How Visible Does Pittsburgh's Mayor Need to Be?

Jul 3, 2013

Since announcing he would not be running for re-election, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has been operating largely outside the eye of the media.
Credit Larkin Page-Jacobs / 90.5 WESA

On March 1, Luke Ravenstahl made the surprise announcement that he would not run for re-election as mayor of Pittsburgh.

Since that announcement, Ravenstahl has all but disappeared from the public eye. And yet, in its day-to-day operations, Pittsburgh seems to be doing fine. Business hums along, the stop lights work, property taxes are paid and police patrol the streets.

So just how visible does Pittsburgh's mayor need to be?

Bill Peduto, District 8 city councilman and Democratic nominee for mayor, said he’s seen Ravenstahl just twice since February 1, and they work on the same floor and toward the same professional goal: helping the city succeed.

Peduto said Pittsburgh has done OK with what he calls a “mayor-in-absentia,” but he said he cannot help wonder what life would be like with a proactive mayor who visibly supported the community’s endeavors.

“If you’re able to get to this point without that much involvement, imagine what you could do with someone who was engaged and an administration around them that actually went out to get all these other things happening,” he said.

In June, Ravenstahl made a rare appearance at an energy efficiency news conference in Mt. Washington. He was swarmed by reporters wondering about his perceived absence and about a federal investigation that has beset his administration. Ravenstahl said just because he has chosen to limit his public presence, it doesn't mean he's not doing his job.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl speaks during an energy efficiency event in Mt. Washington in June. “Every day I’ve been in town, haven’t taken any vacation or gone out of town and continue to work and continue to do what is necessary to move the city forward,” Ravenstahl told reporters.
Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

“Every day I’ve been in town, haven’t taken any vacation or gone out of town and continue to work and continue to do what is necessary to move the city forward,” Ravenstahl said last month.

Ravenstahl did not respond to a request for comment for this report, but at the Mt. Washington event, he said interacting with the media is not his priority.

“You all think doing my job is talking to you," he said. "My job from my perspective is doing the job of the people every day,” Ravenstahl said. “That’s the oath I took, and I continue to do that.”

Audrey Russo, who heads the trade group the Pittsburgh Technology Council, remembers a time when she had a collaborative relationship with the Ravenstahl administration.

“I reached out to the mayor and we had a really good understanding and partnership, and I even had him over to my house where he met with executives and CEOs of tech companies, and they cranked at him and nudged him,” Russo said. “He was very accessible.”

But for past several months she said there has been a lack of engagement, and she has some questions she would like answered.

“What’s our performance right now?" Russo said. "What’s the deal with the pension issue? Are we remedying that? Is the Port Authority OK? As a really healthy city, everyone knows that.”

Russo said she wants to hear the city government speak up on local and national issues, from transportation funding to immigration reform, but she says the lack of a mayoral presence has left city hall silent.

Peduto said that silence belies the fact that Pittsburgh’s mayor has a long list of duties and responsibilities.

“Luke isn’t showing up on the other side of the hall, but it doesn’t mean things aren’t happening,” he said.

City Council can draft, debate and pass bills without the mayor weighing in. Without a veto from the mayor, legislation becomes law. Except Peduto said it is up to the mayor to implement the laws and make sure they are being followed.

“We pass legislation without the mayor doing anything routinely,” Peduto said. “Some would actually say that’s the course of Pittsburgh politics — the legislative branch creates the laws, the administration ignores the laws and the laws just sit there on the books.”

Pittsburgh does need a mayor to produce the city budget, and it has to be presented by the mayor rather than a member of his staff. But it is not due until the fall, when Ravenstahl is scheduled to make an appearance to unveil a spending plan on November 11.