More than two decades ago, as a member of the Citizen Advisory Panel of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission, local activist David Tessitor says he uncovered some serious issues involving the allocation of federal transportation funds.
“There was a lot of transparency. We had such a handle on what was going on,” Tessitor says of the advisory panel, which was granted access to monitor the unelected SPC responsible for directing billions in state and federal transportation- and economic-development funds. “[The SPC] never listened to us, but we were able to find out about a huge amount of improprieties that were going on.”
Now, he’s hoping a similar advisory group will have the power to uncover misdeeds at the city level. Over the summer, Tessitor’s group, Open Pittsburgh, secured the necessary signatures to put a referendum on the ballot that would amend the city’s home-rule charter to set up a citizens’ advisory panel and implement other policies to increase transparency.
But after a challenge by the city, the ballot measure now sits in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court awaiting a ruling by Judge Joseph James. Both parties believe the case is “cut-and-dried.” But with the November election quickly approaching, the battle over the referendum has proven anything but.
“It’s about as cut-and-dried as World War II,” Judge James said during an Aug. 31 hearing.
The Open Pittsburgh referendum has a long history. Tessitor and other supporters first tried and failed to get it on the ballot in 2005.
“This time we had some funding, and we ended up hiring out-of-state petitioners because they were professionals who could go out,” says Tessitor. (The use of out-of-state petitioners has been contested by the city.)
And Tessitor says the high-profile nature of the upcoming presidential election could help the ballot measure succeed.
“This seemed the perfect time to do it. The large turnout of having it in the general election would help,” says Tessitor. “We’re also going to tell people this is a reason to vote if they’re thinking about not voting. The presidential race, while important, is top-down.”
City officials and Pittsburgh City Council representatives say they support the spirit of the referendum, but not the multi-page amendment that accompanies it. And they worry voters will be misled.
“The substance of the referendum sort of sounds fine. It basically says, ‘Do you support open government?’” says Kevin Acklin, Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff. “The problem is it is companioned with a fairly large document that would fundamentally undermine the basic structure of city government, creating an unelected group of overseers.”
The amendment includes 35 pages of provisions for making open records and government meetings more accessible. Under election law, the amendment must be condensed to a 75-word referendum question on the ballot.
“I don’t mind being open with the public. I don’t think anyone’s opposed to being transparent with where money’s spent and why we’re doing certain things,” says Councilor Corey O’Connor. “All of our legislation is on the clerk’s website. Budgets are online as well. All of that is good government, and people should know where some of these things stand. There’s a lot more open government going on in Pittsburgh right now.”
But the city is especially concerned with the sections of the amendment related to the creation and operation of a citizen’s advisory panel. The amendment would give the panel a voice at city council meetings and require all new legislation or amendments to be presented to the panel before introduction in council, among other requirements.
“I don’t know all the details of it,” says O’Connor. “I have no problem with open government. But what I’m gathering from this is it would basically summon the mayor and council members at any time of the day or night on any subject.”
But the advisory-panel component of the referendum is key, says Tessitor.
“People often think of transparency as being open government, but you also need notification and public participation,” Tessitor says. “If you don’t have any way to interact with the government, that’s ineffective too.”
Judge James asked both parties to file briefs on the matter by Sept. 6, but another hearing on the ballot measure has yet to be scheduled.