Update (11/1/23): The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Nov. 9 board meeting will be held at 2 p.m. in the August Wilson Conference Room at 412 Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown, with limited in-person attendance. Those who wish to register to attend in person or get details on virtual participation can find information here.
The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh board expects to resume in-person meetings in December, according to a spokesperson for the agency. The board is scheduled to meet at 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 14.
Reported 10/25/23: The Pittsburgh Public Schools board and the Urban Redevelopment Authority will resume in-person public meetings next month, following a PublicSource inquiry into the legality of ongoing virtual-only access to decision making at several area governmental bodies.
The City Planning Commission, though, has no immediate plans to return to admitting the public to its meetings, and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh did not respond to PublicSource’s inquiries regarding any plans to abide by the state Sunshine Act.
The school board’s legislative and agenda review meetings will admit live audiences, for the first time since 2020, starting in November, district solicitor Ira Weiss wrote to PublicSource this week. Members of the board and the public will also continue to be able to attend virtually, he added.
Weiss noted that the district adopted a virtual-only format under state legislation enacted in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The board’s approach up until this time has been in recognition of health concerns of board members and staff and was borne out of caution rather than any desire to avoid the legal requirements of public meetings,” Weiss wrote.
The board’s meeting today will only be accessible online, with board members present physically but the public only attending electronically, Weiss wrote. “The logistics of having public meetings involves advertising under the Sunshine Act, providing for security, and other set up issues which cannot be accomplished by the legislative meeting” today, he added.
Interest in Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] affairs could be heightened in the upcoming budget season.
The district has projected a $15 million operating deficit in 2024, a $6 million increase from this year. Federal pandemic relief funds are set to expire in September, potentially exacerbating the district’s financial difficulties.
The district has increased staffing even as it consistently loses students, leading to high overhead costs such as salaries and building maintenance. With 27 school buildings being less than half full, the district has resumed talk of school closures.
As part of its ongoing coverage of the district’s challenges, PublicSource has been seeking in-person access to PPS board meetings since late last year.
Last week PublicSource compared the public input and transparency practices of 10 City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County boards and commissions. One finding: Despite the fact that a pandemic-driven state law allowing that practice expired two years ago, some city panels were continuing to conduct virtual-only meetings.
“I was surprised by that, because it’s not been the law for quite some time,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, of which PublicSource is a member. “I was surprised to hear that there were still so many — and large — agencies holding virtual-only meetings.”
Following publication of the story on public input practices, PublicSource reached out to three city development agencies, plus the PPS board.
PublicSource noted, in correspondence to the agencies, that authorization for virtual-only meetings had expired, asked for any legal rationale for continuing that practice, sought a date for the return to in-person gatherings and indicated its intention to send a reporter to coming meetings. PublicSource asked each agency to respond by Oct. 24.
Virtual-only option expired in 2021
When COVID-19 shut down most in-person activity in 2020, the General Assembly passed Act 15, allowing (among other things) virtual meetings of public agencies for the duration of the public health emergency.
While temporarily justifiable, the results of online meetings were not ideal, said Melewsky.
“We had numerous examples of people being excluded because they simply do not have the technology to participate,” she said, or because the technology didn’t work.
Even when the technology worked, she added, virtual meetings fell short in terms of government accountability to the public. “It was very hard to gauge all of the non-verbal cues that go along with speech,” she said.
“It’s really easy for elected officials to just hit the mute button when they don’t want to hear what’s being said,” she added.
The emergency legislation expired in the summer of 2021.
Many agencies then shifted to hybrid formats, in which officials and members of the public can participate in person or online.
Melewsky said the online option has proved to be a plus.
“We very much support agencies expanding access, having their public meetings and streaming as well,” she said. “That’s good public policy, providing as many avenues of public input as possible.”
Renovations not a reason to bar public
Pre-pandemic, the Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA], City Planning Commission and Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] had offices and held meetings at 200 Ross St., Downtown. Since 2020, city development functions have moved to 412 Boulevard of the Allies. David Geiger, the URA’s director of government and strategic affairs, told PublicSource that the new location’s conference room continues to undergo renovation, and that a return to in-person meetings would follow the completion of that work.
Pittsburgh Press Secretary Olga George said this week that the city continues “working to have facilities so we can have hybrid commission and board hearings.”
Melewsky said that was a surprising, and legally insufficient, rationale. “If your regular meeting room is under construction, you need to find a different meeting room. It’s difficult to imagine that a large agency in a city as large as Pittsburgh couldn’t find another room in the city in which to hold in-person public meetings.”
This week the URA responded to PublicSource’s inquiries by agreeing to provide “limited in-person seating” plus virtual access at its November board meeting. The agency will release details by the end of this week, according to URA Director of Communication and Community Relations Tanika Harris.
The development agency “never intentionally operated in a place of non compliance,” Harris wrote in an email response to PublicSource. “We focused on making sure we were able to operate as efficiently as possible” and used technology to enable access for people who were unable to attend in-person meetings.
“We’re also experiencing issues with limited physical space available to us.”
HACP did not respond to inquiries.
The city development agencies face decisions which could warrant public input.
HACP is transforming Bedford Dwellings, in the Hill District, into mixed-income housing in a process that will involve relocating hundreds of households and spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Every other week, the Planning Commission votes on multiple proposals for new construction or renovation.
Melewsky said the state Sunshine Act, which requires open government meetings with some exceptions, provides mechanisms for citizens to compel agencies to comply.
“Anyone who believes the law has been violated has the right to pursue the civil or criminal penalties that are outlined in the Sunshine Act,” she said, by filing a civil lawsuit or making a private criminal complaint to the district attorney, who would then decide whether to file summary charges.
“It’s not without pitfalls for a government agency to play loose and fast with the rules,” said Paula Knudsen Burke, the Pennsylvania lawyer for the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Her office has worked with journalists to remedy Sunshine Act violations, typically sending warning letters and suing if they are not heeded.
“If agencies won’t follow the law there are ways to attempt to make them follow the law, including court action,” she told PublicSource. When the courts find a violation, penalties can include fines and mandatory training in the open meetings law.
Rich Lord is the managing editor of PublicSource and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at email@example.com.Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
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