"We've been putting this in front of [city] council for two-and-a-half years now," says long-time activist David Tessitor, about his efforts to place an "Open Government Initiative" on the November ballot. "But they never paid attention to it and we've never heard back."
Tessitor, working under the name PANDA (Pittsburgh Area New Direction Alternative), hopes he'll be able to gather the requisite signatures to put the proposal to a vote. The Open Government Initiative would change the city's home-rule charter to set up a citizens' advisory panel. The panel would place a representative at every city council meeting to participate in discussions in a non-voting capacity. The move would also require that public information and recordings of public meetings be placed on the city's Web site.
These two changes alone, Tessitor says, would allow citizens to have a clearer picture of what exactly their public officials are doing.
"We have one instance after another where our government officials have tried to sneak things past the public," says Tessitor, who points to the city's plan in 2002 to sell the publicly owned library buildings to the Carnegie Library board for $100 each, an option that was buried in building leases. "They have created an illusion of openness by putting some information forward to the public, but it's not nearly enough."
Both Tessitor and Celeste Taylor, whose group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is also supporting the initiative, say they are aware of cries that it will slow down the process of government. That should only happen in cases where it needs to slow down, says Tessitor. Good legislation will fly through the system faster, he says, while bad legislation will be held up to allow for proper scrutiny and, if it's truly a bad deal, to be killed.
Neither council President Gene Ricciardi nor President Pro Tem Jim Motznik were available for comment by press time.
"When I'm asked why we need this, I can give a lot of reasons, but the most obvious is because this city is broke and that surely didn't happen overnight," Tessitor explains. "And worse than being broke, this city is broken."
More volunteers than the current 30 have to step up to get the required signatures, Taylor says, which number in the hundreds after less than a week of neighborhood canvassing. The group has until Aug. 9 to get about 9,000 signatures of registered voters.
"We're trying to make this fun and empowering and not just a bunch of people bitching and complaining," says Taylor. "This is a good city, but council is too closed off from the citizens."
Contact Celeste Taylor, 412-628-7867 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or see www.openpittsburgh.org.