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Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto defends his trips to capital, D.C.

| Sunday, March 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Mayor, Bill Peduto talks on his phone after Governor Tom Corbett gave his budget address at the Capital building in Harrisburg, Tuesday.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spent eight of his first 67 days in office rubbing elbows with Washington and Harrisburg policymakers, but some observers at home wonder whether the time would have been better spent putting City Hall in order.

Although Peduto is making connections that could benefit the city down the road, he has problems in Pittsburgh, including vacancies in top administrative posts and on boards and authorities.

“I think he's got a lot of energy, and that's a good quality, but the first function of the city is to get its operational house in order,” said Moe Coleman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics.

Peduto defended the trips. His office noted results such as winning health insurance and bike grants, and receiving help from federal education experts.

“I would only say that my travels have been to build the connections to D.C. and Harrisburg that have been (lost) the past seven years,” he said. “We are already seeing the benefits of this work by receiving grants and are well positioned now to earn much larger grants in the future.”

Since Jan. 22, Peduto traveled to the capitals a combined five times. He attended national gatherings for the Conference of Mayors and National League of Cities, got face time with President Obama, met congressional leaders and attended the president's State of the Union Address and Gov. Tom Corbett's annual budget address.

Three of the trips cost the city a total of $2,563.88 for airfare, meals and hotel stays, according to requests for reimbursement filed with Controller Michael Lamb's office. Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin accompanied him on one of the Harrisburg trips.

Peduto has not requested reimbursement for driving to Corbett's budget address and returning the same day, or his most recent excursion to Washington for a National League of Cities conference from March 9-11.

In December, the city received a $30,000 grant to help enroll needy children in health insurance programs. Peduto lobbied for the grant as a city councilman and mayor-elect through the League of Cities, said his spokesman, Tim McNulty.

He said the city expects to receive a $20,000 grant to improve bike lanes citywide through another Peduto lobbying effort before he took office.

Experts supplied by the Department of Education will travel to Pittsburgh to develop strategies for improving the public school district.

Peduto promised while campaigning that he would emulate Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who frequently visits Washington and Harrisburg.

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said Philadelphia and surrounding counties — Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester — formed a caucus to lobby for state and federal aid.

“The mayor is at the head of a team of individuals who tell Philadelphia's story. That is the point,” McDonald said.

He said the effort resulted in increased funding for transportation projects and retrofitting businesses and homes to be more energy-efficient.

David Urban, president of the Washington lobbying firm American Continental Group and a former chief of staff to late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, said it pays to build relationships with state and federal officials. He said city officials can gain great insight into federal programs and policy changes.

“By being in Washington and voicing your opinion, you can have impact,” Urban said. “The federal government is so large, and there are so many programs that are going on that unless you are paying close attention, you could miss opportunities for the city.”

But being away has its downside.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris questioned Peduto's timing, noting his administration is in transition and he has yet to fill vacant positions such as police chief and public safety director. It faces an exodus of employees taking his early retirement offer.

More than 60 longtime employees, including top administrators in the Bureau of Building Inspection and Finance Department, are leaving.

“I can't knock him for going; it's just right now, you have a new administration going in, and there are things that really need to be settled here,” Harris said.

McNulty said the trips will continue.

“He's the chief salesman for the city, and you can't do that job by staying at home,” he said. “He going to travel nationally and internationally to tell the city's story and put the city back on the global map.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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