4-15-2004 Mob rule?

The mob has many heads, but no brains.--Thomas Fuller

As a longtime Wilkes-Barre resident, there are those days when I wonder aloud what life free of chaos and tumult would be like. With the election of Tom Leighton and his "Council of Cooperation," I thought things might actually run smoothly and relatively quiet for a couple of years until the next mayoral election tussle arrived. I mean, I fully expected some unforeseen bumps in the road, but I never foresaw our road to a better future being washed out completely by a failed candidate for office that can't seem to let it go.

What a way to start one's day. I mixed some milk and bran flakes in my favorite bowl, turned on this 'puter gizmo, and had a smoke while my bran flakes got good and soggy. And I ripped that ink-stained rubber band off of the Leader only to learn that Walter Griffith, our "activist" manic falsetto himself, is still firmly committed to bedeviling the members of our city council. We've still got our last referendum question bouncing from court to court and we're waiting to see if we'll be voting by districts and reducing the size of council, and now, Walt wants to give us something else to consider in a city that qualifies for Act 47, distressed city status, right this very moment.

Just when we thought it was safe to venture out and sweep the gutters in front of our houses, one of the self-annoited "activists" who can't manage to get themselves elected have struck again. Which is not to say that Walter doesn't have a few valid points; it's just that we elected nine people to manage this city and he was not one of them. Referendum questions certainly have their proper time and place, but "we the people" can't run out looking for signatures on a petition every single time we get a June bug up our asses. We elected those nine people and if they ignore the wishes of their constiuents, we can just as easily un-elect them soon enough. And I don't think we need Walter to save Wilkes-Barre all by himself. With all of that said, let's explore Walter's proposed changes.

Let's begin with the excerpt from Walt's letter to council published in the Leader today:

The letter reads in part: "I am writing you this letter to let you know myself, other citizens of Wilkes-Barre and business people are very disgusted with your effort in office so far and we are not in the month of May and all you have done is raised our taxes up by 20 mills, raised and added new nuisance fees and basically cut services to the citizens of the City of Wilkes-Barre."

Right off the top of my blockhead comes "poppycock." We needed two TANs totaling $14.1 million just to proceed past "Go" without collecting $200 just to begin this fiscal year with a balanced budget. And those TANs have to be retired later this year. Taxes were raised for a very good reason. And many of those "nuisance" fees he refers to have not been raised since the '80's. Act 47, remember? And then there's the services that were supposedly cut. Like what, Walt? The city calendar and the clutter clean-ups? What this ridiculous snippet suggests to me is that this guy is hell-bent to unleash a vindictive vendetta against our council and little else. What were they supposed to do? Rubber stamp another la-la land budget and end yet another year in the red? We cut services? Who are we trying to appeal to here, the SAYSO vote? We all knew going into 2004 that changing Wilkes-Barre's sagging financial situation for the better was not going to be a cakewalk and that's an understatement.

We've got one activist crying that we're taking on more debt, while another activist screams bloody murder because we desperately needed to raise revenues. It seems to me that we're very fortunate that neither of those two won the seats they sought last year. It's a noble undertaking to attempt to hold your local elected officials accountable, but it'd sure help if the snarling watchdogs knew what the heck they were talking about in the first place. Besides, with our recent past as a guide, even if Walter acquires the necessary signatures and puts his lengthy questionaire on the ballot at some point, the county will probably forget to publish the required "plain english" version anyway, which would likely result in even more court challenges. Whoops! Welcome to Wilkes-Barre.

Let's get into the meat of Walter's proposed questions which haven't been properly worded yet. I'll use the questions as written by the Leader reporter.

1.)Should part-time council members be entitled to health-care benefits?

I know calling these folks part-time is a bit unfair at times being that they have their ears filled all the time by us common folk, but the fact is, being a council person (gender neutral) is not a full-time job in a traditional sense, and no one could be silly enough to suggest that it is either physically, or mentally demanding. You need some business acumen, some common sense and extremely thick skin to be an effective council thingie (also gender nuetral) and that's about it. Should they receive health-care benfits? No way. Not on your life. This is a perk that needs to end.

2.)Should the city's pension policies be changed to require longer terms of service?

For the folks breathing soot, or chasing criminals through dark alleys? In a word: Nope. The most dangerous and physically demanding jobs need some steady turnover to ensure that some younger, more physically fit folks are always included in the mix of the first responders. For the remainder of the city's full-time employees, retirement benefits paid after only twenty years of service is downright generous and does not reflect what goes on in the private sector. You know, the sector that shows a profit.

Should years of service spent in a part-time capacity count towards retirement benefits? Sure. Provided that you're willing to one day bankrupt your employer. And Wilkes-Barre already qualifies for distressed city status as things stand. How about those kids we hire to cut the grass during the summer? If they hang for around for twenty summers, should we provide them with retirement benefits? Why go to college at all? Get a city job as soon as you finish high school and you can earn a pension by your 38th birthday.

How about a person who serves eight years on council and then eight years as mayor? The mayor's job IS a very mentally demanding job when taken seriously. Should they receive a retirement package? Not if they leave the city in the dismal condition that our previous mayor left this city in. How about building some performance clauses into it? Balance the budget every year and you earned that pension. Is that too much to ask?

3.)Should elected officials' raises be set by ordinance with the stipulation they not take effect for a period of six months?

Let's revisit the Leader article:

Then there's the matter of raises, which are based on the lowest negotiated pay increase for members of the city's four unions.

Griffith says that policy provides little motivation for the mayor, who negotiates union contracts on behalf of the taxpayers, to hold the line on raises.

"If the mayor knows he will get a 3 percent raise if the union he is negotiating with gets a 3 percent raise, what incentive is there for him to work to lower that?" asked Griffith.

Asked what would prevent council from enacting an ordinance granting elected officials a 10 percent raise under his plan, Griffith said he is optimistic the ballot question - its wording yet to be finalized - would include a cap on raises.

Our mayor is in no position to be granting liberal raises to anyone at this critical juncture. If he didn't qualify for a raise this year he would be the happiest person in Wilkes-Barre with our finances being what they are. Trust me on that claim. If we're so worried about a potential conflict of interest, why not just set raises for the mayor and council at 3% per year, no matter what, and leave it at that. The only other stipulation being that if the employees didn't recieve a raise for any given year then neither would the elected folks.

Quite a few people have suggested that our council should serve in their positions with no compensation at all, i.e., not even drawing a salary. Knowing how many directions they can be pulled in at any given time, I say that's total bunk. Pay them their $12,000 per year, a measly (given the responsibilities) $250 a week, and demand a whole bunch better from them than we're used to receiving in this city. If they can't deliver-hook 'em on election day.

My purpose for running for council was not to enjoy any additional benefits.--Bill Barrett

BINGO! We have a winner!

I'm not suggesting that anyone currently calling city hall home should forfeit anything they've earned under the existing system. They should be "grandfathered," but future elected officials should receive compensation that is more in line with what we can afford and what makes financial sense from a business standpoint.

As far as Walter's proposed referendums are concerned, I agree that we need to make some changes to the compensation paid to the folks at the top of the political food chain, but I do suspect that his motives for trying to jam these changes down their throats at this time amounts to little more than political grandstanding and maybe even a bit of ill-conceived and ill-timed payback. Expect to see his name on the ballot again.

So, what do you think? Are you kiddies up for some more turmoil? Is that what we need more of right about now? If nothing else, Walt will have the pages of SAYSO buzzing right quick.

This promise appeared on Walt's election season door hanger that was left here without so much as a knock on the door:

I will be a watchdog for you in City Hall and will represent the entire city, not just downtown.

But...we denied him that watchdog position at City Hall when we voted in November. And now, he's gone and claimed it anyway. Some folks just refuse to submit to the will of the people. I think he ought to take his petitions and jam 'em where only a June bug might nestle.

If ya' want change, get down to some council meetings and demand it. If you're summarily dismissed as an annoying gadfly, remember that on election day. If you want to manage his city, consider a run for elected office. Governing this city by establishing a "Referendum of the Month Club" will only serve to replace our elected officials with mob rule. Is that really the way we want to go? Mob rule?

Oh, dag flam it anyway! No goll dern "I hate Bush" on the radio other than Kevin Lynn's daily nitpicking disguised as an objective opinion? Goll dern!

Liberal radio "network" dying--already!

From the e-mail inbox:

*******Dude...I'm supportive of this idea, and going to purchase a flag myself. As far as the flags being desecrated, well, that's nuts. We have seen the flag truly desecrated and should know the difference. The only thing that bugs me to any extent is the fact that the flags were made in Taiwan. That is worse than the Vets story. Just my thoughts.*******

Taiwan, huh? Doesn't that just figure? I read where the company that makes Radio Flyer wagons, those little red wagons we all rolled a few times while growing up, is shipping it's manufacturing operations overseas. On top of the obvious loss of jobs, it saddens me to learn that a trusty old American icon will be imported back to us. Although, I guess folks in other countries have the same gripes from time to time. How many Americans make a decent buck manufacturing Japanese and German cars right here in what's left of America? This "global economy" muckity-muck is truly confounding most of the time, heyna?

God! Those vets pissed me off with their needless bullsh*t. Did it come across that way?

Hey! Jersey Dude has chosen to weigh-in on the parking ticket imbroglio now that he's a wanted man. From the e-mail inbox:

*******Well I just put in another 12 hour day in the crazy world of Manhattan real estate. I guess if they are going to come looking, I better start paying up. I will not, however, pay them all at once. I am trying to start my real estate business up and I can barely afford rent at this point. I need the number so I can call whoever I need to call to get these tickets taken care of. It's sad that Wilkes-Barre has to do this, but I understand that the city is broke. These guys need to realize the parking problem around that campus that existed before Franklin St was made into a driveway. Think they will go for a payment plan??*******

Dude, I saw your poster at the post office this morning. Call 570-821-4103 and leave a message. J.J. will get back to you eventually. Keep it short just in case they try tracing your call.

I found this to be very interesting reading. Why would a union boss ignore the party affiliation of half of his members and endorse a particular presidential candidate? For the aquisition of power and money, that's why. From the e-mail inbox:

*******Fired Up

The only union that stood by Kerry is now sitting pretty.

By Michael Crowley

John Kerry had many a lousy month last year, but September was particularly grim. Howard Dean had just spent the summer pile-driving Kerry's poll numbers into the ground. Wesley Clark was finally joining the race--in part because Kerry had largely been written off. Even Kerry's hometown paper, The Boston Globe, ran a Sept. 16 column titled, "Hard to Pull for Kerry." But one man pulled for Kerry anyway: Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Resisting the Dean allure that captured some of Washington's biggest union leaders, Schaitberger insisted Kerry remained the Democrat with the best chance of beating George W. Bush, and on Sept. 24, announced that his union was endorsing the Massachusetts senator.

Endorsing Kerry turned out to be the easy part. As Dean stampeded farther and farther ahead that fall, other union leaders needled Schaitberger with questions like, "How does it feel to be on the Titanic?" But Schaitberger stood firm. Late one night in November, his home phone rang. It was Kerry. "Harold, listen," the battered candidate wearily began. "There's going to be a very bad Zogby poll coming out tomorrow," Schaitberger cut him off. "John, save your energy. You don't have to worry about me." Firefighters honored a code of brotherhood and loyalty, he said. The IAFF would stick with him no matter what the polls said.

That unwavering support proved critical to Kerry's stunning comeback. Throughout the primaries, Kerry never missed a chance to offset his stiff patrician image with the blue-collar credibility of firefighters. Kerry appeared at dozens of IAFF-organized "firehouse chili feeds" across New Hampshire, in which he ladled out spicy slop and talked politics with locals. In Des Moines, Iowa, he played hockey with local fighters. And on the night of the State of the Union in January this year, he conducted an ABC interview from a Concord fireman's living room. In both states, hundreds of firefighters also helped turn out voters and post signs. Kerry made no secret of his gratitude. During his victory speeches in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Virginia, television viewers saw the same tall, mustachioed man just over Kerry's left shoulder. That was Harold Schaitberger.

Now Schaitberger is the envy of all those other union leaders who wrote off Kerry and leapt onto the "Dean Express." "He's certainly in the catbird seat," says one official of the AFL-CIO, of which IAFF is a member. "He was right--and nobody else was." Earlier this year James Carville predicted on CNN that a Kerry nomination would make Schaitberger "the most powerful person within organized labor."

A few days before John Kerry delivered his Super Tuesday knockout punch to John Edwards, I stopped by Schaitberger's downtown Washington office to see how he was feeling about his charmed standing. In a reception area hung framed photos of soot-covered firemen, as well as an eerie image of the World Trade Center ruins with an American flag in the foreground: a reminder of the day that forever changed the emotional force of the word "firefighter."

The first thing I noticed inside Schaitberger's office was a giant "AFL-CIO SUPPORTS KERRY" novelty pin behind his desk; it's the room's center of gravity. Schaitberger himself is a big man with broad shoulders and thick hands. In a pinstriped suit with his silver hair combed back neatly, he has the polished look of a K-Street lobbyist. He sits in an armchair, and when I ask him what he tells those people who once snickered at his support for Kerry, he smiles knowingly. "Sometimes less said is more said."

But Schaitberger isn't usually one to hold his tongue. After Tom DeLay named him in a February 2003 fund-raising letter that accused "union bosses" of "exploiting the war effort to quietly grab more power," for instance, Schaitberger fired back with invective worthy of, well, Tom DeLay: "Frankly, it was deceitful and insulting for you-- who chose to battle water bugs and cockroaches during the Vietnam War instead of serving the nation in some useful capacity--to now cloak yourself in patriotism and flag-waving," he wrote. Later, Schaitberger showed me a photograph of himself riding on Air Force One with Bill Clinton, who, like Kerry, enjoyed and profited by the support of the firefighters. Whereas most people boast of giving presidents influential advice, Schaitberger said he was griping to Clinton about various administration policies, and seemed proud of the irritated look on Clinton's face. "What do you think is on his mind? He's thinking, 'This guy comes on my plane and gives me a boatload of crap!'" The notion clearly delighted him.

Schaitberger learned to be fearless the hard way: running into burning buildings. Fleeing a troubled home in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Annandale, Va., at age 17 in 1963, he moved into a local firehouse with the permission of a firefighter who became a father figure to him. "At that point, I knew that's all I wanted to do." When he was 20, Schaitberger lied about his age to meet the county fire department's minimum age of 21, and soon after he was fighting blazes. He says he faced no more danger than any other fireman, but remembers one particularly perilous blind leap through a closed window, his only way out of a burning house. In the late 1960s, Schaitberger grew active in union organizing. By 1973, he was running the Virginia firemen's union, and a few years later he joined the national union in Washington. He spent 12 years leading the IAFF's political wing, 12 more as the association's office chief of staff, and was elected president in 2000. Leading a union of 263,000 members, the 16th largest among AFL-CIO unions, Schaitberger hasn't been as prominent as some other labor leaders. But his early support for Kerry, coupled with the ill-fated endorsements of Dean by Service Employees Industrial Union chief Andy Stern and AFSCME's Gerald McIntee, may change that. Indeed, in March, Schaitberger was named a co-chair of the AFL-CIO's newly-formed 2004 election strategy committee. Kerry's deputy campaign manager, Steve Elmendorf, says, "He's going to be a key surrogate and a key person in terms of our relationship overall with labor."

Important as firefighters were to Kerry in the primaries, they'll mean even more to him this fall. Their blue-collar credibility should help to blunt the charge that he's a liberal elitist, particularly among working-class swing voters. Their patriotic heroism should also deflect GOP smears that Kerry takes his advice from Jane Fonda. When Bush rolled out ads featuring footage of the aftermath of 9/11, for instance, the Kerry campaign had Schaitberger denounce the ads as tasteless.

Of course, George Bush isn't about to cede the mantle of firefighter's hero. The Bush campaign ad replaying the president's bullhorn speech atop that Ground Zero rubble pile, with his arm slung around a retired fireman, is probably being edited now. "I know that picture very well," Schaitberger says ruefully. Schaitberger says he also fully expects Bush to roll out firefighters for "staging opportunities" at the Republican convention in New York this fall. Such imagery will make Schaitberger's life complicated--especially given that 44 percent of his union membership consists of registered Republicans, people who "tend to be very strong for the military, national defense," as he puts it.

Schaitberger says some of his conservative members grumble about the Kerry endorsement. But he argues that Bush let them down after 9/11, by refusing to deliver enough "resources"--federal dollars, that is--to firefighters nationwide. (Among other things, he says, firefighters are tired of "half-assed, outdated, or uncertified equipment.")

Kerry has promised to use federal money to hire, equip, and train 100,000 new firefighters around the country--a program modeled after Bill Clinton's COPS program for police officers. It's a great campaign plank, but the public-policy benefits are murkier. More than two years after September 11, it's still not clear how much training and equipment is truly needed by local first responders, and measuring the benefit of federal spending isn't easy. It's possible that a President Kerry could reward his firefighter backers by pouring endless federal dollars down a black hole.

Certainly, Schaitberger won't hesitate to let Kerry know if his members aren't getting everything they need. His office is just a short stroll from the White House. The thought brings a grin to Schaitberger's ruddy face: "It won't be very hard to go over and say hello."

Michael Crowley is an associate editor at The New Republic.*******