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Asking what you can do

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Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Among the most memorable JFK moments celebrated in recent weeks was his inaugural challenge to all Americans to “ask what you can do for your country.” Cicero, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Warren G. Harding and Gen. Omar Bradley have all been credited with the original quote but Kennedy owns it in our time.

Beyond the words, it is the challenge that really matters and there are those times, in big governments and small, when citizens rally to such calls, nearly always spontaneously. This willingness of average citizens to step forward is our antidote to government gone stale.

And last week, when hundreds of Pittsburghers showed up on a holiday weekend and spent hours talking about the future of the city at a forum sponsored by the incoming Peduto administration, it became clear that this is one of those times in the 'Burgh.

The crowd included old hands and newcomers, community organizers who are certain they have all the answers and average citizens who are just as certain that none of the old ideas can work. Some folks had worked for the new mayor's campaign and others had not but now hope to find a way back in.

A few attendees had served previous administrations and a handful had even worked for the last. There were even a couple familiar faces in the crowd that the most zealous Pedutoites seem to believe should not work for any administration ever again, if you follow the cutting comments in social media.

Those predictable frictions aside, the feeling was good, by all accounts. The old energy was back and many citizens who have felt shut out of the process of government now feel included. That alone can make a difference.

Originally billed as “transition teams,” the model had to be redesigned when the huge public response surprised the incoming administration. Wisely, no one who signed up to help was turned away and the new task is now to develop some short-term and long-term goals in distinct urban categories.

With all of its positives, managing an effort this big will be the first challenge of the Peduto administration. Anytime you throw open the front door to all comers, you can expect a little broken furniture. The Peduto team must travel up two tracks now because the essential business of “transition teams” must still take place. This is the quiet, unsexy administrative work that occurs between administrations, not politicians.

It is this period in American government that makes us different. Current officials, some facing uncertain personal futures, spend long hours preparing for the coming change in government. And the new guard, not yet on the payroll, works day and night to get up to speed.

With politics in repose, those who are charged with actually running things, for both administrations, deal with each other openly, for the good of the people.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (



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