Political sewer: Is the PWSA really serious about professionalism?

March 8, 2012 12:00 am

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The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority is looking for a professional firm to manage the agency on an interim basis and make recommendations for its long-term future. We've got a suggestion: Don't hire employees based on their political pedigrees.

The authority recently issued a request for proposals for management advice that has the laudable goal of identifying the best industry practices for an enterprise that supplies 65 million gallons of water to its customers per day. That was one step forward, but the authority has taken two steps back with the decision to hire former city councilwoman Tonya Payne as its new safety manager.

Ms. Payne started her new, $64,000-a-year job Monday after state Rep. Dan Deasy, who is chairman of the authority's board, recommended her. She'll be responsible for managing the authority's safety program and injury claims as well as monitoring GPS units in authority vehicles.

The position has been vacant since 2009, and Ms. Payne's background doesn't include any particularly relevant experience for it. While on city council, though, she was a reliable ally to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, which appears to be her real strength in winning the PWSA job. The mayor selects its board members, subject to council approval, and they hold the power.

She is not the first council member to lose a re-election bid and wind up with a job at the water authority. Len Bodack, who lost re-election in 2007, two years before Ms. Payne was defeated, is a maintenance supervisor there now.

It's hard to believe these two individuals just happen to be the most qualified candidates in the city for jobs at the authority.

Ms. Payne, who was president and CEO of the nonprofit Uptown Community Action Group before she joined city council, has had a political career defined by retribution. She was fired as executive assistant for former city councilman Sala Udin and came back to defeat him for the District 6 seat in 2005. Four years later, R. Daniel Lavelle, an aide to state Rep. Jake Wheatley, beat Ms. Payne and she turned around and ran against Mr. Wheatley, unsuccessfully.

The PWSA faces many challenges right now because of aging infrastructure that causes frequent backups and flooding, and it has been without an executive director since Michael Kenney quit in December 2010 during a consultant's investigation of conflicts of interest. Choosing employees based on their political connections undercuts efforts to get this agency moving in the right direction. That's not fair to the customers who pay the system's bills.


First Published 2012-03-07 23:07:35

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