The city's Citizens Police Review Board marks its 15th anniversary in November … but reaching its 16th birthday may require it to sue Pittsburgh City Council.
The seven-member board, which investigates complaints of police misconduct, lost three of its members in June and July. As a city ordinance requires, Executive Director Beth Pittinger notified council of the vacancies. But at the CPRB's Sept. 25 meeting, Pittinger said council has failed to do its part by nominating the correct number of replacements.
Without new board members, the board will be nearly crippled: Unless all four current members attend a meeting, then the board cannot meet, due to a lack of quorum.
"Unfortunately, this is the most pressing issue we face right now," Pittinger told the board. "The work of this board risks being disrupted with just four members."
Pittinger asked the board to authorize its solicitor, Robert Ridge, to investigate filing a writ of mandamus to force councilors to comply with their own laws. If successful, Pittinger said, the writ "will compel them to do what they are legally required to do" — through court order, if necessary.
"The viability of this group is now at risk," added Ridge. Should Ridge find that a mandamus action is viable, the board has authorized its chairman, Ralph Norman, and Pittinger to make the final determination to move forward with the action. The board did so in case it does not have a quorum at its October meeting to act on Ridge's recommendation.
If the board does not have a quorum, all complaints against city police officers would sit in limbo, without action. For example, the board has an investigation pending on the Jordan Miles complaint against three city officers and has also planned a public hearing in November to examine police procedures that have come into question following the Miles case. Without a quorum, those cases would be on hold indefinitely.
This is not the first time there have been concerns about board turnover. In 2010, amid a dispute over the board's attempts to investigate the city's handling of the complaints following the G-20 economic summit, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl touched off a firestorm by replacing five board members who'd been serving on expired terms.
The mayor controls three appointments to the board; council appoints the other four members — including the three who stepped down this summer. Under the new rules, once notified of a vacancy, city council's nine members are to form three, three-member subcommittees. Each sub-committee submits one nominee for each opening to the mayor, who then selects one person for the vacancy. If the mayor fails to act within 30 days, council can then make its own choice.
Council was required to send nine names for the three vacancies. But on Sept. 11, council sent just two names, Misi Bielich and Paul S. Homick, to the mayor. Ravenstahl has not acted on the appointment resolution — and Pittinger told the board that, because council's submission doesn't meet requirements, Ravenstahl "has no duty to act on this resolution, nor does he merit criticism for ignoring it."
Council President Darlene Harris, who is in charge of forwarding the names to the mayor's office, told City Paper that she is working on finding candidates. She said she originally had three names to send to the mayor's office on Sept. 11, but one nominee withdrew.
"Because of the time constraints, I went ahead and made the decision to send over the two names that we have," Harris says. "Now the mayor has until Oct. 11 to choose one of those names."
Harris says it would "not be a fair assumption at all" to say council is neglecting the board. Instead, she said, she was handling each appointment one at a time. That way, if one candidate is passed over the first time around, their name could be resubmitted for the other vacancies.
"Do they want us to send nine names to the mayor at once?" Harris asked. "I'd rather send three names at a time of people who want to serve." She hopes to have three more names to submit to fill the second vacancy by Fri., Oct. 5.
As a general rule, Pittinger says, that would be "a sensible way to approach" the process. "The problem is that those names should have gone to the mayor [in August]. We are so behind with just four members that the preservation and integrity of the board is in jeopardy.
"We're just worried about this board's future," she adds, "because we have such a fragile structure."