In 2016, Keystone Crossroads, the statewide NPR affiliate, did a story on the Open Government Amendment as part of a statewide review of government openness. Their reporter, Margaret Kraus, found nothing in or outside Pennsylvania that did as much. Her conclusion: “It puts citizens in the middle of government.”
An eventful summer
OpenPittsburgh.Org got a late start with its petitioning last summer. After filing suit in Federal Court in July and a preliminary hearing in August, we were able to obtain an injunction allowing us to use out-of-state professional canvassers. The court issued its order only two hours before our petition filing deadline, but, fortunately, it included a 6 day extension. It took a few days to regroup and bring in a couple dozen out-of-state reinforcements. Having the pros on the job, though, in just three days we collected enough signatures to file over 12,000 with the Allegheny County Division of Elections; we needed 7,582 signatures in order to file.
Then, much to our chagrin, a local judge, who had earlier expressed his personal dislike for the Amendment's citizen involvement process, removed the referendum a couple days before ballot content was sent to be printed. Fortunately, what seemed at the time to be a disastrous setback instead actually turned out to be a fortuitous opportunity which we used to revise the Amendment to create a new, independent Open Government Office that will be responsible for implementing, overseeing, and administering the various aspects of the City's open government practices.
The new independent Office of Open Government
The mayor's chief of staff deserves acknowledgement for making us keenly aware that open government responsibilities need to be under the purview of a new, totally independent office rather than being under the mayor. Iin order to ensure the Open Government Office maintains maximum independence, rather than having its Director be appointed by partisan politicians, the Director will instead be a non-partisan elected position for which candidates run individually without the nomination of a political party. Under the state Election Code, any referendum that would create or change how an office is elected must be done separately. So this year we are circulating 2 petitions stapled together, each having a different Open Government Amendment question. When you see one of our canvassers, you'll be asked to sign both.
The new Open Government Office will work with all areas of City government -- including its various boards, commissions, authorities, etc. -- helping them implement and carry out the Amendment's provisions. It is to be responsible for developing instructional materials; conducting training; performing reviews of current and future policies, practices, processes, and procedures to assess their compliance; and helping city personnel honor and live up to the spirit and intent of the Amendment. Some responsibilities related to Open Government now under the mayor will be moved to the Open Government Office, most notably the handling of Right To Know Law requests that are now administered by the Law Department.
Pittsburgh would finally get an Ombudsman
In addition, the Open Government Office will serve as the City's Ombudsman. For those not familiar with the concept, an Ombudsman is a position common in Europe and other US cities and states. A number of non-profit organizations and for profit corporations also have an ombudsman. Offices of ombudsman accept complaints and concerns that people have about their respective institution and, in turn, investigates them, helping to resolve the problems and making recommendations for changes to avoid their recurrence. Ombudsmen can also investigate problems they come across on their own without an outside complaint, and they review ethical concerns that arise. Interestingly, the creation of an Ombudsman position was part of the original City Charter when it was first written in the 1970's, but, inexplicably, it was removed shortly before it was placed on the ballot for ratification.
A welcoming host for Proactive Public Participation
Finally, and possibly most importantly, the Open Government Office is to be responsible for establishing, maintaining, and supporting the public participation body that the Open Government Amendment creates. Officially called a Citizen Advisory Panel (CAP), its purpose is to provide those who don't have a conflict of interest with an opportunity for meaningful involvement in the City's governance. It was primarily the CAP to which Margaret Kraus of Keystone Crossroads referred in saying the Amendment will put citizens in the middle of government.
Your help is needed
OpenPittsburgh.Org encourages you to support the Referendum Initiative by signing both of the petitions for the Amendment questions and donating to help fund our petitioning effort. We need over 8,000 valid signatures of Pittsburgh registered voters in order to put the Amendment questions on the ballot. Your signatures and donations will help us succeed in the remaining weeks of the petitioning period.