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'Recall rage' rears its head here

| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2003, 12:00 p.m.

As about 100 Pittsburgh workers got their pink slips Friday, talk of removing Mayor Tom Murphy from office began cropping up on the steps of the City-County Building.

A fledgling petition drive against Murphy started by a member of the Lawrenceville Block Watch is being fanned by deep cuts in city services -- from locked recreation centers to drained swimming pools -- that have accompanied the planned layoff of 731 city workers to help close the city's budget deficit.

"People are sick of him," said Jim Jenco, who collected more than 200 signatures yesterday -- 180 more than he needs -- calling for Murphy's impeachment. "They want him out."

With members of the departments of General Services, Parks and Recreation, Engineering and Construction and Public Works laid off yesterday, along with 21 EMT workers and several of Murphy's aides, Pittsburgh residents will soon see less emergency medical care, more overgrown parks and broken steps and fences, city and union officials said.

Yesterday, in a scene reminiscent of the furor caused by the recall drive in California, many of the EMTs protesting at the City-County Building wore T-shirts that read, "Fire Mayor Murphy," as passing drivers leaned hard on their horns in support, and paramedics circled the building with their ambulance sirens blaring.

Even before the layoffs and service cuts, Murphy neglected neighborhoods' streets, sidewalks, sewers and parks in favor of large development projects such as Heinz Field and PNC Park, complained Jenco, who was passing out free T-shirts.

The signatures of just 20 city residents are needed to bring an impeachment petition before the Court of Common Pleas. But Jenco said he will wait to see how many are collected by people he met yesterday who not only signed his petition, but asked for copies to distribute in their neighborhoods and workplaces. His goal is at least 1,000 signatures, said Jenco, who denied he was inspired by the recall vote facing California Gov. Gray Davis.

Local Fraternal Order of Police President Gene Grattan denied reports that city police were behind the petition drive. While few EMTs and paramedics signed Jenco's petition, several did share his sentiment.

William Heller, for instance, couldn't pull on a "Fire Mayor Murphy" shirt fast enough after arriving for the 9 a.m. protest. Heller, a 28-year-old EMT who is being laid off, just bought his first house -- a two-bedroom in Brighton Heights with a back yard for his two dogs.

Now, Heller says he can no longer afford the $3,000 cost of becoming a paramedic, even though that's why he moved to Pittsburgh from Freeport last year.

"I'll, unfortunately, be spending most of my time trying to keep my house," Heller said. "Bills need to be paid. Responsibilities need to be met."

Yesterday morning, Public Works Director Guy Costa notified dozens of his full-time employees that they are being let go. "It's a dark day here in Public Works," Costa said.

At the direction of the Murphy administration, Costa would not discuss with the Trib how many workers were laid off, and from which departments. Before he was warned against providing details, he did talk about the layoffs in a radio interview on the KDKA Morning Show with Larry Richert.

The department, he told Richert, sent home 52 full-time workers -- including 16 from the construction bureau -- yesterday morning, but will pay them for an additional two weeks. The department will lay off an additional 40 seasonal employees on Aug. 29.

Costa also plans to lay off 20 workers in the Bureau of Environmental Services in October, although he hopes to avoid those layoffs if 20 refuse workers are willing to retire by October. Fifty-nine vacant positions have been eliminated, resulting in an 18 percent reduction in his workforce.

Those deep cuts, Costa told the Trib, will force Public Works to reorganize and to delay its usual schedule of services such as grass-cutting, repairs, bulk refuse pickup and street cleaning. About 10 percent of the department's snow plow crew has been laid off as well, which will leave fewer drivers to clear low-traffic neighborhood streets this winter, he said.

"A lot of the changes you will see will be based on frequency," Costa said. "Where we might do a street cleaning once a week, it might be every other week. If it's twice a month, we'll reduce it down to once a month."

Already, the mayor's office has announced that the fall cleanup slated for Sept. 13 has been canceled.

Residential garbage still will be picked up weekly, Costa said. The department, however, might end pickup of garbage from schools, churches, nonprofits and apartment buildings with six units or more sometime in October, forcing those organizations and businesses to hire private collectors.

"We're looking to eliminate that program," Costa said.

City charter allows impeachment


An effort to remove Mayor Tom Murphy has begun in Pittsburgh. The city's home rule charter says that any elected official can be impeached and removed from office in the event of mental incapacity, incompetence, neglect of duty, malfeasance, mismanagement or for any corrupt act or practice. Impeachment proceedings can be initiated by a petition to the Court of Common Pleas that is signed by at least 20 city residents who are qualified to vote, the charter states. If the court finds the official guilty of the charge or charges, it must declare the official's office vacant.

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