December 12, 2004: Headlines: COS - Paraguay: Politics: City Government: Pittsburgh Live: Columnist says Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy always was in over his head

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Paraguay: Special Report: Paraguay RPCV Tom Murphy, Mayor of Pittsburgh: December 12, 2004: Headlines: COS - Paraguay: Politics: City Government: Pittsburgh Live: Columnist says Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy always was in over his head

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Columnist says Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy always was in over his head

Columnist says Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy always was in over his head

Columnist says Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy always was in over his head

Murphy's mess

By Joseph Sabino Mistick
Sunday, December 12, 2004

If you live in the Pittsburgh region, here's something to put on your holiday gift list: hip boots. It is getting pretty deep around here and sure to get deeper. But first, let's talk about chutzpah -- one of those great Yiddish words that is best explained by a brief anecdote.

The lawyer's favorite version of chutzpah is about the client who kills both his mother and father. He then appears before the court and begs for mercy -- because he is an orphan.

In politics, we have Pittsburgh's Anti-Mayor Tom Murphy as an example. After crashing the municipal ship on the rocks, he is beginning to talk like it was all part of his devious master plan. The anti-mayor wants us to believe he sacrificed his political career to force systemic change in city government.

Here's the biggest change he brought us: the city is now governed by an appointed board -- much like a council of regents that would govern in place of a disabled or unstable monarch. But in our democracy, Murphy's misfeasance has disenfranchised the Pittsburgh electorate. Thanks to him, the next mayor will be mayor in name only.

For the record

Since the holidays are a time for reminiscing, let's look at the city Murphy inherited from his predecessors.

Sophie Masloff was the last of three mayors -- Pete Flaherty and Dick Caliguiri being the others -- who paid constant attention to the operations side of the city.

In December 1993, as Sophie cleaned out her desk for the incoming Murphy, she could take pride in a job well done. The responsible fiscal stewardship of Pete, Dick and Sophie had prevailed. It would be no day at the beach for the new administration, but the job could be done.

Even before taking office, however, Murphy showed his reckless side. Masloff's 1993 plan to close two fire stations -- saving $2.5 million annually -- was scuttled by candidate Murphy. He promised the citizens of Beltzhoover and the North Side that he would reopen those stations if elected.

Candidate Murphy also derailed Masloff's plan to privatize refuse collection; he wrote the refuse workers and assured them that he would not privatize their operation if elected. Sophie's plan would have protected current employees and evolved by one city collection sector at a time.

And Murphy started his first term with a bonus. The Regional Asset District legislation was passed in the waning days of the Masloff administration. It should have meant at least an additional $15 million per year for operational costs. But Murphy quickly skimmed off half for debt service for his harebrained development fund.

Phipp's Conservatory, the National Aviary, the Pittsburgh Zoo and the Schenley Park golf course were all moved from the public budget to nonprofit status during Sophie's run. This resulted in a net savings of $2 million annually.

At the end of 1993, Pittsburgh was well regarded by the bond rating agencies. Standard & Poor's often cited Pittsburgh as an example of a well-managed older city. There was not much wiggle room, but careful stewardship through three city administrations had kept Pittsburgh sound while other cities failed.

Murphy math

For decades, city officials had walked the high wire -- stepping carefully and deliberately. When it was Murphy's turn, he looked down, got scared and froze -- until he lost his footing and fell. It was early in his first term when some of his own staffers began to joke about "Murphy numbers" -- budget figures that looked good politically but failed to add up.

Murphy took no interest in running the city; he decided to "grow" the city through his economic development strategy. Years earlier, before he was a state legislator, a similar tactic also failed when he tried it on the North Side. Still, from his perspective, the mayors before him had it all wrong.

Murphy handed out tax abatements like candy. In no time, almost the entire city automobile fleet was distributed for the use of staffers. He stopped negotiating payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements with nonprofits and sat idly by as the state Legislature weakened the city's legal leverage with the hospitals.

None of this was part of any grand scheme to force the General Assembly to rush to the aid of city taxpayers. Instead, these are just a few pitiful examples of the inept stumblings of a failed municipal government. Tom Murphy always was in over his head. But still there are rumblings -- like some distant threatening thunder-storm -- that this anti-mayor may seek another term.

But since we are talking about holiday wish lists, maybe Murphy could use a pair of boots as well. The perfect boots for him were best described by Nancy Sinatra in her 1966 hit song "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'." If we're lucky, Murphy will pull them on and just keep walkin' out of our civic lives.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a lawyer, law professor and political analyst. He lives in Point Breeze. E-mail him at:

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Pittsburgh Live

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Paraguay; Politics; City Government



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