The three men vying to be Pittsburgh’s next mayor don’t disagree on everything, but they don’t agree on much.
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, City Councilman Bill Peduto and City Controller Michael Lamb took to the stage at the Wightman School Community Building in Squirrel Hill Sunday for the first mayoral debate of the 2013 election cycle. The 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club hosted the forum, which drew a standing-room-only crowd.
During the hour-long session, Ravenstahl and Peduto traded jabs on everything from tax increment financing to the city’s police, and Lamb agreed with nearly every attack the two launched at each other.
The most pointed disagreement arose regarding the city’s police bureau, which has come under increased scrutiny of late between its handling of the death of Ka’Sandra Wade, the discharge of firearms during a car chase on the South Side and a grand jury investigation that might involve Chief Nate Harper.
Peduto said the police department lacks both leadership and adequate training in procedures.
“It all starts at the top,” Peduto said. “I don’t care what organization you’re in, you need good quality leadership in order to be able to affect the management on the ground.”
Ravenstahl defended Harper and the bureau, citing a 25 percent reduction in the city’s crime rate since he took office in 2006.
“Chief Harper has been, in my mind, a great leader. From my perspective, the chief had done a fine job leading this bureau,” the mayor said.
“It wasn’t the chief I was talking about when I was talking about lack of leadership. It was his boss,” said Peduto, who added that he would be open to ending the city residency requirement for police officers as a negotiation chip during contract talks. Ravenstahl and Lamb oppose revisiting the residence requirement.
Both Lamb and Peduto attacked Ravenstahl for the police force’s lack of diversity. When the mayor boasted that the city’s most recent class of police recruits was the most diverse of the last 10 years, Lamb fired back that the most diverse class of police recruits under Ravenstahl’s administration had two African Americans.
Ravenstahl didn’t deflect the criticisms Lamb and Peduto levied against him, but did sneak in a few shots of his own. He accused Peduto and the council of passing “frivolous” legislation, called the citywide natural gas drilling ban the council’s attempt to “grab a headline and be a leader in their own mind,” and blasted an ordinance to punish gun owners who don’t report the loss or theft of firearms as “unenforceable.”
Lamb agreed with both criticisms. He and the mayor also agree on the city’s readiness to be removed from state financial oversight under Act 47 — a move for which Peduto insists the city isn’t prepared.
The candidates also traded barbs on the proper use of tax increment financing — something Ravenstahl and Peduto have disagreed on since their days together on city council, when Ravenstahl voted for an $18 million subsidy for a PNC Bank office building in Downtown, which Peduto opposed.
“I’m proud of the vote that I took on city council because that project was the beginning of the renaissance Downtown,” said Ravenstahl.
“It’s a hard case to make that PNC doesn’t have the money,” said Peduto. “TIFs were created so that … it wasn’t an incentive for developers to go and tear down trees in order to build a development, but so they could take a site that needs reclamation in order to be able to rebuild in cities. We have abused that process like nothing I’ve seen.”
Ravenstahl argued that if not for his administration’s use of a TIF plan, the redevelopment at Bakery Square wouldn’t have happened, and Google wouldn’t have opened its Pittsburgh office.
“Bakery Square did not bring Google to Pittsburgh,” Peduto replied. “Carnegie Mellon brought Google to Pittsburgh.”
TIFs, Peduto continued, should be used to invest in new housing and startup businesses, rather than retail properties.
“You build the homes and the retail will follow, and you don’t have to use public money to build it,” he said.
Lamb argued that development tools such as TIFs should be used to benefit the neighborhoods with the greatest need. He cited Hazelwood as one such example.
“When we finally do build something in Hazelwood, we’ve got to build it in a way that enhances Hazelwood,” said Lamb. “We can’t build the Waterfront over there.”
All three candidates support the $80 to $90 million TIF approved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority earlier this month, which would fund vast redevelopments in Hazelwood. They also agreed on the imminent need to re-examine the role of nonprofits in the city’s economy.
“We have to define it differently,” said Ravenstahl. “I think we have to have a real discussion focused on the biggest and largest institutions, namely UPMC. They have to do more.”
“I think everybody recognizes that what you want is everyone paying their fair share,” said Lamb. “Clearly, these organizations are not paying their fair share in the city of Pittsburgh.”
The primary election will take place on May 21.
(Matthew Wein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)