Pandemic participation: Online government both enables and stifles access to public meetings in Allegheny County

When Allegheny County Council introduced legislation in June to ban police from using “less lethal” weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets, 288 community members submitted public comments. But by the intended day of the vote, the councilors had only received about 50. Pre-coronavirus, members of the public had three minutes each to share their thoughts in-person with the 15-member council at its meetings. Now, they must submit comments to councilors via an online form or email. That’s one of many ways that public processes across the Pittsburgh area have transitioned online during the pandemic, with in-person public comments becoming digital messages and legislative meetings becoming livestreams. Though virtual meetings have increased accessibility by eliminating the need for transportation and in-person attendance, many residents and elected officials say the coronavirus has posed new obstacles for public access and government participation. 

Comments submitted to county council are usually read aloud by staff during the meeting and forwarded to councilors in advance.

Amanda Papa, 33, of Coraopolis, was arrested during a mental health crisis in 2018. “The whole thing could’ve just been stopped, and we [would] probably pay the therapist way less than these officers, these courts, all the staff, all the records — everything." (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Resolved to change: Can Allegheny County behavioral crisis teams move fast enough to answer calls for reform?

Someone you love is having a breakdown. They could hurt themselves. Who do you call? If 911 leaps to mind, you’ll likely get a visit in a few minutes — from police, whose training includes behavioral health but is focused more on addressing criminality. If you can remember 1-888-796-8226 (or 1-888-7-YOU-CAN), you’ll get a mental health professional from resolve Crisis Services, a 13-year-old unit of UPMC hired by Allegheny County to handle behavioral incidents.