With new, 26-year-old mayor, city's direction uncertain

Recently in Pittsburgh, politics have been a matter of small numbers.

After a brief eight months in office, Pittsburgh’s mayor Robert “Bob” O’Connor died from a rare form of brain cancer on September 1. His death followed a quick illness — he was diagnosed just over seven weeks beforehand. Now, Luke Ravenstahl, at a mere 26 years of age, is the new mayor of Pittsburgh.

O’Connor, who hailed from Squirrel Hill, was known for the enthusiasm he brought to the city. Often called “The People’s Mayor,” O’Connor was known for his “Redd Up” campaign to clean the city.

O’Connor’s funeral was held last Thursday at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Oakland. Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., and former bishop of the Pittsburgh diocese, led the mass. Approximately 1800 people attended the service.

Ravenstahl has indicated that he will extend O’Connor’s policies. So far Ravenstahl has left most of O’Connor’s administration in place. But Ravenstahl has a challenging task already: The 2007 city budget must be submitted to the Act 47 oversight board by September 21.

Lawyers have interpreted Pittsburgh’s home rule charter, the document that defines the city government, to mean that Ravenstahl will be able to complete the remaining three years of O’Connor’s term. However, the language of the charter is somewhat vague, and many lawyers expect that there will be a special election for a new mayor before O’Connor’s four-year term is up.

Historical precedent is against Ravenstahl serving for three years. In 1988, Sophie Masloff, then City Council president, became mayor after Richard Caliguiri died. An election was held the following year. However, the city charter has been altered since then, and it is not clear now whether a new election must be held.

The interpretation of the charter that allows Ravenstahl to stay in office for O’Connor’s full term takes into account the rule that the city’s mayor and controller should not be elected at the same time. The position of controller will be up for election in November of 2007, the next municipal election.
According to the charter, “an elected controller is mandated to ensure an independent check on the use of city resources” and “the controller shall be chosen by the qualified electors of the city at a non-mayoralty municipal election.”

However, Eric Montarti, a policy analyst for the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, suggested that a special election could be held in May 2007, months before the election of a controller. He said it was unclear how the election might be structured and whether it would include primaries by party or if many candidates would run as independents.

Ravenstahl has moved quickly to clear up the controversy of how long he will be able to stay in office. “My intention ... is to make that decision happen as quickly as possible,” Ravenstahl said Saturday to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The speculation does us no good. We need to focus on functioning as a city government.”

City lawyers are busy addressing the matter.

Ravenstahl’s political career has been short, but he has already reached the heights of civil service as mayor of Pittsburgh. At age 23, Ravenstahl was elected to the Pittsburgh City Council, representing the North Side. Last December 6, Ravenstahl became City Council president with the minimum number of votes.

Despite his youth, Ravenstahl told reporters he is ready to lead the city. “I have been the president, I have been elected by my district, I have been elected by my colleagues,” he said September 2 to the Post-Gazette, “and I’m more than confident that if and when I’m called upon, I’m here to serve the residents of the city.”

Robert Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy in the Heinz School, commented on the state of Pittsburgh: “The basic trajectory of the city is fixed,” he said. “At worst, it’s negative. At best, it’s level.”
Strauss noted that O’Connor had good ideas and created enthusiasm for Pittsburgh, adding that the late mayor “tried to revitalize downtown Pittsburgh.” Although O’Connor had some successes, Strauss said, “not enough net happened to stop the decline [of Pittsburgh].”

In general, Strauss feels that the problems of Pittsburgh go beyond the mayor and politics to fundamentals. Allegheny County, which includes the city of Pittsburgh, is made up of 130 municipalities — the most in Pennsylvania, and second most in the country, according to Strauss.

Some of the smallest municipalities govern fewer than 1000 people, while Pittsburgh governs more than 300,000, according to the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

Though Pittsburgh has been steadily losing population and has suffered from a shrinking tax base, the city has amassed a significant amount of debt. According to the Act 47 board, a state oversight board supervising Pittsburgh’s recovery from its “distressed” status, in 2002 debt service represented 16.3 percent of total operating expenditures.

“Until there’s fundamental change,” Montarti said, “Pittsburgh’s going to stay the same.”