If Rev. John Welch were the mayor of Pittsburgh, our city would be in a state of emergency over the lead crisis.
He said it would allow the city to receive state and federal aid and signals how seriously he views the problem and how much he cares about the well-being of Pittsburgh residents.
Mayor Bill Peduto “didn't do that because he didn't think the situation was severe,” Welch said. “[Clean water] is essential for life. I don't want to deflect from that [and say] look at paint and look at soil right now. We need to make sure we're delivering safe and clean drinking water.”
Unlike Peduto, who, according to Welch, is focused on governing the “next Pittsburgh,” Welch said he would govern “this Pittsburgh” and focus on a number of immediate issues. In an interview with PublicSource, Welch, who is a native of Pittsburgh, discussed not only his concerns over the city’s lead problems but also his current bid for mayor, how to make the city more equitable and how to improve police relations with the community. Outside of his 22-year career in computer technology and information systems, Welch is a lifelong activist, an ordained minister and is currently the vice president for student services and community engagement and dean of students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
As the May 16 primary for Pittsburgh’s mayoral election approaches, PublicSource wants you to have access to the candidates. Here, you’ll find a full, unedited interview with Welch (recorded live on Friday, May 5) as well as transcribed excerpts (slightly edited for brevity and clarity) from that conversation. You can check out this link to see our interviews with the two other candidates, Mayor Bill Peduto, who is running for re-election, and City Councilwoman Darlene Harris.
First, some key takeaways:
Welch said he supports the proposal for state law that would allow the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to replace lead water lines on private property.
Welch is in favor of a culture shake-up at the police bureau, but understands that officers need to be treated fairly. Alongside a greater focus on community policing, Welch said officers need higher wages and better working conditions.
He also said he would work with Pittsburgh’s universities to keep graduates in the city and help them find work at local companies.
On whether declaring a state of emergency over the city’s lead problems, like Flint did, would deter people from coming to Pittsburgh:
No, I think it'll let people know that we care about our residents...I don't think that would deter people from coming. But I think it's in the minds of this administration that if we sound the alarm with regards to lead, it’s going to halt migration into the city from people who want to buy these market-rate apartments and condominiums.
I wouldn't break up service lines. I would install a point of entry in which the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection approve these filters that run right off your water line. The solution the mayor is putting forth right now with these free filters, these pitchers, they only reduce lead, they don't completely eliminate it.
Sen. Wayne Fontana is working on [legislation to replace lead pipes] right now...but we're talking about the state of Pennsylvania, a state that can't pass a budget because of gridlock in the Legislature. So while they're working on that, I want to make sure that we're delivering safe drinking water to residents at this moment.
On how to increase affordable housing:
[Peduto] is moving to create a next Pittsburgh. We still have to fix this Pittsburgh. So I'm for using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.
But also I want to make sure that we properly apply the CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] monies that we have with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. So that's why I'm pushing for a full blown independent audit of the URA [Urban Redevelopment Authority] and the Housing Authority once I get in office.
[Welch said he would push for mandatory inclusionary zoning. He noted the national trend is including 10 to 30 percent of affordable housing units per project and that he would lean more toward the 30-percent end.]
We have 90 neighborhoods, and they're not the same but we need to put in whatever measures are necessary to retain the original fabric of those neighborhoods. We need to do whatever we need to do to make sure we put in place things that prevent residents from being displaced, be they renters or homeowners. So, right now, East Liberty is not the same as Fineview. It's not the same as Knoxville or Beltzhoover. So we have to take a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach.
On improving relations with the police:
Training will be my No. 1 priority, continuing what Chief Cameron McLay did and that was try to change the culture of policing in Pittsburgh. And the second thing I would do, part of that would be making sure that they're continuing to be trained on implicit bias. The third thing is make sure that we increase the diversity of the police department. It’s one thing to add numbers. I don't want to just add bodies to the bureau. I want to add a diverse group of officers to the bureau that exceeds the diversity of the city of Pittsburgh. And so only in doing those things can we improve police-community relations.
You have to start somewhere. And it's my understanding that all of the new recruit classes are getting trained on implicit bias. But it's something you can't just test once or train once and expect it to perpetuate or the effects of it to to be sustained without constant reminders, constant testing, constant training. So we need to build a system where that's going to be continually practiced.
We're not necessarily at the same point as we were when a federal consent decree was employed years back but we aren’t far from it. But if it were to be imposed here, I think it would help...I don't think they would respond well to it at this present time. I don't think they would respond well to it much like they don't respond well to the Citizen Police Review Board.
They don't like watchdogs. They didn't like an outside chief coming in and they are happy with the status quo. Now I'm not speaking for all. I can't be monolithic and speak for all officers and I'm only speaking for those that are aligned with the principles and values of the Fraternal Order of Police [the union]. But there is a majority of the bureau in the FOP.
On Uber and other tech companies coming to Pittsburgh:
We need to do due diligence just like everyone else needs to do their due diligence. I think the mayor was kind of happy to have a nouveau new vote technology coming into the city but it's been public for a while the type of culture that Uber has is very misogynistic. You have a CEO who is Machiavellian. They were operating in the state of Pennsylvania, violating Pennsylvania regulations. I don't know how many warnings the mayor needed to have, but he had Travis [Kalanick] on speed dial on his cell phone and then weeks later couldn't remember his name. So I think I found the mayor backpedaling on the situation.
I would take more care before allowing companies to come in or inviting companies in. I wouldn't let them come in until we've had a chance to talk. And so we can sort of ferret out what their intentions are, what their motives are. Ask the right questions about their operating work environments and, if we want to promote a diverse culture here in the city of Pittsburgh, a diverse work environment. One of the things I would be concerned about is what's the diversity makeup of the company and what's there. What are the diversity goals?
On bike lanes:
I've been critical of the mayor's priorities, his misaligned priorities I should say. But I recognize the need for safe cycling for protecting our cyclists but also pedestrians. One of the things that we don't have, our streets are not very well lit. Yet you have higher lumens in some neighborhoods than others. So if we want to promote pedestrian safety then we need to increase the lumens in some of our neighborhoods. So I understand why Bike Pittsburgh and other cyclists would like to have bike lanes. That's fine. We want to make sure people can cycle safely. We want to make sure people can walk safely. But also we want to make sure that we are putting them in place in ways that are not going to allow cyclists to get killed.
On keeping university graduates in the city:
Well so you have an organization like FAME [Fund for Advancement of Minorities through Education]. This is one small example which provides scholarships for minority students who go to private schools, and they work in partnership with other corporations to provide internships and then ask them to consider hiring them upon graduation from college. That's just a small model that I think can be scaled. And this is a matter of talking to our employers to look at considering hiring students who are in our universities because I want to create a retention matrix. We want our kids in our high schools to go to universities and colleges here in Pittsburgh. If they choose to. If they apply, we'd like for them to be enrolled. Once they matriculate, we'd like for them to stay in the city and work for companies here. So although this might sound Trump-ish with his America-first thing, I would like for us to consider hiring Pittsburghers for our companies and that way I think we can at least mitigate this hemorrhaging we're having in our population to some extent.
I think we can certainly build on the goodwill to do that. And you know we are. We have a statue in the North Shore of Fred Rogers. I would hope that his values would not just be limited to that statue over there. I hope it was something that we can spread throughout the city and be very neighborly both within the companies and in our neighborhoods.