With the election of District 1 Councilwoman Darlene Harris to City Council president on Monday, Jan. 4, three of Pittsburgh’s top leadership positions are now occupied by Northsiders.
After a close 5-4 vote, Council President Harris joins Northsiders Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and County Executive Dan Onorato."I wasn’t directly out there looking to become council president," Harris said, "but I know they were looking for someone who could get along with all of council, someone who wasn’t in a camp."
Despite the close vote, Harris isn’t worried about her ability to lead a cohesive council body, because she said she doesn’t take sides, but instead votes on what she believes in.
"I believe I was trusted to take this position because I get along with everyone here," she added. "I’m determined that this body can function as a healthy body."
Harris said her new responsibilities will not affect her work on the Northside, and she cited $2.6 million in allocations she set aside in the 2010 budget for Northside groups and neighborhood projects, including those in Spring Hill, Troy Hill, various business districts and steps and fence improvements throughout the Northside.
"It’ll just be a little busier for me," Harris said, "but I have a responsibility also to my district and I intend on doing what I do on the Northside."
And while an under-funded city pension is an obvious choice for the most pressing issue Harris faces as council president, the Northside presents varied problems and challenges from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Concerning her district’s image, Harris blamed local media’s constant use of "Northside" rather than referring to individual neighborhoods for giving the area a bad stigma. She said she’s sent letters in an attempt to educate various media companies.
"Each of the neighborhoods are unique and have different needs. If you constantly use the [Northside] it looks really bad."
Even so, Harris mentioned a few universal problems, including drug activity and the violence that stems from it, as well as the need to revitalize business districts. City government has taken some steps to quell drug activity and violence, including grants from both Harris and former Councilwoman Tonya Payne for security cameras last year.
Harris is going to need a different set of strategies to deal with the pension fund problems. She said she didn’t believe a new tax was the answer, nor was selling or leasing city assets. Instead, she advocated working with Harrisburg to find a solution.
A large contributing factor to current financial ills is the 300,000 residential population that grows to 600,000 people during the work day.
"You can’t have 300,000 paying for 600,000 users," she said.
Although she hopes to work with and educate the state government on Pittsburgh’s population problems, she said there is currently no clear-cut solution.
Although the controversial tuition tax is dead, Mayor Ravenstahl’s proposal to lease the city’s parking garages remains on the table. Harris opposes this solution, because although the city would gain $200 million from the lease, it loses out on the annual parking revenues the garages bring in.
But Harris isn’t worrying about any of that today. On her 57th birthday, she’s expecting her first grandson and looking forward to becoming a grandmother.