Pittsburgh City Council on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a package of bills that primary sponsor Councilman Dan Gilman said will improve ethics and transparency in city government and municipal elections.
Ethics Hearing Board
One of the bills would overhaul the city’s ethics code, the main part of which is the revival of the city’s defunct Ethics Hearing Board, which is supposed to investigate accusations of misconduct among city employees and determine appropriate penalties for such misconduct. According to Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, the board hasn’t met since 2008 and has no current members.
The proposed changes are meant to provide a greater degree of separation between the members of the board and elected officials, including the mayor and City Council. Current city code calls for a total of five nominations from both the mayor and council, while Gilman’s proposal increases the board’s membership to nine and largely takes nominating power out of the hands of elected officials.
The new process would engage multiple groups, including the Allegheny County Bar Association, the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. These groups would nominate an individual to serve on the nominating committee, and then each member of the nominating committee would nominate a candidate for the actual ethics board. Candidates would be formally appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council.
Councilman Corey O’Connor expressed concern that the mayor and council president would each be able to choose a member of the nominating panel, saying he thought it possible that such a design could bring politics into a process meant to be apolitical.
“Traditionally council has liked to have an appointee to these groups so that they can have a voice heard,” Gilman said. “I would respect my colleagues’ general opinion; if they wanted to remove that in this case, I’d be happy to support that.”
While the proposal is meant to take the politics out of the process of appointing members of the Ethics Hearing Board, Councilwoman Darlene Harris said it makes the board more political than ever. Casting the sole no vote on the bill, Harris said she did not believe that the board was actually defunct as Gilman, Rudiak and City Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge had claimed.
“Politics reigns again,” Harris said.
Gilman pushed back against that claim, saying her opinion was “hard to even comprehend.”
The proposal would also provide for a part-time investigator and executive director for the board, and add legal protection for whistleblowers, which doesn’t currently exist in city code.
“It’s something that makes the city more transparent and more accountable,” said Sanchez-Ridge.
Campaign Finance Reform
Another bill would overhaul the city’s campaign finance regulations, something Council President Bruce Kraus said has been needed for at least eight years.
Gilman said his proposal would bring contribution limits in line with federal guidelines.
The plan also requires monthly reporting during the five months leading up to the election, and would prevent candidates from using contributions for another office. For example, if a candidate ran for city council and lost, he or she couldn’t then use contributions for a future run for controller.
“Under the current laws of (Allegheny) County, your first reporting is two weeks before the primary,” Gilman said. “So I could take an illegal contribution on January 2 and no one would know about it until early May. At that point, the damage is done.”
Again, Councilwoman Darlene Harris cast the sole dissenting vote, calling Gilman’s proposal “nonsense” and saying the changes further protected incumbents rather than paving the way for challengers.
“If you really want campaign finance reform, then let’s put a limit on how much the mayor can spend and how much city council can spend,” Harris said.
Gilman reminded Harris that in 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such campaign limits are unconstitutional.
A third bill that Gilman said continues the theme of holding government accountable would require the city to put various information and records online in a centralized location to improve public access.
These would include contact information for all city council members and city departments; the members of all city boards, authorities, and commissions; minutes and agendas for meetings concerning city council and all boards, authorities, and commissions; budget information; open records contact information and other information.
That bill also received preliminary approval.
Council will take a final vote on all three bills next week.