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Heyl: Chiefly speaking, McLay erred

| Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, 11:12 p.m.

If Pittsburgh had poached its new police chief from Kathmandu, the situation might make some sense.

Kathmandu is in the southern Asian nation of Nepal. Making the 7,700-mile trek from there to the Steel City takes approximately 30 hours and four different plane flights.

But new Chief Cameron McLay hails from Madison, Wis. — a little more than a three-hour airplane trip to Pittsburgh whose most brutal component is a 45-minute layover in Chicago.

He couldn't clear his calendar to be here when Mayor Bill Peduto announced his hiring on Tuesday?

If it wasn't a big deal, Peduto and new Public Safety Director Stephen A. Bucar wouldn't have summoned the media to the mayor's conference room to sing the new chief's praises. They obviously realized the moment's significance.

In McLay, Peduto arguably made his most important hire since taking office nine months ago. He finally named a permanent replacement for Nate Harper, who resigned in disgrace in February 2013 and resides in a federal prison after pleading guilty to corruption charges and failing to file income taxes.

But McLay has larger tasks ahead than clearing police headquarters of any lingering Harper stench. The department has other issues. For example, by year's end, the city could be on the hook for as much as $500,000 to resolve lawsuits involving police officers.

That he was not on hand for a public introduction to city residents, to provide reassurance that he will provide a steadying influence to a department needing one, was bewildering. Let's put the surreal moment in terms this sports-crazed city can understand.

What occurred is akin to Steelers President Art Rooney II announcing Coach Mike Tomlin's eventual successor thusly: “We chose Coach Smith from a number of qualified candidates because we believe he will lead us to many more Super Bowl championships. Any questions?”

“Yes, Art. Why isn't the new coach standing at the podium with you?”

“He couldn't be here today. He had some errands to run. But don't worry, he'll be on the sideline for that first game against the Browns.”

When I inquired about McLay's inability to attend his own coming-out party, Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty directed me to a quote attributed to the chief in the news release detailing the hiring.

“I intend to be very visible, very engaged and very transparent,” he said. “Over the next few days, however, my primary focus must be on my family as we prepare for our move, and on familiarizing myself with the local issues so as to be able to speak intelligently on those issues.”

Anyone else notice the incongruity of a pledge of visibility being made by someone who was invisible when making it?

McLay has impressive credentials and could turn out to be a terrific choice. But on the day his hiring was announced, the new chief had priorities other than Pittsburgh. He's about to earn $109,160 annually as the city's top cop.

For that he couldn't tolerate a brief layover in Chicago?

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412 -320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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