Tube City Almanac

September 15, 2010

This 'Network' Isn't Even Mad as 'Heck'

Category: Good Government On The March, Commentary/Editorial || By

(Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure and transparency, I have to acknowledge that I am currently working on a project with the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport, which is among the entities mentioned in the Post-Gazette's series called "The Network." Also, as a student intern in the 1990s, I worked for Rich Lord at City Paper, and have great respect for his hard work and talent.)

. . .

When I saw in Sunday's Post-Gazette that reporter Rich Lord was writing about what he called "The Network" --- the private, for-profit consultants who work with many Pittsburgh-area municipalities and agencies --- I started to drool a little bit.

As described by Lord, "The Network" runs straight through the Mon Valley and includes many longtime local figures, including former Duquesne Mayor George Matta.

Naturally, I figured this was going to be juicy gossip about people we all know. I even posted something to the Tube City Online Facebook page urging others to read it.

. . .

Then, rubbing my hands eagerly, I pored over the first installment, and thought, "OK, OK, this is just the background ... the second story is going to deliver some real dirt!"

On Monday, I read the second story and thought, "Well, Rich is just getting ready to deliver the knockout punch with the final installment!"

And then I read Tuesday's installment, and then I turned to the back of the paper to see what Beetle Bailey was up to. (He's still aggravating Sarge.)

It wasn't a case of all smoke and no fire. It also was a case of very little smoke.

. . .

I'm not trying to be critical of Rich, who I greatly admire and respect. He did a thorough job of naming the players and explaining their connections. His "Network" stories were fascinating to a government wonk such as myself, and did a wonderful job of explaining how RDM evolved. They're both well-written and meticulously researched.

In fact, if you like government privatization, Rich's stories are like a textbook example of how it works. They could --- and should --- be used in political science classes.

I'm just having a hard time seeing anything to get upset about.

. . .

To summarize the installments, for the past 20 years, what the Post-Gazette calls a "network" including former Turnpike Commissioner James Dodaro, attorney Jack Cambest, members of the Zappala and Matta families and others have been remarkably successful at winning consultancy contracts for a variety of local government agencies.

For instance, Dodaro sits on the board of a company called Resource Development and Management, which has been the state-appointed overseer for communities (such as Braddock, Homestead and North Braddock boroughs) who have been in Act 47 "distressed" status.

RDM also provides management for the city's Redevelopment Authority and the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, which operates the city's water system.

. . .

Dodaro, in turn, is a partner in Cambest's law firm, which represents the McKeesport Area School District and several municipalities, including those that do business with RDM. And so it goes. The Post-Gazette's graphic includes 12 people as part of this "network."

Rich quotes former Allegheny County Commissioner Mike Dawida as saying members of this "network" aren't doing anything illegal, and that government is "what they know better than anybody else," but that "they (aren't) necessarily in it for the good of the people."

Well, no. Surprise! They're providing services in order to make a profit, which is what private enterprise is about. That's not a bad thing, and it's a direct result of how local government has evolved in Pennsylvania.

. . .

Ever since the Reagan Administration, we've been told "big government is the enemy." That's exactly what the Tea Party movement is supposedly about, right? The mantra since the 1980s has been "privatize government agencies" and "outsource services to the private sector."

That's exactly what agencies have done. For instance, unionized McKeesport employees no longer collect the city's garbage --- a private contractor, Nickolich Sanitation, does that. If RDM is making a profit, well, good for them --- that's why they're in business.

Second, the "big government is the enemy" movement has violently objected to any attempts to force municipal consolidation. Take a look at the Tribune-Review editorial page, which is a reliable barometer of local right-wing strains of thought. Just this past Sunday, a lengthy op-ed from the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy inveighed against municipal mergers, saying that "bigger governments are not more efficient. Indeed, the opposite is too often the case."

. . .

As a result of Pennsylvania's mania for "local control," we have a patchwork of tiny municipalities like Wall (population 800, more or less) and Versailles (about 2,000). When those boroughs were created in the 1900s, local governments provided almost no services. Residents didn't have sewers, they used outhouses. They didn't have running water, they had wells or cisterns. The streets weren't even paved.

A small borough with few services could be easily run by a part-time borough council that only met once a month.

Things are a lot more sophisticated. Besides health and sanitation, residents demand broadband access and cable TV. Those franchise agreements have to be negotiated. They want recreation facilities and sports leagues and handicapped access ramps and code enforcement and all sorts of things that didn't exist 100 or even 50 years ago.

. . .

And that's without a community going into distressed status. Dealing with a morass of financial problems requires professional, experienced help, which is more than most small communities can afford. Instead, they hire a consultant such as RDM and share the expense with many other municipalities.

Arguably, it saves money. Rich notes that McKeesport pays RDM about $55,000 to manage the Redevelopment Authority. I doubt that even one employee --- without benefits --- could do the job for $55,000 annually.

. . .

Is RDM doing a bad job? Is it gouging the taxpayers? Well, according to Rich, Westmoreland Water's rates are actually lower than those of Pennsylvania-American Water, which serves many Mon-Yough communities.

Is RDM buying votes? Political contributions from the firm have been "frequent but modest," the P-G says. Over the last eight years, for instance, one Westmoreland County commissioner has received about $8,000 from three people connected to RDM, or about $300 per person per year.

Hey, if influence can be purchased that cheaply, then sign me up.

Finally, "The Network" points out that employees went to the same colleges or are related. Well, here's a news flash: At my full-time job, I regularly hire freelance writers and photographers, and I nearly always use people I've worked with before, or who have come recommended to me.

I trust them, and more to the point, I enjoy working with them. I'm hardly surprised that RDM and its related companies operate the same way.

. . .

Personally, I'm against privatizing government services. I think they should be operated by elected officials for the benefit of taxpayers.

I also think gas, electric and water utilities should be publicly owned. Then again, I'm a bleeding-heart liberal.

But I'm also against our ridiculous system of local government. For crying out loud, Allegheny County's 1.2 million residents are served by 130 cities, boroughs and townships, and 43 school districts.

The entire Borough of Manhattan, with 1.6 million residents, has one police department, one school district and one local government --- and it shares those services with the rest of New York City.

However, I'm in the minority around here. (I also like black licorice.)

. . .

There's no shadowy "network" running local government. There is, however, a crazy patchwork of tiny local governments and private consultants, and it's probably as inefficient as all heck.

But until we convince Pennsylvania residents to drag this state, kicking and screaming, into the 20th (not the 21st) century, "them's the conditions what prevails."

I look for that to happen right about the same time Beetle stops aggravating Sarge, or whenever "Beetle Bailey" is funny --- whichever one comes first.

. . .

Tube City Community Media is committed to printing viewpoints from residents of the McKeesport area and surrounding municipalities. Commentaries are accepted at the discretion of the editor and may be edited for content or length.

To submit a commentary for consideration, please write to P.O. Box 94, McKeesport 15134, or email jtogyer -at - gmail -dot- com. Include contact information and your real name. A pen name may be substituted with approval of the editor.

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Feedback on “This 'Network' Isn't Even Mad as 'Heck'”

I very much agree with your assessment of Lord’s stories. I tried very hard to get to the meat of the issue, but where was it?

I kept looking for a summary, a nut graf, that could tell me in a few sentences why it was important that I read the series, which obviously took loads of work.

In the end, the series was little more than a literary diorama: look here; now look over here; now back there in the corner, take a look. Vaguely interesting stuff, but no match for an abbreviated lunch hour stroll through Carnegie Museum’s reptile hall.
Prof. Bag O'Wind - September 18, 2010

Bram Reichbaum of The Pittsburgh Comet disagrees with me:

I agree with what has fast become the conventional wisdom that there was no fire revealed in that last round of reportage, and maybe even that there was no smoke — but the ducking of so many key interviews is making the floorboards feel awfully warm. And when the floorboards are that hot, it suggests it’s not so much time to head back to the fire house and play cards, but rather to take an axe and vent a room.
Webmaster - September 21, 2010

And my response to Bram:

I don’t doubt that your floorboards are warm, Bram … in fact, this whole process makes me hot. I think matters of the public interest should be handled by elected officials who are accountable to the voters, not by private companies accountable only to their investors.

But although I don’t like privatizing public services, I’m not convinced it’s nefarious —- and how is “The Network” described in the P-G any different from the tight-knit network of defense contractors that provide services for federal agencies such as NASA?

Companies such as Lockheed and Boeing are connected to the government, lobbyists and their competitors via revolving doors. I don’t like that, either, but it’s been happening since at least the Civil War.

The Risha story was very different. It made serious accusations that someone in public office wielded their power to deprive other people of their livelihoods, and misused public money for personal gain.

As for some of the same people showing up in both stories … well, that’s hardly a surprise. The Pittsburgh region is a small, very insular area, and people tend to stay here for a long time.

I tried like hell to read between the lines of “The Network” stories, but while some of the practices (as described in the stories) may be annoying or distasteful, I couldn’t make them seem illegal or even particularly unethical. Maybe there was a lot left out, and if more information comes to light, then I’ll revise my opinion.

Webmaster - September 21, 2010

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