Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Symposium on corruption = fit for Pittsburgh

If you don't understand history, it is easy to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Saving Communities is planning a symposium on corruption, in March 2010.

This March 21 marks the 100th anniversary of the day when 41 indictments were handed down against Pittsburgh city councilmen, industrialists and banking executives for graft, bribery and corruption. Even more council members avoided indictment by rushing to turn themselves in on the promise of reduced sentences for big offenses and clemency for smaller ones, provided that incumbent grafters resigned from office. One council member, thinking he had missed the deadline, even interrupted court proceedings by rushing into the courtroom, falling on his knees before the judge and tearfully begging to be included in the clemency deal for those who "came clean."

It was (and probably still is) the greatest municipal scandal in US history, and it resulted in a complete restructuring of Pittsburgh's city government. That is, the existing city charter was dissolved and all the council members were fired. A new charter was created by the state legislature, and new city council members were appointed by the
governor to serve until elections could be held.

The strong-mayor "boss" system common to machines in the late 1900s was replaces with a strong-council, weak-mayor system. The new council proceeded to replace contract patronage with civil service, to substitute the more progressive land value tax for property tax, and to enact other measures that were favored by progressive-era reformers.

Over the years, organizations representing the same interests that had corrupted the old government have slowly modified the structure in the direction of resembling the original corrupt structure, and have added new incentives for corruption, including, but not limited to, corporate-welfare subsidies. Central to these undemocratic modifications has been the return of the strong-mayor system. The new structure of county government, with a very strong executive and a very weak, underpaid and understaffed council, is even worse.

The proposed symposium is NOT about pointing fingers at this or that elected official. Rather, it is about how some structures of government are inherently more corruptible than others. We do not want to distract from the question of structure by focusing on personality.

Some opening topics will be,

1.) A description of Pittsburgh's most corrupt era, and the scandal that
finally toppled it.
1.a.) The notorious Magee-Flinn machine.
1.b.) The failure of earlier reforms that merely cast new players into old
1.c) The final scandal
1.d) The "ripper" bill that abolished Pittsburgh's government.
1.e.) Sources
1.e.1.) Lincoln Steffens, "Pittsburg, A City Ashamed"
1.e.2.) George Swetnam, Pittsburgh's bicentennial historian
1.e.3.) Contemporary newspaper articles, etc.

3). The original, corrupt structure
3.a.) Strong mayor
3.b.) Bi-cameral council

4.) The central reforms of the Progressive Era, how some reforms were
incorporated into the new government, and how others were prevented.

5.) The gradual restructuring of government once these reforms were in
place, to resemble the original, corrupt structure.

5.a.) Home rule charter
5.a.1.) Expanded mayoral powers, weakened council
5.a.2.) Line item veto
5.a.2.a) Stronger than Presidential veto that was struck down
5.a.2.b.) Results in new bill passed without a majority on council
5.b.) Council by district
5.b.1.) Increases the mayor's leverage
5.b.1.a.) Mayor's can punish a council member's entire district.
5.b.1.b.) District interests vs. city interests
5.b.1.c.) Can play one district off against another
5.b.2.) Only a problem within a strong-mayor system

The following are some contemporary issues to address: The key is that we tie these issues to the theme of the symposium - how they accommodate

1.) The curse of the strong executive: Why systems dominated by the
legislative branch are inherently more democratic and less corruptible.

1.a.) Councils inherently more democratic
1.a.1.) More accessible to ordinary people
1.a.2.) Deliberates in public

1.b.) Roots of the strong-executive model
1.b.1.) Monarchy
1.b.2.) Appointed colonial governors
1.b.3.) Alexander Hamilton and the "Federalists"
1.b.4.) Continued support from special interests

2.) "Privatization," particularly in the form of contract-patronage and
monopoly franchises. Possible sub-topics include:

2.a.) Contract patronage

2.a.1.) HIring Sabre Systems as an excuse to get one whistleblowing
assessor with a seniority of 83 by laying off 85 assessors, and the
botched assessments that resulted.

2.a.2.) Private tax collectors, etc.

2.b.) Franchise patronage - government-licensed monopolies

2.b.1.) A comparison of Duquesne Light to Cleveland's "Muni Electric."
(This could be a simple price and value comparison, but we might also
find interesting histories.)

2.b.2.) Proposals to turn public utilities over to private firms on long-
term leases.

3.) The domination of banking interests on public policy.
3.a.) Banking corruption in the early 1900s
3.b.) The influence of bond-selling on public policy today.

3.) The proliferation of authorities
3.a.) Neither political nor economic accountability
3.b.) Their role in strengthening the strong-mayor system
3.c.) Off-loading debt onto authorities to evade constitutional debt

4.) Tax Increment Financing and other corporate-welfare subsidies.

5.) The impact of complexity on accountability.

6.) Things we could afford to do if we weren't doing things we shouldn't

7.) What can we do about it?

If you have an interest in this symposium, or have ideas on speakers,
topics, etc., please contact Dan Sullivan, as he wants to involve people from across the political spectrum.

Dan Sullivan, director
Saving Communities
631 Melwood Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213 (USA)

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