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LGBT Issues: Mayor looking for 'GLBT Council' members

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After incubating the idea for almost a year, the mayor's office is taking concrete steps toward creating a board to advise the mayor on issues of concern to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community. The office has begun soliciting applications to serve on its "GLBT Council," the parameters of which are unclear at this stage in the game.

The council will be strictly advisory and will have no power to make legislation or any decisions about money. Indeed, its role is amorphous right now, but city officials say it will evolve on its own.

"The goal is to make the community's voice heard by the mayor," says Joanna Doven, spokesperson for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. "They have the pulse on the community, so the mayor can have his pulse on the community vis-à-vis this group."

"The mayor had wanted to reach out to the GLBT community. It's taken a little bit of time, as things in government do," said Gary Van Horn at an informational meeting about the council on Dec. 10. About 28 people attended the 5 p.m. meeting, including Kristen Baginski, Ravenstahl's deputy chief of staff.

The idea for the council, Van Horn said in a later interview, germinated in January. No action was taken on it, he says, because "nobody was stepping up to the plate and holding the feet to the fire." So Van Horn, who, as president of the Delta Foundation, a local LGBT business group, has cultivated a relatively close relationship with Ravenstahl, met with him about six weeks ago. "The mayor needed to fulfill his promise" of reaching out, Van Horn said. "We've seen in the last two years, he needs educated." For instance, he says, the mayor, without someone directly explaining it to him, might not have understood that without domestic partnerships, loving partners of 20 years might be denied hospital visits to one another.

The council will be comprised of 8 to 10 actively involved members of the LGBT community. Preference will be given to city residents, Baginski said at the meeting, and city employees are eligible.

"The committee will create their own bylaws," Van Horn said.

Other than that, the selection process is not clear.

Baginski said at the meeting that the applications, due Jan. 15, would be culled by herself, Van Horn and others in the mayor's office. But Van Horn said in a later interview "that was news to me": He said he hadn't realized he'd be on the selection committee until Baginski mentioned it.

How council members will be chosen "will be the mayor's discretion," Doven says. "I don't have any word on that."

As to how Van Horn got to be the de facto liaison for the LGBT community, Doven says "that's sometimes how things get started, perhaps he had a relationship with the mayor. I know that [Van Horn] has expressed concern to the mayor and he's had dialogue with the mayor."

Van Horn won't say if he plans to apply for a council spot himself: "That's to be determined. I want to see how this all pans out."

While the council has no official powers, some critics are concerned that members of the LGBT community with close ties to the mayor may have an advantage at getting on the board, raising concerns that influence could be bought.

At the meeting, blogger Sue Kerr, of the blog Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, asked if potential council members' campaign contributions would be made public. The issue has become a hot button in the comments section of her blog (www.pghlesbian.com).

"It's not pay-to-play," says Van Horn. He says that since the information is public, it's not important that council members' contributions -- like his own attendance at a $500 fundraiser for Ravenstahl -- be made public.

"That's sort of saying, well, you go get the information," Kerr said in an interview. "It's dismissing it as a concern. It would take, what, 10 minutes to disclose that information?" Kerr says that having contributed to the campaign wouldn't necessarily make someone an inappropriate candidate for the council, but there needs to be balance between supporters and non-supporters, and that small contributions are important to know about.

"We have to disclose by state [law] everyone's contributions to begin with," Doven later said when asked about disclosing campaign contributions. Campaign contributions over $50 are a matter of public record. "I can tell you that transparency is one of the mayor's platforms."

Applications, which can be emailed to Baginski at Kristen.baginski@city.pittsburgh.pa.us, must include a resume and cover letter explaining the applicant's activity in the LGBT community. Community members are also welcome to nominate others to be on the board rather than applying on their own behalf. The board could be selected as early as late February.

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