The city of Pittsburgh, 1907

“Who would not wish to be proud of his city; to boast of the honesty and efficiency of its government; to point to its civic advancement and betterment; to speak with pride of the public officers’ devotion to the public service; to believe that the public moneys were applied for the public’s good; to know that the city’s property was conserved for the city’s use; to realize that the people’s rights were safe with the people; to be assured that the people’s will was obeyed by the people’s choice; to feel a civic consciousness of love and pride and confidence in the greatness and goodness and accomplishment of his city . . . . ?”
– A. Leo Weil, 1908

First, on behalf of everyone at Bill Peduto for Pittsburgh: Happy New Year, Pittsburgh!

At this time of year, we look forward with great hope for a New Pittsburgh and we also reflect on how far we’ve come. One hundred years ago, Pittsburgh was the eighth largest city in the United States. It was also a city rife with graft and corruption. One man was instrumental in changing that and his name is A. Leo Weil.

A. Leo Weil was born in Virginia in 1858. He started his education in a log cabin schoolhouse in Virginia and attended high school in Titusville after his parents moved to Pennsylvania. He went on to study law at the University of Virginia and was an attorney in Bradford, PA for seven years before he moved to Pittsburgh in 1887. In 1898, he built a house at the corner of Howe Street and Highland Avenue. Mr. Weil was one of the founding members of Rodef Shalom Temple and his grandmother served as president of the Columbia Council (now the National Council of Jewish Women). Weil was also a prominent member of the executive committee of the Voters’ Civic League — which is where our story really begins.

Back in the early 1900’s, Pittsburgh had a bicameral City Council — “Select” and “Common” — with 100 members in total. Council members were unpaid and apparently many were quite willing to supplement their non-salary by doing the bidding of any and all industrialists. At the time, the city was ruled by machine politics — only then it was Republicans in power. From historian George Swetnam (via the Post-Gazette’s Brian O’Neil):

“For two full generations, almost without a break, the city was in the grip of one or another faction of the most cold-blooded and vicious political ring that ever ruled an American city.”

At one point, City Council was set to turn then Grant Street (now Bigelow Boulevard) into a railway. Weil wrote on that issue:

“In the City of Pittsburgh, immediately upon the grant of a franchise to build a street railway on Grant Boulevard, the value of the franchise was appraised by street railway experts at $3,000,000. The city received not one cent for this grant. The value of the franchises in the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, granted without compensation to the city, would . . . far exceed the public debt of those cities; probably would amount to more than double such public debts…”

Yes, that would be licensing a public asset to a private entity — with enormous profits for them — and it would have necessarily changed the character of the city of Pittsburgh had it gone through. Weil and the Voters’ Civic League put a halt to it.

A few years later, Weil “was a moving force behind the cleanup of the City depositories bank scandal (with help he personally entreated from President Theodore Roosevelt).” In 1910, Weil helped set up a sting operation as part of his investigation of corruption in City Council. Again, from O’Neil:

“Mr. Weil also brought in a Scranton private eye who posed as a lumber baron who wanted to pave the city streets with blocks of wood. He invited council members into his hotel room at the Fort Pitt Hotel (then at the corner of 10th and Penn). He bored holes in doors of his room so witnesses could listen to every bribe he received for the scheme to pave Fourth Avenue from Grant to Market Street.”

[snip]

“[S]ome 41 Pittsburghers — council members, bankers and industrialists — were indicted for corruption.”

The scandal led to a new city charter act in 1911, which replaced the Select and Common Councils with a single Council of nine members. It was signed into law by Governor John K. Tener.

This week — 100 years since the inception of the nine member council — our current City Council has unanimously declared 2011 to be “The Year of A. Leo Weil” in the City of Pittsburgh. You can read their proclamation here: 2011-1277.

And, you can thank A. Leo Weil for his tremendous contribution to the ideal of Good Government.