There was a time, about a year ago, when voters could hope that Pittsburgh City Council would be a different place.
Three new councilors -- Patrick Dowd, Ricky Burgess and Bruce Kraus -- had just been elected. Each had replaced an incumbent -- Len Bodack, Twanda Carlisle and Jeff Koch, respectively -- who had generally supported Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his objectives.
It was a hopeful sign for those who believed that Ravenstahl was reckless, and that someone needed to check his power. Council's anti-Ravenstahl faction -- which had consisted largely of councilors Bill Peduto and Doug Shields -- might finally gain some traction. A lot of votes that had been 7-2 or 8-1 could start swinging the other way. And when the new members were sworn in on January 7, council pledged to say goodbye to politics-as-usual.
"I don't see any need for a schism between the mayor's office and council," said Shields.
"We all have the same goal, and that's to move the city forward in the right direction," agreed Jim Motznik, a frequent rival of Shields.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Shangri-la. The five-vote majority that reformers longed for has failed to materialize. Early attempts at reform, like efforts to reduce the city's vehicle fleet and to overhaul the wide-open system of financing local election campaigns, have collapsed. And if anything, the bickering around council's table has gotten more heated. Broadcast on cable, council meetings are more like reality-TV disputes than harmonious discussions intent on moving the city forward.
Since April, council has been focused on an issue that has commanded little attention outside its chambers: a disputed 12,000-square-foot electronic billboard that Lamar Outdoor Advertising has sought to erect along Grant Street. The debate has not only reflected but worsened the divisions around council's table.
At the outset, Dowd seemed to be on the same side of the issue as Shields, Peduto and the other council newcomers. But a dispute about legal bills turned so ugly that, by the time of a three-hour meeting on June 25, Shields and Dowd were denouncing each other as harshly as they had criticized the billboard itself.
Dowd complained of "inappropriate behavior and dirty politics and slandering," and called the ongoing debate "a sideshow to the real business of the city." Shields, meanwhile, suggested Dowd was a "straw man" for Lamar.
Some observers, meanwhile, are wondering whether the larger cause of reform is being lost.
"Look," says Moe Coleman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute on Politics. "Billboards Downtown are a hot, interesting topic, but what we're not doing is dealing with the big issues. We've got a billion-dollar deficit in the pension fund; we've got to deal with health care for retirees.
"We're not getting stories about how we're going to face future deficits without new revenues. We're getting fights about billboards because they're interesting and something tangible. But a billboard on Grant Street isn't going to attract and retain people to this city. It's nothing but a diversion."
Don't tell that to Doug Shields. The council president contends that what's at stake is nothing less than the integrity of city laws.
"People want to make this about whether Doug Shields is or good or bad. It really doesn't matter -- this is about what's lawful. And yes, sometimes when I debate this, I get a little passionate," he says.
In fact, when news broke that Ravenstahl's administration had approved the sign -- even though Lamar hadn't gone through the usual permit process -- it seemed like exactly the kind of issue Ravenstahl needed to be challenged on. Lamar executives had contributed generously to the mayor's campaign, and the official who played the largest role in securing a permit for the company was Urban Redevelopment Authority director Pat Ford, a close friend of Lamar executive Jim Vlasach. Ford is, in fact, currently suspended from his job with pay, pending a state Ethics Commission inquiry prompted by the news that Vlasach gave Ford a surround-sound system as a Christmas gift.
"This isn't a complicated issue," Shields says. "The solicitor has said the process that was used was improper."
In April, City Solicitor George Specter rendered an opinion that city officials "acted appropriately" in granting Lamar's permit based on past practice, in which the city would grant expedited approval on a new sign if the company would agree to remove old signs in exchange. But he added that those practices -- which Ford had pioneered when he headed up the city's zoning office under former Mayor Tom Murphy -- were "not permitted by the [city] Code, and the practice should cease prospectively." Lamar, in other words, should be given its sign even though the process for awarding it had to be scrapped.
The politics have been even more convoluted. When news of the sign's approval broke, several councilors decided to challenge the billboard permit. Shields formed a coalition with Peduto, Burgess and Kraus to file a legal challenge. Shields says he also sought the support of Dowd. Dowd, however, sought a private citizen to appeal the permit. When he couldn't find one willing to take up the fight, he filed the appeal himself as a private citizen. Shields and Co. joined that appeal, hiring a lawyer of their own and filing in their capacity as councilors. Lamar soon filed a lawsuit against all five councilors, a legal dispute that was resolved when the company agreed to start over, using the established permit process.
Dowd paid for his attorney out of his own pocket; the four others, though, asked that the city pick up their $10,000 legal bill "because we were right," as Shields puts it today. However, Dowd countered that if councilors wanted the city to pay for the bill, they should have first gotten approval from a majority of council. That has led to council's ongoing tension.
Shields says that "Pat Dowd is not a bad guy in this," but some critics have been less forgiving.
"Dowd has demonstrated that he will stand on the letter of the law to the detriment of justice," charged one local blog, the Pittsburgh Pist-Gazette (pistgazette.blogspot.com). "He will choose recognition of his own technical correctness over stopping a clear ... illegality. And worse yet, he will not lift a finger to help ... those who are trying to find a solution."
Not surprisingly, Dowd hates the characterization of himself as a guy who doesn't see the forest for the trees. "I've always liked to think of myself as being between extremes," he says. "Although I don't know if I'm in the middle now, as much as I'm on the outside."
Indeed, it's hard to see Dowd as a mayoral ally. He has been harshly critical of Specter in other circumstances, and earlier this year he backed a proposal to drastically cut the number of the city's take-home vehicles as prescribed by the city's Act 47 recovery plan. That bill passed 5-3 with one abstention. Ravenstahl vetoed it, and an effort to overturn failed to get the needed six votes.
More often, disputes on council often have become a four-on-four game of tug-of-war. On one side are Burgess, Kraus, Peduto and Shields; on the other have been Dan Deasy, Darlene Harris, Jim Motznik, and Tonya Payne. That may change: Deasy is running for state representative and will almost certainly leave for Harrisburg next year, while Harris, who supports paying the $10,000 legal fee, could emerge as a swing vote, too. (She is also a rival of Dowd, who began his career in politics by beating her in a school-board race.) But for now, Dowd sits astride the major fault line on council, and neither side can be sure where he will come down on an issue.
Dowd himself can sound uncertain. "I'm still trying to figure out who I am in this role," he says. "But I've said this from the beginning -- that I'm never going to be part of a [five-member] voting bloc. I will look at everything on its merits as it comes up."
For Dowd, the process of paying the legal fees was as problematic as the process by which the billboard was approved. Hiring the lawyer and then asking to be paid for it, he says, would circumvent the deliberative process council is supposed to use.
"I've heard people say, 'Oh, it's getting ugly,' but I don't think there is a discord, actually," Dowd says. "I think that part of what's going on is you have a council where one-third of the body is entirely new and the most senior member [Jim Motznik] has just seven years experience."
And although last year's election may not have resulted in the power shift some people hoped for, Dowd says his refusal to march in lockstep has helped create an even more important shift.
"There was a time that you knew these five were with the mayor and these four weren't," Dowd says. "You don't have that now, and I think that's pretty important. I don't see the middle as a bad place. I see it as a way of being reasonable and considered, deliberate and open-minded, and not ideological and locked into a way of thinking.
"When is the last time that you were able to sit in a city-council meeting and honestly not know which way the votes were going to go? I think it's great for the process."
That depends, though, on what you think that process is supposed to accomplish, and what part council is supposed to play.
"That's the first question I would ask: What is council's role in this city?" says Don Friedman, a political consultant whose work has included campaigns for both Shields and Dowd. "It's supposed to be a check and balance against the mayor's office. You need a council that's going to challenge the mayor." Had councilors not challenged the Lamar deal, for example, it "would have gone down unquestioned."
But Friedman predicted long ago that there would be a falling out between Dowd and others on council. Last May, he told City Paper that would-be reformers "have got to get their act together" before critical issues, like the city's budget, came to the table. Friedman fretted that Dowd and others would splinter over "something irrelevant" and warned that if instead of compromising councilors decided "to be purists, we're going to give it to the other side."
Friedman doesn't see the billboard issue as irrelevant, but today he says that Dowd's decision not to "pick a team" has put council at a disadvantage.
"He's like the linebacker who stops in the middle of the play to figure out what direction he should be going. You just don't have time to do that," Friedman says. "If Patrick doesn't realize that you have to be prepared to line up on one side or another, he's going to be the 2008 version of [former city councilman] Dan Cohen."
Friedman says Cohen -- who was Peduto's predecessor and former boss -- got so consumed by the rights and wrongs of every single issue "that no faction of council could depend on him for a vote when it came time to move things forward." He said Cohen became "odd man out on council ... and when you think back to what Dan got accomplished on council, it had to do with playgrounds and cable TV."
Friedman suspects that some of Dowd's would-be allies wish he'd lost his razor-close election last year. The incumbent, Len Bodack, was an old-school politician, but "at least they could have made a deal and gotten his vote," Friedman says. "That's the way all of these guys operate, and Patrick is just not going to engage in that. But swapping one vote for another is a way to get things get done."
Friedman says legislative bodies are made up of "team players" and "situational players." Situational players, like Dowd, avoid aligning themselves with any faction, basing their votes on each individual issue. Which sounds great: "If you look at situational politics, it does look like every decision should be made like that," Friedman says. "But sometimes you do just vote with your team to keep things moving forward."
Friedman recalls how a former state representative from Pittsburgh once explained the process. The rep "asked me, 'How many farmers do you think I have in my district? ... Do you know how many farm bills I vote on every year? I'm not going to learn about farming. I'm going to talk to my buddies in the farming districts and give them my vote. So when it comes time to vote on something for the city that they could give a shit about, I know I've got their vote.'
"That's the importance of being on a team," concludes Friedman, "and that's something that Patrick hasn't learned yet."
But it's likely he will. While Cohen represented some of the city's most affluent neighborhoods, Dowd's district includes struggling communities like Lawrenceville, which have pressing needs that go well beyond billboards. One day, Dowd will need support for a bill important to him, and it remains to be seen how much support he'll have from others on council.
Friedman admits that Shields can be "a very erratic guy who gets excited about things." But he says that Shields can work the system when necessary to get things done.
And Shields, for his part, says Dowd needs to learn the same lesson. Dowd "had a chance to come with the other four members of council to appeal this Lamar permit, but instead he chose to go it alone," Shields says. "Rather than picking a side, he chooses to stay somewhere near the center. ... That's fine, but that comes at a political price that will have to be paid."
If anyone knows about political battles, and the toll they take, it's Jim Motznik. The South Hills legislator has been in enough of them throughout his seven years on council. He's friends with the mayor and often Ravenstahl's unflinching champion on city council.
He's also no stranger to locking horns with Shields, Peduto or just about anyone else. And he says he knows what's really at the heart of the impassioned battles over billboards and legal fees: power.
"There are a few members of council who have been there for a while and feel like they've been overlooked and they should be the mayor," says Motznik, referencing Peduto's runs for mayor and Shield's rumored ambitions. "They're of the opinion that they're smarter and more deserving to be the mayor and they'll do whatever they can to make Luke and his plans to benefit the city look bad.
"I'm glad there's a rift, I really am."
Motznik sought to be council president himself at the outset of this term; in fact, early signs of tension between Dowd and Shields included the rumors that Dowd would support Motznik. Not surprisingly, he's a harsh critic of how Shields has used the office Motznik lost.
"I think you'll find that Mr. Shields' efforts aren't for what's best for the city of Pittsburgh; they're what's best for Doug Shields," Motznik says. "Doug Shields has always wanted to be something bigger and more important than what he is. And he's using this situation on council to get his name out there in the public."
So far, though, the only person to declare Shields' mayoral candidacy has been Luke Ravenstahl. During a July press conference, Ravenstahl told reporters that Shields had notified staffers of his intention to run for mayor in 2009. Shields denies saying any such thing, but for Ravenstahl and his allies, the benefits of portraying Shields as a contender are obvious: Now his criticisms can be dismissed as mere political ploys.
"I respectfully disagree with Mr. Motznik that this [billboard fight] is grandstanding," Shields says. "We have significant evidence on the table that this permit was not legal. It's a mistake to say this is a fight about a billboard. It's a fight about the law, about activity that is inherently illegal.
"Anytime you fight over the law, you're going to engender passionate debate."
But Motznik isn't buying it. When council's reformers voted to reduce the number of take-home vehicles, he says, part of the reasoning was because doing so was a money-saving recommendation from the Act 47 oversight committee, a state-created agency which has monitored the city's fiscal situation since it nearly went bankrupt in 2004. In response, Motznik sponsored legislation to cut council's staff budget from nearly $83,000 to $65,000. Such cuts had also been recommended under Act 47, but only Motznik and Deasy supported them.
In response, Motznik says, "I made a sign and hung it outside of the council offices. It read: 'Warning: You are now entering the land of hypocrisy where they walk the walk, but don't talk the talk.'
"These so-called progressives say we must live by Act 47, but apparently that only means the mayor, not council," Motznik stays. "That told me what it was all about."
At the time, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Motznik's opponents presented a letter from Act 47 overseers saying "council has stayed within overall limits of the plan though 2007." And charges of grandstanding and hypocrisy cut both ways: Motznik's staff-funding proposal was clearly a stunt that Motznik must have known would fail.
Nor is Shields the only councilor whose motives are a matter of speculation. Even Dowd's name has been linked to a potential mayoral run, though he laughs at the assertion.
"I've only been in office seven months," he says. "Look around this office, you can even say this, 'that Dowd still doesn't have the art hung on the walls.'
"While I can't speak for Doug -- if he's running, he's running -- I do believe that this is more about how council's going to run itself in the future. Are we going to make some tough choices and decisions, and how are we going to focus on the future?"
Coleman, of the Institute for Politics, says ambition may well be a driving force -- but the ambitions aren't necessarily mayoral. "I don't think it's necessarily real clear what those ambitions are," says Coleman, who also served as a high-ranking official in the administration of Mayor Joseph Barr. "Honestly, when I look at this situation between Dowd and Shields, I honestly believe it's about who's the smartest guy in town.
"I think Doug wants to be the smartest guy at the table and then all of a sudden, [Dowd] comes walking in, and then next thing you know you've got two smart, competitive guys locked in a battle of intellectuals."
Only an intellectual, perhaps, could be excited about the city's rapidly approaching budget season. But Dowd is bursting with enthusiasm to discuss it.
"We, as a council, got the mayor to give us goals and objectives of each department before we get the budget," Dowd says. That will give council a measuring stick for each department that it's funding. "I argue that's a coup -- it's a new form of conversation that we've started surrounding the budget.
"I argue that's what we should be talking about. These are the types of things we should be working on. We need to be focused on the right conversations and getting the right legislation before this body so we can properly debate the issues."
For his part, Shields says he's always been able to engage in a spirited, and at times rough, debate without taking any of it personally.
"If you're going to take this stuff personally, then you need to walk away,"