Thursday, February 1, 2007

Ethics Panel: February Thaw?

Deep Freeze Since 1992

he panel that's supposed to spearhead the city's ethics standards hasn't held one meeting since its five members were confirmed last July. My story on the situation aired last night.

Pittsburgh's Ethics Hearing Board has been in a deep freeze since 1992; for years it didn't have any members at all. The board is supposed to investigate allegations of misconduct by elected officials or city government employees. When the controversy over Twanda Carlisle's office practices peaked last year, the councilwoman's colleagues and the O'Connor administration said they were going to move quickly to follow the city's ethics law and revive the ethics board. Check out last spring's coverage on the Pittsburgh Channel.

Repeated checks with the Mayor's Office since last fall brought assurances the ethics board would meet soon. That was the answer from Mayor Ravenstahl when I asked again on Tuesday: "we just internally discussed; they are going to be meeting here in the very near future."

Two ethics board members refused to answer my questions about their failure to hold a single meeting. Two others were not returning my calls. I discovered that the fifth member--the only attorney on the panel--submitted his resignation to Mayor Ravenstahl weeks ago.

The resignation leaves a rabbi, a nun, a presbyterian minister, and a consultant to the Alcoa Foundation on the ethics board. During the past half-year, they haven't elected a chair or vice-chair, as described by city law. (You can see the city's Ethics Handbook here.)

Late Wednesday afternoon, ethics board member Sister Patrice Hughes did return my call. She says she's surprised that they still haven't been called together. Sister Hughes says ethics board members did make attempts to contact Mayor Ravenstahl. She said "apparently it's not a top priority right now".

The Mayor says "I think the transition period between the O'Connor administration and my administration is one reason, as well as the other issues that we face on a daily basis".

The Mayor's spokesman Dick Skrinjar now says the ethics board will meet sometime next week. He couldn't name the time or place yet, or say whether its organizing meeting is covered by the Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law. Sister Hughes told me she had not been notified of those meeting plans.

1 comment:

Judge Rufus Peckham said...

It is a shame that this panel seems to be viewed historically as little more than window dressing. While it would be easy to blame the current mayor for not treating it as a priority, as you point out the panel had been dormant for some time until the Carlisle affair raised issues the panel is supposed to deal with. The fact that there seems to be far more attention paid to the upcoming mayoral election, and to various blogs regarding it, is an indictment on City Hall's priorities. Unfortunately this doesn't seem to be the sort of issue that the public will be terribly concerned with, but we all should want this panel to meet, and to be active, as soon as possible.