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Overdue Charge

It's about time someone took ethics seriously

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I'll confess: I almost admire Pittsburgh City Councilor Twanda Carlisle.

Sure, she's facing a slew of charges in an alleged kickback scheme. Carlisle is accused of paying city money to friends who supposedly performed services for her office; she then supposedly deposited cash in her own bank account days later.

But she's got moxie, at least. At an April 12 public forum, Carlisle said -- with a straight face -- "We must work to make sure that every dollar that is spent in city council is accounted for."

I can hear the closing argument already: "Your Honor, my client deposited the money in her private account because ... she wanted to watch over it more closely."

Failing that, here's another defense Carlisle could try:

"You mean we're taking ordinances seriously now? I had no idea."

Given the casual treatment of the city code these days, that'd be an almost-plausible defense.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, for example, announced that the city's Ethics Board should be convened in the wake of Carlisle's troubles. It would be the board's first meeting, though the late mayor Bob O'Connor named its members nearly a year ago.

Unfortunately, before the board has even met, Ravenstahl has apparently violated the rules governing its creation.

One of the board's members, lawyer David Scott, resigned last year. And the city code says -- quite plainly -- that Scott's replacement "shall be appointed by the Mayor within sixty (60) days of the vacancy." But nothing happened. The board was first supposed to meet on Feb. 8, but partly because of Scott's resignation, there weren't enough members on hand for the meeting to be convened.

Yet Scott's replacement still hasn't been chosen, even though another 60 days have elapsed since that abortive meeting.

Reached on April 13, mayoral spokesperson Dick Skrinjar said the mayor "is going to move as quickly as he can to get that taken care of." A replacement may, in fact, be announced by the time this issue hits the streets.

Still, even that would still be too late. Nor would it be the city's only blown deadline.

The city's top lawyer, George Specter, has been serving as the city's "acting city solicitor" since last summer -- even though the city code requires that "No person shall be designated to serve as an acting director of a department ... for more than ninety (90) days without being subject to confirmation" by city council.

So we have ethics-board members not being appointed correctly, and the city's top lawyer serving in apparent violation of the city code.

Ravenstahl can't plead ignorance: The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review noted Specter's overdue confirmation in January. "We'll have to take a look at that," Ravenstahl told the Trib. Apparently they're still looking: Asked about Specter's status more than two months later, Skrinjar acknowledged, "There's no hot timeline" on the confirmation.

But otherwise media attention has been scanty, and city council has barely raised the issue. The lack of interest "is an indication of the general malaise of good government in Pittsburgh," says Councilor Bill Peduto, who scrapped a mayoral campaign against Ravenstahl earlier this year.

To be fair, Ravenstahl didn't invent these practices. Former mayor Tom Murphy sometimes delayed confirming "interim" appointees, Peduto says, a practice that prompted strong objections from then-councilman Jim Ferlo. And Ferlo, who is now a state senator and Ravenstahl backer, says Ravenstahl deserves some leeway "given the circumstances he came in on."

After all, Ferlo says, Ravenstahl took office unexpectedly, and couldn't offer much job security until Peduto dropped out of the mayor's race. "People reasonably want to be appointed for four-year stints," says Ferlo.

Still, it's not like these provisions of the city code are hard to interpret. I mean, they even put the numerals in parentheses for readers who have trouble with words like "sixty" and "ninety." If the mayor can't bother to follow -- and council can't bother to enforce -- plain-language requirements like this, they have little right to feel superior to Carlisle.

I'm not saying Carlisle deserves a break. If she's found guilty, it will prove she ignored the letter and spirit of the law, and insulted the intelligence of Pittsburgh's voters. But then again, it seems like there's a lot of that going around these days.

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