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For Peduto administration, transparency is still a work in progress

"For transparency to be meaningful, it has to apply to matters that are important."

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Nine months after Bill Peduto took office, he stood in council chambers and touted one of his young administration's chief accomplishments.

"Our proudest moments this year may have been in promoting government transparency, and proving our ability to listen," he said, echoing a consistent refrain of government openness.

But while some observers laud his first-year efforts at improving transparency, others say he's fallen short.

"I think you have to go give kudos to [Peduto for] being more open than his predecessor," says Vic Walczak, legal director of the state American Civil Liberties Union. "But that was a pretty low bar."

Ask Peduto administration officials about how they have opened city government and they'll tell you about the "Mayor's Night Out" town-hall meetings, where top city officials gathered from Carrick to Homewood to listen to residents' concerns.

"We have the administration out in the community with no agenda," says Kevin Acklin, Peduto's chief of staff.

They'll also tout the "Talent City" program, an independent process to keep nepotism at bay when selecting top city employees, and "Open Data" legislation that promises to provide easy access to everything from pothole locations to building-permit data.

Then there's the mayor's online public schedule, a clear divergence from former mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who was notoriously absent from city hall.

Bill Peduto talks to reporters on election night in November 2013
  • Photo by Heather Mull
  • Bill Peduto talks to reporters on election night in November 2013

And while virtually everyone agrees these are worthwhile initiatives, experts argue the real test is how open the administration is in releasing information that might make the city — or the mayor — look bad.

Transparency isn't about "whether his calendar is posted on the website," Walczak says. "For transparency to be meaningful, it has to apply to matters that are important and potentially embarrassing to his administration."

And by that standard, observers say, the Peduto administration's record is decidedly mixed.

Last June, for instance, a Pittsburgh police officer punched and arrested a teenage girl who wound up in a confrontation with a group of protesters at PrideFest.

Peduto promised a swift, 30-day investigation and hired an outside firm to review the incident. Eighty-one days later, the city issued a statement exonerating the officer. City officials refused to release video evidence that helped clear him, or even to name the outside agency hired to help city investigators reach their conclusion.

To Don Friedman, a Democratic political strategist, that was "an absolute mistake. The city hires a firm and we taxpayers aren't allowed to know who it is? That's not transparency even at a rudimentary level." 

Friedman also criticized a recent decision to require all city police officers to sign a document stating that information "confided in me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret, unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty."

"You can't be a progressive leader by taking away the First Amendment rights of anyone," Friedman wrote in an email. Walczak noted his own concerns, saying the requirement could chill whistleblowing activity that can bring to light fraud and abuse. "It's pretty clearly unconstitutional," he adds.

Acklin, Peduto's chief of staff, defended the decision, saying that it merely reaffirms existing policy. "The intention is to maintain the integrity of the crime-investigation process." Officers, he adds, "are always free to make complaints to [the Office of Municipal Investigations]," the city's internal-affairs unit.

Even more recently, the administration has taken heat for failing to disclose donors for the mayor's December appearance on CBS' Undercover Boss — where Peduto doled out roughly $150,000 to financially struggling city employees, saying he couldn't use "taxpayer dollars." Though the donors were revealed about a month after the show aired, public dollars were, in fact, solicited. As much as $50,000 could come from VisitPittsburgh, a taxpayer-supported entity.

"It's kind of hard to give him a very positive reading" on transparency, says Gerald Shuster, a communications professor at the University of Pittsburgh, citing the Undercover Boss flap. "He's done things that give him all the appearances of 'I desire and am attempting to provide transparency,' [...] but in reality that's not what's happening."

Still, the Peduto administration has earned praise from the open-government-promoting Sunlight Foundation, specifically for its passage of an "open data" bill. The measure is designed to "[set] the city's default to open" and give the public access to city information from crime statistics to building-code violations in a flexible, electronic format that can spark app development and promote rigorous examination of public information.

Though some data is available, City Controller Michael Lamb says it will take additional resources to form the data into a releasable format. Lamb thinks more publicly available data is good for the city. But, he says, "it's one thing to have a bill. The real question is, 'Are you going to put the resources behind making the data available?'"

For his part, mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty points to efforts including a roughly $20,000 contract with OpenGov that is meant to give the public better access to operating budget information and a $1.8 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

The grant will help form a partnership between the city, county, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon to "standardize data formats; better track public spending via performance-based budgeting; and synthesize data on tax delinquency and code enforcement to better track problem property owners," according to a press release.

Acklin acknowledges that one of the hardest elements of promising complete transparency is the sometimes-frustrating pace of government.

"We inherited a city government that is siloed," Acklin says, "It's government, it takes time."

And for all the criticism, Friedman still gives the administration a positive assessment.

"[Peduto] has set himself up by raising expectations and then not being able to deliver as consistently as he had expected," Friedman says. "The good news is that he learns from his mistakes and will self-correct."

An earlier version of this story did not include details about grant and city money used to further open data efforts.

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