Early this year, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl expressed interest in leasing Pittsburgh's parking garages. The move, he announced in January, could inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the city's meager pension fund. But it has potential downsides, too: Parking rates could soar, and there's concern it could eliminate some jobs.
If a vote is ever cast on the issue, the mayor will have to convince the Parking Authority's five-member board to agree that the pros of leasing the garages outweigh the cons.
But some critics say Ravenstahl won't have to use logic to win the argument.
"Dissent is not appreciated" on city authorities, says Pittsburgh City Councilor Doug Shields. "It's obvious that if [board members] are not going to work the will of the mayor, they're going to be removed."
And if Ravenstahl wanted to remove a member of the Parking Authority, he already has an excuse. Currently, four of the authority's five board members are serving under expired terms. (The fifth seat is vacant.)
By state law, authority board members can serve and cast votes until a replacement is named -- even after their terms expire. But such a board member is, arguably, serving on borrowed time: A mayor can name a replacement at any moment.
And that, says City Councilor Bill Peduto "seems to be a strategy" for Ravenstahl.
Peduto should know. He was a board member of the Stadium Authority until last year, when Ravenstahl yanked him from the board because his term had expired. Peduto's term had expired in January 2008, but Ravenstahl made little objection until the spring -- after Peduto criticized development initiatives on the site of the old Three Rivers Stadium.
Something similar happened last month. Board chair Deborah Lestitian -- who had joined in Peduto's criticisms -- was removed from the board. Lestitian had been serving on an expired term since Dec. 31, 2007. Ravenstahl also removed Alice Mitinger from the city's Zoning Board. Mitinger, too, was serving on an expired term, and had opposed the mayor's position on a high-profile matter.
Board members "are supposed to be free of political influence," says Moe Coleman, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics. While a mayor generally appoints members of such boards, "They're designed to be independent."
Barry Kauffman, executive director of the government watchdog organization Common Cause Pennsylvania, says that board members "have terms for a reason." The mayor "has an obligation to review board members as their terms are ready to expire."
And what if a board is made up of members serving expired terms -- members who could be yanked at any time? Could the mayor use that as leverage to ensure support for, say, a parking-lot sale?
"Absolutely," says Shields, a frequent Ravenstahl foe. "[The mayor] is blurring the lines between separation of powers ... It's not healthy."
In the last year, no city board has been scrutinized more than Pittsburgh's Stadium Authority, which controls prime real estate between Heinz Field and PNC Park. In 2003, the Stadium Authority, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates entered into an agreement giving the two teams the exclusive rights to purchase and develop the land. The developer they hired, Continental Real Estate, planned to build a Hyatt Place Hotel and an amphitheatre on the riverfront property.
But eventually, Lestitian says, the teams' development rights expired, as Continental failed to meet deadlines for developing the land. Still, officials from the Stadium Authority tried to help move the deal along.
What's more, the authority offered to sell Continental the land for $8 per square foot -- a bargain by most accounts. (Another hotel developer had paid $76 per square foot for a parcel of land just a few blocks away.)
In March 2008, however, Peduto urged the board to delay selling the land. He argued that the developer should have to promise North Side residents jobs and other benefits from the project -- especially since Continental would get the land at a discount. He and Lestitian, a tax lawyer for Westinghouse Electric Company, also questioned whether a sale agreement was even legal, since the development option had expired.
On March 15, the board unanimously agreed to delay the vote. On April 14, Ravenstahl removed Peduto from the board.
Peduto says he kept showing up to meetings after his removal in April. But on Aug. 6, 2008 -- one day before a vote to grant Continental development rights under the same terms of the old deal -- the mayor sent Peduto and Stadium Authority Executive Director Mary Conturo a letter "confirming the removal of ... Peduto."
Peduto says he interpreted that letter as saying, "Don't show up to the next meeting."
Today, however, he thinks he should have gone anyway: Since board members can serve until they are replaced, he now believes, "I should have been able to vote" on the Continental deal, because it wasn't until this year that Ravenstahl named a replacement: fellow City Councilor Darlene Harris.
"It might be within [the mayor's] legal right to be able to remove somebody," adds Peduto. "But when removals come in correlation with actions that have gone against the administration's wishes ... are the boards representing the people, or strictly the administration?"
Peduto's departure left Lestitian as the lone "no" vote when the Stadium Authority voted 3-1 to sell Continental development rights. Lestitian was removed from the board last month.
Gabe Mazefsky, the city's policy manager, acknowledges that Ravenstahl removed Lestitian because of her differences with the mayor's redevelopment agenda. Developing the North Shore "is a priority of the mayor's," he says. "We firmly believe the need to build that out."
Still, "There is plenty of independent thinking" on city authority boards, Mazefsky assures.
Lestitian says there was considerable pressure to support the land sale long before she was removed. Twice in May 2008, she says, she met with officials supporting the deal: Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, as well as officials from the two teams and Continental. Team officials threatened to sue the authority if their development rights were not extended, she says -- and they promised to put her "on the podium with us" at the groundbreaking ceremony. (The Steelers and the Pirates did not return phone calls for comment.)
Lestitian didn't change her mind, but says another board member -- state Rep. Jake Wheatley -- did.
Lestitian says that all the way up until the vote, Wheatley "both publicly and privately was telling me, 'I'm with the chair'" -- with Lestitian herself. But on Aug. 7, the Hill District Democrat voted in favor of the plan.
"He flipped his vote," Lestitian says. "I would like to know why."
Wheatley did receive a $5,000 campaign contribution from Onorato's campaign on April 17 that year -- less than a week before the spring primary, and the first time Onorato had contributed to Wheatley. But Wheatley contends "Dan never asked me to vote any way on that deal."
"Dan wanted to see Jake get re-elected, period," agrees Oren Shur, Onorato's campaign spokesperson.
Kevin Evanto, another Onorato spokesperson, denies Lestitian's claim that Onorato came to meetings to pressure board members. "He did not intervene" in Stadium Authority discussions at all, he says.
Critics say the situation at other boards mirrors circumstances at the Stadium Authority.
In addition to the Parking Authority, which does not have a single member serving an active term, nine of the 11 members of the Equal Opportunity Review Commission -- which develops policies to ensure job opportunities for minorities and women -- are serving under expired terms. Several other authorities have at least one member whose term has expired.
Mazefsky would not say why reappointments or replacements were being made so slowly. He notes that the law permits board members to serve after their terms expire, until a replacement is named. "There is no problem there," he says.
Having board members serve under expired terms "is not automatically a problem," agrees City Councilor Patrick Dowd, who ran against Ravenstahl in this year's mayoral primary. "But when it becomes a pattern for an administration, then I think it becomes an issue."
At the same time Ravenstahl removed Lestitian, in fact, he also removed two members of the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment -- one of whom had also rejected a mayoral initiative.
The Zoning Board hears appeals to determine whether to grant variances or exemptions to zoning ordinances. Last month, Ravenstahl reappointed Wrenna Watson, whose term had expired at the end of 2007, while removing board members David Toal (whose term ended in 2006) and Alice Mitinger (2008).
In 2008, Mitinger wrote an opinion to deny Lamar Advertising a permit for an electronic billboard along Grant Street. Ravenstahl had supported the billboard, which became a lightning rod of criticism after close ties between Lamar executives and a former city official, Pat Ford, came to light. Watson supported the mayor's position, while Toal recused himself because he'd represented Lamar in unrelated issues.
Asked by City Paper what she makes of the situation, Mitinger would say only that it was "politics, politics."
"Lamar was not a factor, period, in appointments to the Zoning Board," he says, adding that the mayor is very happy with the two new appointees.
But critics see a pattern forming. And they wonder if there's any point arguing in front of a board whose members can be removed at will.
According to Barney Oursler, a member of Northside United -- a community group seeking neighborhood economic benefits as a condition for developing the North Shore -- members are "very disappointed in the arm-twisting efforts."
"The whole idea of the authority is to make [decisions] look independent, but the real power is still" in the mayor's hands, Oursler says. "It's a sham."
- Illustration by Mario Zucca