When people say political reform moves at a glacial pace around here, they only know the half of it. Glaciers move slowly, sure. But they can also move in two directions at once: The ice on top can advance uphill, while the glacier's base continues sliding toward the sea.
Which sums up local efforts to reform the role of money in local politics.
City Controller Michael Lamb earned a merit badge last week for promising, at long last, to post an online database detailing campaign contributions made to city politicians. Coupled with a searchable index of city contracts, the list will help voters detect cases of "pay to play" -- in which political donors get rewarded with juicy contracts.
It's hard to see how anyone could oppose this reform. (Even the donors should approve -- now it will be easier to figure out whether they're getting their money's worth!) But while Lamb deserves praise for his effort, in trying to reveal one kind of abuse, he's inadvertently covering up for another.
By law, Allegheny County should already have been posting this information for the past two years. Which means that city employees, and taxpayers, are going to be shouldering a burden the county is supposed to carry itself. So much for consolidation of services!
In 2003, Allegheny County Council passed an ordinance pledging to create an online database that would track contributions made to every politician running for a local office within the county. The bill was signed by Jim Roddey, then the county chief executive. The measure required a fully searchable electronic database to be up and running by January 2007 -- two years before Lamb will get his system online. But when I first wrote about this last February, county officials candidly admitted that virtually nothing had been accomplished. Or even attempted.
"I don't think it's intentional," county council President Rich Fitzgerald told me at the time. "One person complaining probably would have gotten it done."
Well, that appears not to be true. Whatever else you can say about a City Paper article, most people would agree that it amounts to at least one person complaining. But still no database. And even reformers who believe in the city and county sharing services -- reformers like city Councilor Bill Peduto -- don't expect that to change.
Dealing with the county bureaucracy "is like, 'Please, sir, might I have some pudding,'" Peduto says, speaking in a pseudo-Cockney accent. "You must have your forms sealed with wax, and signed thrice. The momentum for this has to come from the city."
I don't blame Peduto for giving up on the county (whose spokesman, Kevin Evanto, did not return my calls by deadline). The guy has pushed so many rocks up the hill that he already has to worry about an avalanche. But it's a sad state of affairs when a reform effort begins by assuming officials will ignore their own laws.
Around here, even the word "transparency" gets used as a smokescreen. Politicians promise reform, and everyone feels good about themselves during the photo-op. The matter is quietly dropped soon after, and then it's off to the next scandal, followed by further promises to clean up government. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And even if Pittsburgh gets a database online, what about voters in other county municipalities? No doubt there's plenty of influence-peddling going on out in the hinterlands too. (If you're one of those smug suburbanites who think that sort of thing happens only in cities, you obviously haven't been to a local school-board meeting lately.)
About the only thing that would force the county's hand is a lawsuit. I've thought of filing one myself -- especially after spending hours trying to log information into a database of my own. But assuming this article won't usher in the revolution either, county government could at least begin requiring local office-seekers to furnish their campaign data digitally, on spreadsheets. Municipal leaders like Lamb would then have a much easier job of posting the information online: Half the job of tracking contributions is trying to decipher the penmanship of a harried campaign treasurer who doesn't really want to tell anyone this stuff. Any candidate who finds this an unreasonable burden has no business running for office in the 21st century anyway.
If they want to run for office, politicians should be required to help the reform effort while campaigning. Because, apparently, we can't count on them once they've been elected.