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White Like Me

The city's new oversight committee is bad news for everyone

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You'd think a white guy like me would be overjoyed by the creation of a new state-appointed board to oversee Pittsburgh's troubled finances. After all, the panel -- which is charged with monitoring city spending and assessing the need for new tax-revenue streams -- is made up of five white guys. No women, no African Americans, just Caucasian males

 

Understandably, women and African Americans are upset, and gathered to demand inclusion at a Feb. 23 press conference hosted by City Councilor Sala Udin. "It is simply not possible for the people of this city to honor a process in which more than 50 percent of our population is totally unrepresented," Udin said. But why am I not pleased to see my tiny demographic group still ruling the city?

 

For starters, even as rich old white guys go, this is a pretty unrepresentative bunch. Consider that while less than 8 percent of Pittsburghers live in Squirrel Hill, three of the committee's five members live there. The other two don't live inside the city at all: They come from Whitehall and Upper St. Clair.

 

Put aside the fears of African Americans for a moment: What about the rich old white men of Shadyside? Are their voices to be ignored? Will such Shadyside luminaries as Tribune-Review publisher Dick Scaife or former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill have to begin staging sit-ins, or stop riding public transit in protest?

 

The committee is unrepresentative in other ways as well. Only a handful of Pittsburghers run businesses that don't pay the city's business privilege tax, Pittsburgh's chief source of corporate tax revenue. By contrast, two of the oversight committee members represent financial-service firms, a business sector that is exempt from the tax. A third, Duquesne University President John Murray, heads up a tax-exempt enterprise which, like many other city-based universities and hospitals, contributes no tax dollars to help pay for city services. Since the city suffers from an outmoded and unfair tax base -- one that benefits employers who enjoy such loopholes -- this is like the foxes devising a budget for the henhouse.

 

Meanwhile, though every Pittsburgher I know thinks a low-speed maglev system connecting Grant Street to an Uptown parking lot is a stupid idea, one member of the oversight committee is David O'Loughlin, who championed the abortive proposal to ferry commuters Downtown on a levitating rail car.

 

Whatever your ethnicity, this is not an inspiring start for the financial oversight process. It's been hard enough watching the city get run into the ground; now we're in the hands of a guy whose transit project literally can't get off the ground? Let's just hope that O'Loughlin knows how to float a check better than a mass-transit system; the city needs all the fiscal help it can get.

 

We've been down this road before, of course: Whatever the merits and ambitions of the city's celebrated first "Renaissance," it was devised by and for white guys. And the African-American community in the decimated Hill District suffered for the next 50 years. As Sara Davis Buss put it at Udin's Feb. 23 press conference, "We do the same things over and over again and wonder why we get the same result."

 

The difference is that this time, the all-white board wasn't something "we" did. It was something that was done to us. City voters didn't choose former county executive Jim Roddey to be on the panel, for example: In fact, we voted against his re-election by four-to-one margins. But we're stuck with him now.

 

Of course, Pittsburgh's leadership often acts like a bunch of insular, knuckle-dragging cretins on its own. But at least they are our insular knuckle-dragging cretins. This all-white oversight board was the work of Gov. Ed Rendell and party leaders in the state House and Senate.

 

With the exception of Senate minority leader Jack Wagner (D-Beechview), none of these state officials lives in Pittsburgh or is elected by Pittsburghers. So not surprisingly, their appointees appear better able to represent outside political agendas than the city itself. House Majority Leader John Perzel (R-Philadelphia), for example, named one of his own local fund-raisers. And why not? Pittsburgh might generate some cash for Perzel's next re-election campaign, but it won't generate any votes. We can't threaten him with political reprisal unless we all decide to move to Philly. Nothing wrong with Perzel's priorities, obviously.

 

But as with all the worst scandals, this is a bipartisan embarrassment. All five of the Harrisburg officials who picked the board are white males themselves, and clearly they were all hoping someone else would pick the woman or the African American. Though concern about the panel's membership began stirring after only three of the appointments were announced, maybe it was just an oversight. As the old joke goes, it is an oversight committee, after all. And as Udin put it Feb. 23, "I have to assume it was nothing deliberate." But that's exactly the problem: There was no deliberate attempt to make the board reflect the city or its interests.

 

Sadly, I doubt adding a woman or African American to the board will change matters much. For one thing, adding new members to the committee will require amending the state legislation that created it -- and the legislature is not due to meet until mid-March. The oversight committee will almost certainly have begun meeting by then. Roddey has suggested naming African Americans and women to the advisory group, but Udin liked the idea to being ushered toward the "back of the bus."

 

Udin points out that the committee is empowered to monitor city budgets for seven years, and that it's never too late to make the panel more diverse. But if state officials couldn't even pick a representative bunch of white males, how will they manage selecting anyone else?

 

More importantly, if the board's creation has been carried out with so little sensitivity, what will its decisions be like? Given that its members were chosen by Harrisburg, will it be able to make a strong pitch for state aid? The record of at least one member doesn't give much hope: Up until now, committee member William Lieberman was best known for chairing a University of Pittsburgh panel that advised the school to not offer domestic-partner benefits to same-sex employees. The reason? According to Lieberman's committee, such a policy might create "[t]he prospect of a harmful confrontation with the Legislature."

 

Given this region's shameful history of exclusion, African Americans and women have the biggest stake in this issue. But the board's lack of credibility will affect all of us. Today it's women and blacks who are complaining that critical services are threatened by an unresponsive political process. The rest of us may one day be saying the same thing. Even us white males.

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