. "People in your neighborhood care that they have an elected representative in this city." The oversight board "doesn't want council to be involved."
It takes six votes to override a veto, but Motznik got just four. Councilor Alan Hertzberg then reintroduced the original cooperation agreement, without the amendments, which could go to a final vote Sept. 7. It would effectively make council a budgetary yes-man to the mayor and oversight board for seven years.
Motznik says he'll continue to lobby for the amendments. Meanwhile, he's eyeing the state Senate seat that Jack Wagner will abandon should he win his bid for auditor general. Might Motznik's voting record and support for a commuter tax hurt him if he runs in Wagner's district, which includes both city and suburban neighborhoods? "Absolutely," he says. "But right now, I'm a city councilor. I'm elected to represent the City of Pittsburgh. ... I'm not willing to sit on the bench."