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Arts, Sports & Culture

Lawsuit alleges Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto interfered with vote on removing Columbus statue

Columbus statue
Bill O'Driscoll
/
90.5 WESA
The statue of Christopher Columbus in Schenley Park remains wrapped.

The group suing the City of Pittsburgh and Mayor Bill Peduto to keep the statue of Christopher Columbus in place now alleges that the art commission’s vote to remove it is invalid because the mayor attempted to influence that vote. But the allegation seems to rest on a mischaracterized email from an art commissioner.

Attorneys for the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA) filed the amended complaint in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on Nov. 11. The ISDA first brought suit more than a year ago, after the art commission voted unanimously to remove the towering Columbus monument, in Schenley Park. A judge granted an ISDA request for an injunction to halt its removal, so it has remained standing but shrouded in plastic sheeting.

Critics of the statue cite the famed Genoese explorer’s enslavement of indigenous people and consider him complicit in genocide. The monument’s supporters argue it honors Italian-American heritage, and ISDA contends the art commission’s vote violated a 1955 city ordinance that enabled the statue to be erected in the first place.

The complaint filed Nov. 11 cites an email the ISDA’s attorneys found through its appeal to the state’s Office of Open Records for access to all communications and documents related to efforts to remove the statue.

The suit asserts that the mayor’s office, through one of its attorneys, worked “to ensure [art commissioners] vote as Mayor Peduto desired or else face retribution.”

“The process has been totally contaminated by Mayor Peduto,” the suit states.

The suit cites a Sept. 2, 2020, email that commissioner Sarika Goulatia sent to fellow commissioners, in which she referenced “the under[lying] threat the lawyer made implying that we would be fired if we don’t adhere to the wishes of the Mayor.” The ISDA’s suit claims “the Mayor’s Office contaminated the process by threatening the Commissioners to vote in favor of removal or be terminated.”

However, that reading might mischaracterize the email. Goulatia says that the “threat” that she referenced in the email alluded to a verbal dispute over the city charter that took place during the commission’s regular monthly meeting of Aug. 26, 2020, just a week before her email.

At that meeting, assistant city solicitor Lorraine Mackler told the commission that under the charter, it is the mayor, and not the commission, who has final say on removal of public artworks. Commissioners disagreed, citing the precedent of the removal of the Stephen Foster statue, in 2018. During the meeting, Mackler repeatedly emphasized that the mayor appoints the commissioners – who and are unpaid for their work -- and claimed he has the power to remove them at will.

But the matter of whether the commissioners would vote for or against removing the statue was not discussed at the Aug. 26 meeting, and at the time the mayor had not publicly expressed an opinion on removing it.

Goulatia declined further comment.

Attorneys for the ISDA, from the Philadelphia-based firm Bochetto & Lentz, did not return a call by press time.

The City of Pittsburgh has 30 days from the Nov. 11 filing to file preliminary objections. A city spokesperson said the city would file a response but declined further comment.

The ISDA’s suit is in the court of Judge John T. McVay, but has moved slowly. McVay attempted to facilitate a negotiated settlement but in June declared an impasse.

On Oct. 22, McVay issued a “joint consent management case order” which held that the statue would “remain in place and covered pending further order of court or by agreement of the parties. The parties have generally agreed to a ‘teachable moment’ and will continue to explore ‘teachable moments’ that can be presented to facilitate a possible settlement.”