Pittsburgh public safety director hopes to ‘clean up mess’ on his watch
Facing an uncertain future, Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Mike Huss said on Thursday he would like to stay on board with Mayor Bill Peduto to finish cleaning up the mess left by the ongoing corruption investigation of city government.
“There’s no one more disappointed about what happened,” Huss, 46, of Lincoln Place told the Tribune-Review in an exclusive interview. “I believe, had I been in a position where I was in (city police headquarters in the North Side), that never would have happened. I believe that. It did happen on my watch. There’s no one feels worse about it than me. Nobody.”
But Huss said the public has no idea how difficult it is to effect change in a city where unions and arbitrators’ decisions control the workings of police, fire and emergency services departments.
The best way to reform public safety, he said, is to bring those departments under one roof and a watchful eye.
Such a change is under way. Operations chief Guy Costa confirmed that public safety bureau heads will relocate to the fourth floor of the City-County Building, one floor below the mayor’s office.
Spokeswoman Sonya Toler said Peduto had no comment.
Huss, at times emotional, said he came to work this year because he felt an obligation to taxpayers. He would not talk about former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s frequent absences or work ethic since announcing in March that he would not seek re-election, nor would he talk about the federal investigation. Ravenstahl could not be reached for comment.
Huss acknowledged taking on responsibilities beyond his job title for much of the past year, such as personnel matters, collective bargaining and policy decisions.
“You make the decisions that you have to, and you do what you have to do until someone tells you, ‘Don’t do that anymore,’ ” Huss said. “I didn’t think that was going to happen.”
He said he’s proud of making important changes — among them, training public safety employees in swift-water rescue, merging Wilkinsburg’s fire department with the city’s, and changing the police department’s secondary employment policy. But the police department needs leadership in a new chief soon, he said.
Huss said the investigation that led to former police Chief Nate Harper’s theft conviction helped force changes in the status quo.
He said Harper lied to him, “even up to the end.” Huss said he has not testified to the grand jury.
“I believe every step of the way, when I learned of things, I did what was appropriate and what was right and what the public, I think, would be proud of,” he said. “I’ll always have to live with that. It is what it is.”
Some problems within public safety predated his arrival in Pittsburgh in 2005 as the city’s fire chief, Huss said. He said police officers’ “outside employment” in private companies is the “next hot-button item” to reform.
Making changes is difficult in city government bogged down by bureaucracy and against unions that are among the first of their kind in the country, Huss said. He often worked on matters with unions because the city is down to a single labor attorney, he said.
“It’s been hard. I won’t lie to you,” Huss said. “And it’s tough to make changes in that place because many of them don’t want to make changes. They want to go on like they’ve done in the past.”
The job requires dealing with the “crisis du jour,” he said, and that can handicap top city officials.
“There are times you can’t catch your breath in order to dive in and evaluate things maybe to the level they should be,” Huss said. “So you rely on people to bring the hot-button issues to you. When people want to hide them from you, however, it becomes difficult.”
Harper pleaded guilty to diverting at least $70,628.92 from the police Special Events Office into secret accounts at the police credit union and using $31,986.99 to buy restaurant meals, alcohol, gift cards and other items.
The Special Events Office oversaw off-duty details, in which businesses and other organizations pay officers to provide security, and events that require permits and police presence, such as parades and marathons.
Huss said the scandal led him to examine best practices in other cities, and he thinks some reforms made to Pittsburgh’s police force could become “a model.”
Huss moved the events office from police headquarters, and in October announced a secondary employment policy that prohibits cash payments to officers and keeps some officers from charging a fee to schedule work for other officers.
“I want to continue that work. You kinda want to clean up the mess that happened on your watch,” he said. “I guess that’s probably my motivation, and that’s the reason I reapplied for the position.”
Margaret Harding, Carl Prine and Andrew Conte are Trib Total Media staff writers.