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LED Sign Flap

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Pittsburgh council sets aside flap over electronic signEdit

By Jeremy Boren, TRIBUNE-REVIEW, February 20, 2008

Pittsburgh City Council waylaid Councilman Bill Peduto's attempt to investigate how city planners approved a 1,200-square-foot electronic sign without a required public review.

Peduto's motion to turn council into a "quasi-judicial board" that could publicly question Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Planning Director Noor Ismail and others failed to muster support from his colleagues and was set aside for a post-agenda hearing scheduled for Wednesday.

"I don't believe personally that you just jump into council conducting an investigation," said Councilman Jim Motznik, who opposed Peduto's motion.

At issue is why city Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko did not require the city Planning Commission's approval before issuing a building permit to Lamar Advertising Co. to put up a $6 million light-emitting diode sign on the $42 million Grant Street Transportation Center, Downtown. City zoning code requires a public hearing to be held when changes to a building's exterior would exceed $50,000.

Peduto said Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Pat Ford improperly influenced the approval of the Lamar sign.

Ford said he brokered a legitimate deal with Lamar that requires the company to pay $30,000 a year to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority to rent space for the sign and eliminate 1,400 square feet of existing Downtown billboards.

Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who represents Downtown, said no one has called her office to complain about the sign, which is under construction. The transportation center is slated to open June. 2008.

Council President Doug Shields said the sign's approval shows some in Ravenstahl's administration are willing to make "extra governmental" deals with private companies but would be afraid to talk about such deals under oath in front of council.

Outside of council's meeting, Ford said he would have happily defended the sign's approval under oath.

Ford said he discussed the Grant Street Transportation LED sign in 2006 with Shields. Based on a letter March 20, 2006, from Shields to Ford, Ford said he believes Shields supported the sign's installation.

Shields said regardless of whether he supported the sign, he doesn't support sidestepping a public vetting of the matter.

Peduto said the city's zoning code -- and other rules -- must be followed.

"(The rules) are what separate us from Soviet-era Russia," Peduto said. "You can't simply ignore them or say that they're a burden. They're not a burden, they're the law."

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