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Council President Harris Defends City Work Near Her Home

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- When city workers plowed her street first, it wasn't hard to find some yelling favoritism.

And now a KD Investigation has found that was just one example of what some might call special treatment – something City Council President Darlene Harris denies.

"I work to help the people - not to help myself," Harris said. "I've never taken anything for myself."

But in 2007 when budget cuts demanded a reduction in city-wide paving, city contractors paved Buente Street in front of Harris' house, List Street behind her house and Brahm Street leading up to her house at a cost of $86,088.

Harris concedes she lobbied to have the work done because she says runoff water was flooding the properties of her neighbors.

But that wasn't the only work done that year.

Harris co-owns a house on List Street with her mother and in November of 2007 the city built a retaining wall just above it. The job involved 35 yards of concrete, 50 tons of stone and steel beams at a cost of $22,043.

Harris also concedes that she requested the work, but not for herself or her mother. She says erosion threatened the road and imperiled people living down the street with medical conditions.

"If community asks me about something and it's life threatening, I am going to make sure it's done for them," Harris said. "This had nothing to do with my mother living down in a valley."

Guy Costa who was public works director at the time defended the work and denied that Harris had special influence even though she was council public works chairperson at the time.

"She's a wonderful woman and I have a lot of respect for her but it wasn't like we did any special treatment," Costa said at the time.

But it didn't end there.

At Harris' request in February of 2008, the city condemned the house next door to hers and even though it takes an average of four years for the city to tear down a condemned structure, the city demolished this one and graded the lot just eight months later at a cost of $8,275.

Still, she claims no special influence.

Harris: "I don't hire and fire in this city and I am not over the employees, I'm a legislator."

KDKA's Andy Sheehan: "But you have influence and it appears that when you see problems right within eyesight of your house that somehow these problems have been remedied."

Harris: "Well, if I have that much influence, then the rest of the houses in my district should be torn down."

Which seems to be the point. Why is work being done near Harris' home and not in other places?

Harris produced a lengthy list of houses that have been torn down in her district, but a quick tour of Spring Garden found many other condemned houses which have been awaiting demolition for years.

"Did I put that house in right next door to me? Yes, I did. Just as I put every other house in," Harris said.

In total, the city has performed $108,406 worth of work around Harris' house in the past three years and the current public works department director says Harris' influence seems clear.

"Obviously being the chair of the department and putting a request in for services – I guess that has some undo influence on the decision," Public Works Director Rob Kaczorowski said.

To the end, Harris maintains that she has not benefited from her position.

"I have been honest and I have my integrity and people have known me for 35 years for getting the job done."

About that lot next door – Harris has applied under the city side lot program to have it annexed to her property.

Under the program for annexing vacant city-owned properties, Harris would pay $200 and basically double the size of her present property.

Harris says she's just taking advantage of a program that is open to all citizens.

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