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

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(Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

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. But due to the high volume of comments on banning “less lethal” weapons, they were unable to read all 288 at the meeting, instead planning only to list the names of the 268 commenters in favor of the ordinance and the 20 against it.  

And by the time of the meeting, the majority of the comments were still missing from councilors’ email inboxes, according to at-large County Councilmember Bethany Hallam. 

“We were planning on bringing that legislation for a vote that night and couldn’t in good faith do so,” Hallam said. “For our staff to just not send them to us, and for us to be expected to vote on something without hearing them, is doing a disservice not just to us, but to the folks who took their time to have their voices heard.” 

Council President Patrick Catena wrote in an email to PublicSource that prior to the meeting, all council members were aware there were additional public comments that communicated the same message as comments that were already sent. 

The issue reveals the imperfections of public processes as many of the interactions between officials and residents have moved online — sometimes with added barriers. Throughout the pandemic, Pittsburgh-area government bodies have canceled meetings, restricted options for public comment, or instituted circuitous processes for accessing meetings. Residents say technological difficulties and lack of disability accommodations have also prevented them from fully participating in public processes.

Technology offers the “promise of ‘this is more accessible,’” said Bonnie Fan, an organizer and Carnegie Mellon University graduate student who is researching public access. “But also, it gives more tools for control to the government.”

Sunshine vs. ‘glomming’

Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, otherwise known as the state’s Open Meetings Law, mandates that government bodies — including boards, councils and commissions — ensure the public can attend and participate in meetings. Act 15 of 2020, which went into effect in April, instituted specific requirements addressing online meetings during the pandemic.

However, the execution of these provisions has varied across agencies. And some residents say the existing legislation still fails to guarantee unhindered access to public meetings.

When Pittsburgh resident Paul O’Hanlon attempted to tune in to a virtual City Operating Budget Forum in September, he said he was surprised to discover that the meeting hosts had disabled the chat function. 

Paul O'Hanlon, pictured in the summer of 2019, outside of his home in Regent Square. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Since the city was also live streaming the meeting on YouTube, O’Hanlon visited that site to check if the broadcast enabled a live comments section. It didn’t. 

“It seemed really odd to me that a public entity is holding a public meeting, and essentially filtering or shutting down public comment,” O’Hanlon said. “It seems that we, the public, should have the right to talk to each other at a meeting around something like the city budget. People should be able to hear what the neighbors think.”

The only recourse residents had to share their insights on the operating budget was to submit statements and questions beforehand, according to the original Sept. 10 Facebook post advertising the meeting. 

“I mean, that's kind of crazy, because if you're hearing a briefing on the complications of a city budget, how are you supposed to know ahead of time what questions you might have?” O’Hanlon said. 

City spokesperson Timothy McNulty wrote in an email that the City of Pittsburgh’s Law Department advised the city’s cable bureau to turn off the chat function for its meetings.

“During a City Council meeting this summer there was interaction over chat between council members and public commenters, which Law deemed to be problematic under City Code,” he explained, declining to elaborate on the interaction. 

Act 15 permits local government agencies to allow public participation either via email, postal mail, or the remote conferencing system used to hold the meeting. The state Office of Open Records wrote in an advisory that agencies would ideally accommodate all three methods, along with others.  Some agencies have fallen short of that ideal, and observers say these solutions are an insufficient substitute for in-person comments.

For instance, people wishing to make a public comment at an online county Board of Elections meeting had to submit their written statements in advance for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to recite during the meeting. But rather than read every individual comment into the public record, the board groups responses about a similar topic into one generic statement. 

“Let's say, 50 people submitted public comments about satellite voting locations,” Hallam, who also sits on the board, said. “As opposed to actually reading through the comments and seeing the different issues that people are bringing up and the specific concerns that they have and listing them, they lump them all together.”

Squirrel Hill resident Juliet Zavon argues that the board’s practice of “glomming” comments together blunts the power of individual, meticulously drafted statements, turning many potentially subtle, complex opinions into a few sentences.

"The specific issues that you raised are not highlighted, and they're not read,” Zavon said. “It takes away the foundation of making a public comment where somebody hears the whole thing.”

Juliet Zavon, pictured in the summer of 2019, is concerned that lumping comments together lessens their impact. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Assistant County Solicitor Allan Opsitnick said in a statement that with the ongoing pandemic, everyone, including the Board of Elections, has had to do “things a little differently.” 

Though comments are summarized when read aloud during Board of Elections meetings, “public comments – in full – are sent to all three of the board members and are posted online prior to the start of the public meeting, a process that provides greater detail and information on the comments than is possible during an in-person meeting,” he said.

“The subtlety or complexity of those opinions is available to all who take advantage of having these comments available, in writing, in advance of the meeting,” Opsitnick said. 

Unlike the Board of Elections, the Jail Oversight Board currently reads each submitted public comment out loud and verbatim during its meetings — if time permits. 

However, Laura Perkins, an organizer with Pennsylvania Prison Society’s Allegheny County chapter, emphasized the importance of public officials hearing people read their statements in their own voice. She questioned why the agency couldn’t allow residents to unmute themselves during the meeting to deliver their comments.

“Our tone of voice would be heard, which is extremely important, and how I pause between the words,” Perkins said. “I know that sounds kind of petty, but it really affects how my point is being communicated.”

County Councilmember Tom Baker said the online format of public meetings has also precluded the “serendipity” of casually conversing with constituents before and after in-person meetings begin and hearing their concerns in a less formal context. 

“One of the nice things about meeting in person is that we often got to know our constituents or other advocates that were there at the meetings by seeing them in person speak to us,” Baker said. “They could, from a physical proximity perspective, come right up to us afterwards, or chat with us a little bit before the meeting.”

Prior to COVID-19, public meetings also used to be prominent sites of protests, Fan noted. Activists and community members often congregated at meetings holding signs and wearing the same T-shirts to collectively demonstrate their support or opposition to certain measures.

“You also had people walk out and interrupt the meeting if they were dissatisfied, but that’s not really possible with Zoom anymore,” Fan said. “It's no longer a place where that kind of interruption can happen.”

Where is the (virtual) meeting?

Since meetings moved online, some agencies now require community members to register beforehand to receive the call-in information, rather than publicly posting meeting links on their websites or social media. 

For example, Rahul Amruthapuri, an organizer from Pittsburghers for Public Transit, said residents must now pre-register to receive information about attending virtual Port Authority of Allegheny County meetings.

Before COVID-19, anybody could freely walk into the in-person meeting to attend. 

“But now that's not the case,” Amruthapuri said. “You need to fill in a form online, or you need to call up the Port Authority’s customer service, and they provide you with the call number.”

Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph wrote in an email that the agency requires meeting registration as a safety measure to preempt “Zoom bombing” incidents.

“There have been multiple occurrences of video-teleconferencing meetings being hijacked or disrupted by pornographic and/or hate speech or threatening messages,” he wrote. “The FBI recommends password-protecting meetings to prevent that from occurring.”

But to even register for meetings, people first need to know where to look. 

Hallam and County Councilmember Olivia Bennett both said they have received frantic, last-minute emails from confused constituents seeking meeting details.

“I would like to see a little bit more push publicly about ‘here's our meetings, here's our links, here's how you make public comment,’” Bennett said.

One of Act 15’s provisions mandates that local government agencies provide “advance notice” of all remote meetings and how the public can participate, to the extent practicable. This notice must appear on the agency’s website, in a “newspaper of general circulation,” or both. 

The Office of Open Records encourages agencies to further use social media, email newsletters, and other methods to publicize meetings.

Many nonprofits and advocacy groups in the county often conduct widespread outreach to raise awareness of public meetings and facilitate participation beyond activist circles. But the pandemic has hampered traditional outreach efforts such as in-person conversations at government offices and transit stops.

And since many government entities host their meetings using Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, or Zoom, people without access to these programs, reliable internet, or phone service are automatically excluded from participation. 

“The people that we tend to speak to when we're doing that work are people who don't have internet access, people who don't have reliable phone access, and who overwhelmingly rely on transit,” said Toni Haraldsen, who volunteers with Amruthapuri at Pittsburghers for Public Transit. 

“So there's obviously a concern about losing those voices and losing that connection to those individuals because everything is so online right now,” she continued.

Do-it-yourself accommodations

Despite the challenges of government participation amid COVID-19, Amruthapuri said he hopes the necessity of online meetings will force agencies to rethink their approaches to public transparency when the pandemic is over.

“We are hoping that after everything settles down that some of these changes — for example, having an option to attend these meetings virtually or even having a phone-in option to the board meetings — continue,” he said.

O’Hanlon, who uses a wheelchair and co-chairs City-County Task Force on Disabilities, specifically acknowledged the increased accessibility of virtual meetings for those with physical disabilities who no longer need to travel to county buildings. 

At the same time, the switch to virtual meetings has also thrown agencies’ existing lack of disability accommodations — especially for people who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, or hard of hearing — into sharp relief, according to Haraldsen, who is hard of hearing.

The onus is often on residents to actively seek accommodations such as image descriptions, live captioning and American Sign Language interpretation.

“It's important for people to know that pre-COVID [meetings were] also not accessible,” Haraldsen said. “The pandemic didn't bring this about. In many ways, for many issues, it highlighted what was already happening.”

As the Pittsburgh area continues to weather the pandemic, Bennett said government entities must take stock of lessons learned amid COVID-19 and make concerted efforts to dismantle remaining barriers to public access. Especially during times of crisis, public officials cannot afford to lose community voices, she said. 

“We want to make sure that people are coming along with us,” Bennett said, “and they aren't being left behind as we are claiming and depending more on technology now more than ever before.”

PublicSource summer editorial intern Emma Folts contributed to this story.

Amanda Su is a PublicSource editorial intern. She can be reached at amanda@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Emily Briselli.

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