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Doors close again on open government amendment

Once again, the November ballot will be closed to a proposed "Open Government Amendment." Its backer says the measure has failed for lack of signatures.

The referendum sought to increase civic transparency by making information more readily available, largely through the Internet. Its authors have struggled to get the measure on the ballot since 2005.

It would also create a citizen advisory panel -- which would make recommendations on the actions of Pittsburgh City Council and the mayor. Those recommendations would be non-binding, but the panel could at least compel city officials to answer for their actions at public hearings (see "Open Season," City Paper, July 16, 2008).

The Open Government Amendment's Web site (www.openpittsburgh.org) now confirms that organizers have missed the deadline to collect the required 10,000 signatures from voters for this fall's general election. It suggests, however, that they will make another push during "the next available petitioning period, beginning in January [2009] ... for next Spring's Primary.

"Since getting 10,000 signatures is an awful lot of people to talk to in a very short time," the site continues, "we need people to tell us in advance that they want to sign."

Beginning in mid-June, supporters of the amendment had seven weeks to collect signatures. David Tessitor, the local activist and sometime third-party candidate who wrote the amendment, reiterated that timing was part of the problem. "It's just a matter of getting the momentum going," he says.

Referendums not making it to the ballot has become a common storyline in Pittsburgh this election cycle: Two drink-tax proposals -- one to lower it and one to attach a property-tax increase to a lowered drink tax -- were tossed out this month by the Allegheny County Board of Elections, which decided that they were illegal.

But unlike the Open Government Amendment, the drink-tax proposals had no trouble with signatures. Anti-drink-tax organizers collected more than 40,000 signatures for the lowered tax referendum, and are appealing the Board of Elections' decision in court. (The property-tax referendum was submitted directly by county Council.)

Tessitor says he doesn't know how many signatures the Open Government Amendment got. "I can't even give you a ballpark," he says. "It wasn't a whole lot. I just knew we weren't going to get there."

He adds that he hasn't done any counting of signatures, and that once he realized they weren't going to get enough, organizers "pulled off a little bit earlier" than the deadline. Tessitor say he's going to regroup the amendment's supporters and determine when it will make the most sense to put the amendment back out there.

City Paper questioned Tessitor on exactly how close the measure got to 10,000 signatures and asked to see the petitions. But Tessitor was unable to provide copies of the amendment's signature list because, he says, the collected signatures are in at least three different locations, and he is busy with other responsibilities.

But without any help from a referendum, the city and county have already taken steps to increase transparency. For example, 10 years ago, a new county home-rule charter gave voters the power to put referendums on the ballot -- part of an overhaul of local government that, like the Open Government Amendment itself, was designed to make elected officials more accountable.

Still, Tessitor thinks that politicians haven't gone far enough. And he hopes that current upheaval in city government -- especially the high-profile resignation of Urban Redevelopment Authority Director Pat Ford -- will help spur renewed interest in his measure.

"Anything is going to have an impact if people feel there's a way that they can have a better handle on things," he says.

Joanna Doven, a spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, defends the administration's track record on reform by pointing out that the mayor has followed up on former Mayor Bob O'Connor's push to revive the city ethics board -- which had been inactive for years.

"Everywhere we can, we're creating a two-way dialogue," Doven says, adding that staff members attend more than 70 community meetings per month. "There's always someone from the mayor's office, if not the mayor, who is in the community and answering questions."

But Tessitor remains convinced that the Open Government Amendment is still necessary and attainable. "Nothing is stopped on it," he says. "It's just a matter of when it's ready, it's going to fly. ... All I can do is keep pushing on it."

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