"Peace on earth and goodwill toward men"? Maybe in some places. But Pittsburgh marked the holidays the way unhappy families do: with bitter recriminations and ugly silence.
The Yuletide season opened, after all, with the furor surrounding Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's tuition tax. Ravenstahl insisted the 1 percent levy on tuition was necessary because big nonprofits don't pay enough of the city's costs. The universities responded with threats to sue.
And then a Christmas miracle: The mayor dropped the tax, in exchange for financial and other support from three big nonprofits: the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and Highmark.
Still, when these wise men came bearing gifts, we couldn't count the gold: The exact amount they're contributing has not been disclosed. As for the frankincense and myrrh -- the nonprofits may just be blowing smoke.
The universities promised to seek a permanent solution to the city's problems. But the city seems little closer to getting any additional money than it was before. Just after the bargain was struck, in fact, for its part the Allegheny Conference of Community Development felt obliged to issue a statement saying that the group "has not agreed to pursue new revenue sources."
So much for Christmas. Ravenstahl then rang in the New Year with some old-school politics. On Dec. 21, Pittsburgh City Council presented a gift to city workers: a bill to set a wage floor for employees who work in tax-subsidized developments. Council passed the bill unanimously, but Ravenstahl waited until the last possible moment -- 3:54 p.m. on New Year's Eve -- to veto it. That left council no time to override the veto: By state law, meetings require 24 hours' notice before being convened.
Council tried meeting anyway -- why let state law get in the way of political gesture? But it couldn't muster the six votes needed to overturn Ravenstahl. Councilor Bill Peduto, a longtime Ravenstahl critic, accused the mayor of trying to "hijack the democratic process." Councilor Patrick Dowd, a longtime Peduto critic, denounced fellow Councilor Doug Shields and Co. as "fascists" for convening the meeting at all.
Chock full of such holiday spirit, councilors began the ritual of choosing a new president -- a tradition much like playing Secret Santa, except with hand-grenades instead of gifts.
Early on, Peduto was vying with Councilor Ricky Burgess to preside over council. But neither could get the five votes they needed, and soon enough, both sides began focusing on thwarting each other's cause, rather than advancing their own. In the end, as we document elsewhere in this issue, council got a president no one expected: Darlene Harris.
Peduto and his allies backed Harris in order to secure their own choice of council committee posts -- even though Harris has voted with Ravenstahl far more often than not. Were it not for council's power struggle, in fact, neither side would have backed her. Considering the council president takes over the mayor's office if the mayor leaves, that's a bit ominous.
But who knows? It's a new year, and fresh beginnings are possible. Dowd, for one, may need to ease up on the attacks and patch things up with some of his backers. Although Dowd and Peduto are at each other's throats, many of their supporters have a lot in common. Not surprisingly, Dowd is taking all kinds of flak for his strident opposition to overturning the veto.
But if Dowd has to make amends with his base, Peduto may want to try expanding his. The knock on Peduto is that despite two mayoral bids, he really only "gets" the city's East End. Working more closely with Harris, a North Sider who represents a more old-school approach, might be an opportunity to change that.
Maybe this is the moment where city officials realize -- like many families do around the holidays -- they have to find some way to get along because, like it or not, they're stuck with each other.
Harris, for one, seemed almost giddy after being chosen as president -- partly because she's due to become a grandmother the day this issue comes out. Council newcomer Natalia Rudiak, meanwhile, was joking about receiving her first complaint from a constituent -- before Rudiak had even been sworn in.
That's the circle of life, Pittsburgh style: We begin yet another year with new life and aging infrastructure, with new faces and age-old bitching. Maybe this year, for a change, we'll learn the lessons from the one just passed.