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The future of Pittsburgh: Advice for the next mayor

| Saturday, June 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Josh Wander, Republican candidate for Pittsburgh mayor, talks to his daughter Tamar, 9, while trying to meet voters on Tuesday May 21, 2013, in front of the polling station at the Shaare Torah Congregation on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. Pictured in the background are Wander's other daughters, Sara, 5, and Channa, 13.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Bill Peduto greets some of his supporters before casting his ballot at St. Bede's in Point Breeze on Tuesday, May 21, 2013.

As hard as it to believe today, the U.S. Army of 1939 ranked 17th among the armies of the world in size and power, numbering only 190,000, just behind Romania, at the outset of World War II. Years of neglect and poor leadership left the Army corrupt, inefficient and hopelessly antiquated.

In 1941, the Army's cavalry chief testified to Congress that “four well-spaced horsemen could charge half a mile across an open field to destroy an enemy machine-gun nest, without sustaining a scratch.”

It would fall to Uniontown native George C. Marshall, commanding general of the Army (and later architect of the Marshall Plan and Nobel laureate) to transform — in about four years — a hopeless mess into a fighting force of 8 million that would help save the free world. It is in his stated philosophy, much in the character of his Western Pennsylvania roots, that our next mayor could find inspiration:

“Go right straight down the road, to do what is best, and to do it frankly and without evasion.”

Pittsburgh's next mayor takes office in 2014 and will inherit a hot mess and everyone knows it. Yet it is this very mess that might give our next mayor a freedom of action few recent Pittsburgh mayors ever enjoyed and open the way for a complete transformation and renewal of our city government.

The credibility of the Office of Mayor is badly damaged and could grow still worse by the ongoing actions and inaction of the incumbent mayor and those around him, as another six months must pass before the next mayor can be sworn in. In fact, this integrity gap is now so great that few would oppose, and many would support, a swift removal and replacement of the top layer of every department, board or program of city government along with a complete top-to-bottom reassessment of all city operations.

Very few prewar general officers survived Marshall's quick transformation from a nepotistic bureaucracy to a merit-based, efficient and effective U.S. Army. In fact, new officers were often handpicked from within and outside the senior ranks by Marshall himself for their ability to get real results and, as achieved, promptly promoted.

Our next mayor will be politically and practically free to do a similar hard reset of city government.

The new mayor must also confront head-on the fact that our elected city government still does not control its own fate, as it remains in the equivalent of a humiliating and necessary receivership with state-appointed oversight. Our new mayor can find opportunity here, too — not by fighting oversight but by taking up the challenge of earning our way out of it.

Press releases about “structurally balanced budgets” and tweaks of the status quo have not and will never work going forward. A more inspired and direct path can make a decisive difference: Provide every single city service at a measurable quality level far higher than ever before at a cost far lower than ever before . With visible, tangible results, the next mayor will not only recover the city government's fate but its dignity.

When first asked by President Franklin Roosevelt to assume leadership of the Army at the outbreak of war, Marshall replied simply: “I will give you the best I have.”

Our next mayor will possess the most precious of opportunities — to not just remake government but in doing so affirm Pittsburgh's sense of itself. We only ask our new mayor that he, too, give us the best he has.

Mark DeSantis, who ran against departing Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in 2007, is a tech entrepreneur and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He lives in downtown Pittsburgh.

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