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Open Season 

David Tessitor is at it again. The longtime local activist -- who has also launched several third-party campaigns for political office -- is back with a renewed push to get the Open Government Amendment on Pittsburgh's November ballot.

Tessitor is a fixture at Pittsburgh city council meetings and community-organizing events. He's probably also one of the few candidates for office in Allegheny County to ever brag about appearing at a debate in a wardrobe that cost less than 20 bucks.

But then Tessitor has never been very interested in niceties. "It's all for the appearance," he says while scraping the cheese from his crock back into his French onion soup with apparent disdain. He makes the same complaint when you talk to him about merging the city's government with the county's.

Tessitor prefers his politics as transparent as possible.

His Open Government Amendment -- for which he is seeking 10,000 signatures in hopes of getting it on the ballot this fall -- has two broad aims. First, it seeks to make public information (such as government contracts or pending legislation) more readily available, largely through the Internet.

Among other things, the bill would require the city to make information pertaining to legislative proposals available to the public prior to a vote, so that citizens can "evaluate, consider, and make comment" beforehand.

Second, the amendment would create a citizen advisory panel, an open-membership "public-involvement body" that would hold meetings and compile reports for city council and the mayor's office on issues of public concern. The panel's recommendations would be non-binding, though it could compel officials to at least attend its presentations.

Tessitor says such a panel would force elected officials to clearly explain their actions to the public. And it would provide a vehicle for citizens to get more involved in decision-making.

"What we found out 30 years ago with the environmental effort was that the people who get involved on the upper levels of things tend to have stepped in the first time because something got their goat," he says. "Their little bailiwick got stepped on and they dug in, and then they found out, 'My gosh, it's not just this.'"

The advisory panel could even "provide another avenue for the creation of quality candidates," Tessitor adds, "rather than the party process, which is scratching the backs ... until you get in place and then you get the nod, in which case you're compromised all the way."

One of the challenges Tessitor's amendment faces, however, may be its chief advocate's own wariness about compromise.

The Open Government Amendment first appeared in 2005, when Tessitor and other reformers made a failed effort to secure enough signatures to put it before voters on the November ballot. In the wake of the measure's defeat, Tessitor took a step that may seem strange for a believer in open access: In January 2006, he copyrighted the amendment itself, so no one else could tinker with it.

Tessitor says he had little choice.

Originally the president of the group that was organizing the petition-gathering drive for the amendment -- Pittsburghers for Open Government -- Tessitor stepped aside to run his own third-party campaign for mayor. (That campaign polled only 625 votes -- roughly 40,000 fewer than the winner, Bob O'Connor.)

When he tried to return to the group after the election, Tessitor says, "the treasurer said, 'No, we're not going to have you back. You'll be able to be an adviser.'" In order to protect the spirit of his amendment, he says, he had it copyrighted. "For me not to have any say whatsoever in a rewriting, which could totally gut it, I felt that was not fair."

Celeste Taylor, who at the time was the coordinator of the Open Government Amendment petition drive, remembers things differently.

"I never understood the copyright thing at all," says Taylor, who currently serves as vice-chair for the Black Political Empowerment Project. "To me it's absurd. ... I think David started going through difficult times with trusting other people and ownership issues that made it difficult for him to interact with people."

Tessitor has a political style that can agitate even his allies. "I've always allowed people to be upset with me," he says. "You just have to say things sometimes." And he acknowledges that he can be unyielding "on certain things. ... I will not compromise away the public interest."

But sometimes compromise -- or at least being willing to work with a coalition -- is in the public's interest, Taylor says. After the campaign's 2005 defeat, she says, she thought that "if we were able to get a little more resources and pay people a stipend and just start earlier and organize it differently, that we could have done it the next time.

"And that's when things fell apart, because Dave just got difficult and [started] talking about proprietary issues."

Moe Coleman, the director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics, says Tessitor's status as "a political operative" could prove a stumbling block in the amendment's path.

"It doesn't help to have a major referendum that's controlled by a contender," Coleman says. Tessitor has run for office several times, Coleman says, and while his motives are "probably good," the average voter or politician "looks for conflicts of interest, and they may just be perceived [conflicts], but they will be perceived."

What's more, Coleman adds, an amendment isn't necessary for Tessitor to achieve his goal. "The idea of how we effectively use the Internet to provide information to this generation ... I think is a good idea," he says. "But I don't know why you need to have a referendum to do that."

Last year, in fact, the city clerk's office unveiled Insite, a Web-based service that puts legislation, council agendas and minutes online. But Tessitor says this new system still has holes that can be used to keep the public out of the loop -- such as pieces of legislation that make reference to other reports without displaying the relevant texts.

"City council has made some strides, compared to the past," Tessitor concedes. "They have made strides, but it's not far enough. There's a lot more that needs to be done."

And while he agrees with Coleman that, legally, "[n]one of this needs an amendment," politically speaking, "it isn't going to happen without it." He adds that the Open Government Amendment remains largely unchanged since the last time he attempted to get it on the ballot, yet many of the proposed changes haven't been addressed.

As for his future political ambitions, Tessitor flirted with the Democratic Party in 1998, when he considered a run for county executive. But he backed out before the primary, and has been a persistent critic of both major parties. He won't rule out a future run -- especially with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl supporting a merger of the city government into the county's, something Tessitor opposes -- but says that for now, he's focusing his energy and efforts on getting the amendment to the ballot.

He'll be doing that without the same backing he had in 2005. Taylor, for one, says that while she will sign Tessitor's petition and speak in favor of it, she won't be circulating petitions or playing a role in the organizing.

Tessitor says he's the first to admit when he's wrong, but he makes no apologies for his manner. "I know of no other way but to be sincere," he says. And then he adds with a laugh, "Some people think I'm crazy."

 

To view the full text of the amendment, visit www.openpittsburgh.org.

click to enlarge David Tessitor hopes to get his Open Government Amendment on the November ballot. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • David Tessitor hopes to get his Open Government Amendment on the November ballot.

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