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Mayor-elect O'Connor to face trying times

| Sunday, Jan. 1, 2006, 12:00 p.m.

The job Bob O'Connor will assume Tuesday is not the same one he sought when he first ran for mayor nearly 10 years ago.

Since his first run at the office in 1997, Pittsburgh has lost about 48,000 people, one of every six jobs were wiped off the city's payroll and the state yanked the purse strings from local leaders' hands. It's still a strong-mayor system of government, but economic turbulence and personal clashes have put that mayor on an even shorter leash.

"Who would want to be mayor at a time like this?" asked Joseph Sabino Mistick, an adviser to former Mayor Sophie Masloff. "This mayor ... is operating under the most difficult circumstances of any mayor in the history of the city."

Pittsburgh has seen tough times before, Mistick said, "but a mayor and his or her advisers were empowered to address those difficult times."

Now, the state-appointed Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority and Act 47 recovery team -- both composed of people appointed by either the governor or state legislators -- control tens of millions of dollars in new taxes and state money.

If they don't get their way, the city doesn't get its cash.

"To some extent, democracy has been suspended in the city of Pittsburgh," Mistick said.

That could be a blessing as well as a hindrance for O'Connor, Masloff said. When it comes time to make painful cuts, O'Connor will have a handy excuse: The state made me do it.

"That takes him off the hook," Masloff said. "There's a lot of control that we lacked in the last 12 years. Someone's saying, 'This is all we can do. ... We have got to stay within our budget.' "

The possible exodus of the Penguins might be the first place his political cover comes in handy, said Gerald Shuster, professor of political communications at the University of Pittsburgh. If the hockey team leaves because they couldn't get a new arena, "nobody can be critical of him for not adding money," Shuster said.

If O'Connor really feels the need to dig in his heels on an issue, he still has the formidable power of the mayor's bully pulpit, political observers said. That plays to his strengths as an amiable optimist, and frees him to become "more of a leader than a politician," Shuster said.

"He's in a position to move public opinion, and public opinion still has a substantial impact because these (state oversight) boards are either under the auspices of the governor, who's up for re-election, or the legislators, who certainly have their hands full on the pay raise issue," Mistick said.

Those lawmakers have stepped in before. After the ICA board tried to sue the city and the Act 47 team over the city Fire Bureau's contract, state officials replaced two of the three board members who voted to sue. The new team dropped the suit.

O'Connor already has told the Act 47 team to expect a fight if they push their proposal to privatize trash collection and paramedic services, and he has some overseers on his side.

"I think they're unwilling to embrace concepts like privatization, and I think that's pretty smart on their part," said Henry Sciortino, executive director of the ICA.

Echoing O'Connor's mantra about fixing government rather than selling off pieces of it, Sciortino said, "There are places where government employees can deliver a better level of service than anybody. They need to be managed."

"I don't see the same old, same old," Sciortino said.

Some of Sciortino's optimism stems from recent meetings with O'Connor where the mayor-elect, rather than trying to stake out his territory, indicated a willingness to give up traditional mayoral fiefdoms. O'Connor has told ICA board members he wants to reign in the city's authorities, bastions of mayoral power that can accumulate massive debt for public projects such as the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

"I think we have some traction with these guys," Sciortino said. "I think they see it differently."

The mayor still has his own leashes to tug, too.

"One area where he should begin to play hardball is with City Council," Mistick said. "City Council pretty much has the power that a mayor allows them to have. Even in these difficult times, council's prerogatives are determined by the mayor.

"I think one troubling sign is that -- against what appears to be all common sense -- council has rejected, at least for now, a merger of the city and county purchasing departments," Mistick said. "That defies reason, and I think it indicates a total misunderstanding of their circumstances."

Merging services with Allegheny County is one of the few areas in which O'Connor has offered specific plans. His proposals to merge things like city and county public works operations and telecommunications helped him get county Chief Executive Dan Onorato's endorsement during the campaign.

Parcelling out those departments could result in even less power for an already-caged mayor's office, but "he doesn't have a lot of choice," Shuster said.

"I don't think he's going in there with the attitude of an old-school politician," Shuster said. "I think he's getting advice that this isn't the job it used to be."

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