Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto lays groundwork for different government culture

Bob Bauder
| Saturday, April 12, 2014, 10:40 p.m.

Bill Peduto helped his staff carry buckets and then scrub offices when he moved into the Pittsburgh mayor's chambers in January, a symbolic gesture of his campaign promise to clean house.

Then he told top officials that he requires employees to arrive for work on time, wearing business attire. In the three months since, he fired at least eight managers, rearranged departments, and induced 65 people to retire early with a cash incentive. He makes his daily schedule public.

All of that, he says, adds up toward his vow to make city government transparent and efficient.

His goal for his administration's first 100 days, Peduto told the Tribune-Review, was to “put together a structure of a city government that was different than the one we inherited ... all the way permeating down into a culture. It's been difficult, but I think we've been able to do it.”

Political observers say it's too early to tell for sure. But some residents say they like seeing Peduto out and about, appearing as a leader.

“He's energetic, and he's everywhere,” said Charlotte Lang, an elderly neighbor who lives several blocks away from Peduto in Point Breeze. “He's a dedicated gentleman who really feels his niche is to be mayor and help people.”

Even a one-time political foe says Peduto, 49, a former city councilman, is laying groundwork for a different government culture.

“I think the first days of this administration have been about setting the tone, and I think they're doing that,” said Controller Michael Lamb, who ran against Peduto in last year's Democratic primary before dropping out of the race. “Now comes the hard part, which is governing under this new culture.”

Challenges materialize

Peduto has plenty to manage.

The city's financial condition remains his biggest challenge.

Peduto said his administration needs a blueprint for paying down debt and employee pension obligations. He wants to persuade tax-exempt nonprofits to offer money toward city operations.

The capital budget needs money. More than 60 percent of the city's 866 miles of asphalt streets are in terrible condition. Paving them would cost $70 million to $80 million, and the city can afford to pave only 27 miles in 2014.

Also looming: Peduto must contend with large union contracts that expire this year, including police and firefighters.

Unions give the mayor low marks for his performance so far, complaining they have had little contact with the administration despite coming contract talks.

“We have not had an opportunity to sit down with the mayor yet,” said Ralph Sicuro, vice president of Pittsburgh Fire Fighters IAFF Local 1. “I would have hoped that we would have been able to sit down with the mayor in these first 100 days.”

On top of that, Peduto must finish putting his team in place. He hopes to do so this month.

Most notably, Peduto has not hired a Public Safety director. Two candidates turned him down; Mike Huss remains in the role.

Peduto needs directors of Finance and Budget. A big disappointment, he says, was losing his choice of Edward Kiely for budget director. The Point Breeze management consultant withdrew after Peduto nominated him because Kiely owed $83,000 to the Internal Revenue Service in back taxes.

Peduto's disappointment stems not from Kiely's tax situation but “because we didn't get ahead of that story to explain it to people,” he said. “That's my fault.”

Filling financial slots can't occur soon enough for the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, one of two state overseers helping Pittsburgh resolve its monetary morass.

“We have a weekly meeting with members of the administration, and that's a good thing,” said Nick Varischetti, who chairs the ICA. “On the flip side, you have a secretary meeting with a secretary, and nothing is getting done. We need the decision makers at these meetings, and they haven't been assembled yet.”

Charitable allies

Peduto's public schedule, emailed to news reporters and posted on the city's website, shows him spending much of his time meeting with government, business and nonprofit leaders.

“I think he's not only meeting those people face-to-face but beginning a solid level of networking so that he can interact with them as needed,” said Gerald Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh professor of political communication. “Let's face it, he's being a bit selfish: Anyone who can help Pittsburgh, he's meeting with.”

Peduto says he fields “several hundred” requests weekly for meetings or appearances at events.

“The most difficult thing that I've found is ... balancing my personal life with my ability to be that accessible,” he said. “Right now, there's an opportunity to hit the ground running, and I intend to do that as long as possible, but at some point, too, I've got to be able to balance out and not work 43 days straight.”

Fred Thieman, president of the Buhl Foundation, said meetings have paid off with city foundations, which before had little or no contact with the Mayor's Office.

Peduto has had a long-standing relationship with nonprofit organizations and is counting on them to help bail the city out of its financial straits and support his initiatives.

The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Richard King Mellon, Heinz, Hillman, Benedum and Buhl foundations anted up $275,000 to make a jobs website and recruit candidates for Peduto's administration. Foundations pledged funding for the city's land bank, designed to reduce urban blight.

In November, Peduto traveled to Seattle as mayor-elect to participate in conferences with the Grable Foundation, The Sprout Fund and the National League of Cities.

“I'm not ready to make any predictions, but opportunities for cooperation are produced by communication, and the dialogue and the opportunity for coordination between the foundation community and the Mayor's Office have been substantially improved,” Thieman said.

Some skeptical

Others are less optimistic.

“I think everybody agrees with the mayor to get more money from the nonprofits, but the question is how are we going to get it?” asked Sicuro of the firefighters union.

Peduto also talks with community leaders in the city's poorest neighborhoods. T. Rashad Byrdsong, president and CEO of Homewood advocacy group Community Empowerment Association, said the city has neglected such neighborhoods for years.

This administration has reached out, Byrdsong said, but he noted: “It's too soon to tell what might happen. All we can do is be encouraged at this point.”

Among his goals, Peduto said, is to shepherd private development in the Strip District, the lower Hill District and Hazelwood — all with property prime for use.

He vowed to make neighborhood rebuilding a cornerstone of his administration, especially in poor communities.

He'll need a cooperative City Council to do that — and the body is divided. At least four members support Peduto so far: President Bruce Kraus and Natalia Rudiak, Dan Gilman and Deb Gross. Four others — Ricky Burgess, Darlene Harris, R. Daniel Lavelle and Theresa Kail-Smith — are less inclined to agree with his initiatives.

“I don't mind the dissent,” said Peduto, a councilman for 12 years. “I expect it. I just like it when the conversation is elevated on the policy and not the politics.”

City Councilman Corey O'Connor has positioned himself as a potential swing vote.

“It's been a good transition,” said O'Connor, son of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor. “I would have liked to see people appointed to boards and authorities a little sooner, and we hope to get a Public Safety director as soon as possible. But when you go and talk to people on the street, they say the new mayor's doing a good job.”

Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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