For nearly 90 minutes the four candidates vying to represent Pittsburgh City Council’s District 8 offered answers, quips and clarifications to previously offered comments on topics ranging from leadership qualities, reducing the likelihood of a mass casualty gun-related event, and, yes, even strategies for preventing wet basements.
Ann Belser, publisher of PRINT, Pittsburgh’s East End newspaper, moderated the Feb. 22 forum, which was held at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. And although printed materials and voiced instructions indicated that audience applause would not be tolerated, there was no stipulation restricting the moderator from commencing the night with a little laughter.
“Do remember that these candidates are our neighbors and friends who have stepped forward to serve the community and they deserve our attention, courtesy and respect,” Belser said before introducing the candidates. “You are going to run into them at Trader Joe’s or Target so don’t do anything tonight to cause you to hide in another aisle until they are gone.”
While an opening question prompted candidates to reflect generally on characteristics and qualities for leadership, the evening as a whole offered listeners the chance to tease out practical nuances between the politicians, said Chelsa Wagner, Allegheny County controller. “You can see the differences between the candidates and the iterative process.”
Those disparities were on greatest display when it came to an inquiry on potentially privatizing Pittsburgh’s water.
“We have to keep PWSA public and our water public, regardless of whether it’s Peoples Gas or apparently the 20 other companies that are trying to privatize our water or even work in a public-private partnership,” said Erika Strassburger, an independent candidate vying for the Squirrel Hill seat vacated by Democrat Dan Gilman. “I know that we need creative funding sources but privatizing our water, we tried that once with Veolia. That didn’t go well [and] we’re paying the price now. I just give a patent no to any privatization of our water.”
“I love the idea,” said Republican hopeful Rennick Remley. “I love that there is going to be diversity of thought on this issue, and we are going to hear a number of different solutions from a number of different companies.”
“The last partnership did not work out and I don’t think that’s not because public-private partnerships don’t work,” added Remley. “They do work, they work all around the world. I think that part of the problem was that it was mismanaged on our part. The PWSA is the landing ground for you know everyone’s cousin who can’t get a job…We have to look at new ideas, and we can’t turn them down just because the word private is in the name.”
Marty Healy, another independent, was suspicious of privatization.
“Partnerships never work without oversight and working together to further whatever the commitment is,” he said. “I think that PWSA, when we made this deal with Veolia, we sort of washed our hands of it and assumed they would fix our problems…Pittsburgh owning its own water authority is really important to try to make happen, but if we can’t make it happen, and we can’t afford to make it happen, we have to make the right decisions and they’re tough and we need to swallow our pride in order to move our city forward.”
Democrat Sonja Finn said she agreed with Strassburger.
“I know that we all know that what is happening with PWSA and the lead in our water and updating the infrastructure is a large problem, but we can’t let it overwhelm us,” said Finn. “Elected officials are there for a reason. They are not there to be our fair-weather friends, they’re there to be our friends and fix things when things are bad and not just be overwhelmed and say, ‘Well, let’s see if somebody else, if some corporation can take care of this for us.’ That’s not the point of having elected officials.”
Greater consensus was reached on the city’s tax loss from public charities, such as UPMC. Three of the candidates said such entities must contribute their “fair share,” and Finn, although not using the term, stressed the situation’s urgency by saying, “I’m ready to go to the mat with it, because each year that we don’t, that is at least another $25 million dollars that is not going towards the people of this city…Let’s get that money.”
Somewhat similar harmony was on display on the issue of guns and public safety. After Belser asked what steps City Council could do to prevent school shootings in Pittsburgh, the candidates discussed citywide bans, lawsuits and improvements to infrastructure.
“We could certainly work with the school board to find funding to make the schools safer,” answered Remley. “There’s something called mantraps, but that’s infrastructure and capital spending that we just don’t have right now. The city could also ban guns in the city. I mean Chicago and D.C. — they all have these laws. It certainly is something we could do.”
Healey said a citywide ban may not be the panacea that everyone hopes for.
“We could do a city ban and we would all love to agree with that, and it makes sense, but if someone could go bring a gun in from an outlying county or from Ohio or West Virginia, are we really fixing the problem? We really have to work with our state legislature as well as the surrounding regions’ legislatures and make change and drive that home to the federal government,” he said.
“The statistic we know for sure is the less guns, the less shootings,” said Finn. “This is where we need to lead. We need to form a coalition with other cities for gun control, and we really have a chance now.”
Strassburger backed a federal ban on semi-automatic weapons, as well as a 30-day waiting period on gun purchases.
“We need to start where we can, and while we don’t have the authority to ban guns in the City of Pittsburgh, I agree that we have to start somewhere,” she said. “If we want to take on the possible lawsuit and potentially lose millions of dollars in a lawsuit, that would be a decision that City Council would have to grapple with, but in the meantime we have to organize.”
The forum was sponsored by Bend the Arc: Pittsburgh, the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement, the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh and the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition. The special election for the seat will be held on Tuesday, March 6.
Video of the forum is available at League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh’s Facebook page. PJC
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner’s name. The Chronicle regrets this error.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.