Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thumb Blogging the Wecht Trial

Liveblogging. Everybody's doing it this week around the burghosphere. As you my have heard, I've been liveblogging Day One of the Wecht trial over on The Pittsburgh Channel --or, in this case, thumb blogging.

I coined that phrase last summer when I tried my hand (actually, my thumbs) at writing an on-the-run blog entry on my BlackBerry. For the Wecht trial, this involves quickly typing courtroom notes on the tiny device with my thumbs alone. In this case I was doing it while still taking conventional pen-and-paper notes.

During opening arguments, I was trying to capture a lot more of the sort of play-by-play detail that you don't normally get to read in a local court case. While I've gotten some good feedback on the results, I worry that someone coming across those courtroom posts will think a Bizarro World counterpart from the old Superman comic books has taken over my writing:

"Not need pronouns. Not need syntax."

So here's the deal. What you see in those blog entries from the courtroom are rough reporter notes: an attempt to capture key words and ideas for storywriting later. Jason Cato of the Trib was filing nicely crafted bloglike briefs for his paper's website, complete with good old subjects, verbs, objects, sentences and paragraphs. My laptop doesn't have a cellular modem, however; it's wifi only. That means I don't have the luxury of a full-size QWERTY keyboard for my live missives. My only vehicle for filing immediate updates from the courtroom is via the BlackBerry.

Later in the day, I managed to plug in my PowerBook and started typing my notes in there. I still can't file live from the laptop, but I might be able to synch from there to the BlackBerry occasionally, then e-mail the results.

Chris Twomey of the Pittsburgh Channel has set up a special web page for our Channel 4 Action News coverage.

I'll be back in the courtroom for Wecht Trial, Day Two.



Thursday, January 17, 2008

No Blogs For You?

Update: You can see my Channel 4 Action News report on this here. I spoke with Mayor Ravenstahl, his Press Secretary Alecia Sirk, city CIS Director Howard Stern, and Bram Reichbaum of the Pittsburgh Comet. The city officials laid out their case for this website blocking being the result of an update of their previously installed computer security software, and not a new program targeting blogs by content. They were gracious about my "No Blogs For You" post which appears below. (Of course, given the blog-blocking software, they might not have read it yet.) Now, my original post:

The PG's Early Returns reports that City of Pittsburgh government employees are now blocked from reading many popular blogs dealing with local politics. It says "the city's Internet security provider, Websense Enterprise, recently updated its settings to eliminate access to "social networking and personal sites". That would appear to include this blog. City employees, please confirm, if you can?

The story prompted me to do some googling about government blocking of access to websites.

• It seems that China, Iran, and Uzbekistan are among more than two dozen countries now blocking web content, says the Economist.

Civil liberties: freedom of speech
The tongue twisters

"In a study of the internet in 40 countries (excluding Europe and the United States), OpenNet Initiative, an academic think-tank, says that censorship of the internet has spread from just a handful of countries five years ago to 26 nations. Some—notably China, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Tunisia, Vietnam and Uzbekistan—are now blocking entire internet services such as YouTube, Skype and Google Maps."

Defense News reports that the United States Government is trying to help free the flow of internet information to closed societies like China and Iran.

U.S. Launches Internet Anti-Censorship Effort

The U.S. Congress is funding a modest assault on the great firewall of China.
The newly approved budget for the U.S. State Department includes $15 million for developing “anti-censorship tools and services” which could help Internet users breach electronic firewalls set up by China, Iran and other “closed societies.”

• The Washington Post reports that a re-energized Kremlin is now getting into the act.

Kremlin Seeks To Extend Its Reach in Cyberspace
Pro-Government Sites Gain Influence

MOSCOW -- After ignoring the Internet for years to focus on controlling traditional media such as television and newspapers, the Kremlin and its allies are turning their attention to cyberspace, which remains a haven for critical reporting and vibrant discussion in Russia's dwindling public sphere.

Back to the PG's Early Returns:

City computer supercop Howard Stern said there was no conscious decision to block the blogs, and that the change in security settings came down, uninvited, from Websense. That said, he agrees with the new blog-proof city system.

"They're untrusted Web sites," he told us. They can transmit viruses, he said, "and that could knock out the whole city."

I'm happy to say that I've never gotten a virus from a blog. Perhaps the new city policy will inspire some "viral marketing"... but that's not anything that will hurt you or your computer.

I can certify that The Busman's Holiday is 100% virus-free.



Saturday, January 12, 2008

Oh, The Things You Can Count: My Ethics Board Request

56 days after my third e-mail request, and

92 days after I first asked in person,

Pittsburgh's Ethics Board is still refusing to release its secret memo from the City Law Department. The secret? The Law Department's advice on how to obey Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act--the law mandating that meetings be open to the public.

My fourth request was answered within two hours on Friday--not by the Ethics Board itself--but by City Solicitor George Specter.

You can read Specter's letter below, in a separate post. Soon, I'll be blogging a closer look at the elements of the Law Department's response...and how it relates to the issues raised in my requests.



Ethics Board Request: The City Solicitor Answers

City Solicitor George Specter

Here's the City Solicitor's response to my requests to the Ethics Board.

January 11, 2008

Bob Mayo
400 Ardmore Boulevard
Pittsburgh, PA

Dear Mr. Mayo:

Thank you for your recent inquiry to Sister Patrice Hughes and the members of the Pittsburgh Ethics Board regarding the Board’s compliance with the Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. §701 et seq. However, in the future, I would ask that you direct all further inquiries in hard copy to my attention.
Please rest assured that the Board has received instruction about the purview of the Act from the City’s Law Department and is aware of the restrictions it imposes upon their activities. In response to specific questions to have posed, we respond as follows:

1. The memo authored by the law department summarizing the law is not subject to disclosure under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Act, 65 P.S.
§66.1 et seq.

2. The Board intends to comply with the mandate of the Sunshine Act which requires open meetings in all cases where there is a quorum present, and where official action is taken or agency business deliberated. 65 P.S. §703. Whether the Board chooses to hold open meetings in situations not covered by this provision, for example when there is no quorum present, is a matter for their discretion.

3. There may be times when a meeting which otherwise meets the criteria of Section 703 may fall within one of the six enumerated exceptions for an executive session. In these cases, as you note, the Board is obligated to give a brief recap of the matters discussed in the executive session. At all future meetings which are preceded by a closed session, the Board will honor this practice.

4. We agree that mere briefings on other cities’ ethics codes would not fall within one of the six stated reasons for an executive session. However, as such a briefing would not involve official action or deliberation on agency business, it is outside the scope of Section 703, and no public meeting is required.

Your letter appears to suggest that the Board may never meet or communicate outside of an open meeting. We do not interpret the Sunshine Act in so draconian a manner, and the clear language of the statute supports our position.

Please be assured that compliance with the Sunshine Act is a priority for the Ethics Hearing Board.


George R. Specter



Friday, January 11, 2008

Ethics Board, The Lost Letter

ou may recall two past posts (here and here) about my requests to the members of the ethics board. Their meeting scheduled this morning prompted me to send them this e-mail message this afternoon:

From: Bob Mayo
Sent: 01/11/2008 02:22 PM EST

To: Chair Sister Hughes & Members of The Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board

It's been nearly two months since I sent the e-mail quoted below. Can you please answer the questions posed in that message?

Thank you.

Bob Mayo

Tomorrow, I'll post the two-months-in-coming answer that I got within less than two hours. Can you guess who responded? (Hint: it wasn't a member of the ethics board.)

For those of you who didn't read my last e-mail to them, I'll recap it below.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Boren of the Trib reports that a member of the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board has resigned.

Apple "Pages" Icon

First posted November 19, 2007:

Here's my e-mail back to the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board. In light of board chair Sister Patrice Hughes' response to my original message, I'm restating my requests.

What I'm asking for falls into three categories.

• The first is documentation; Assistant City Solicitor Kate DeSimone had provided board members with a memo about the legal basis for holding closed-door meetings under Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law. While the law department could counsel them that the memo is protected by attorney-client privilege, if--for purposes of discussion--that were the case, it doesn't mean board members couldn't waive that privilege in the interest of transparency. As I wrote in this exchange with Assistant Solicitor DeSimone, "respectfully, since the purpose of the Sunshine Law is 'sunshine', i.e. an open view for the public on the operation of government, I would suggest that the interpretation of how an exemption to the Sunshine Law is being applied should not be confidential." I've also asked separately for any legal citation that justifies holding executive sessions for reasons other than the six spelled out in the law.

• The second is policy. The Sunshine Law does allow the board to hold a "Conference", which it defines "any training program or seminar...for the sole purpose of providing information to agency members on matters directly related to their official responsibilities". The law says a conference "need not be" open to the public. The wording "need not be" suggests that such a conference _could be_ open to the public. The board clearly could legally exclude the public from its meeting to educate its members about the ethics laws of other cities and how those laws are applied. It also could legally open that conference to the public. As a reporter who covers city government, I'm asking them to choose an open meeting.

• The third is compliance with the law. The Sunshine Law spells out that "the executive session may be held during an open meeting, at the conclusion of an open meeting, or may be announced for a future time. The reason for holding the executive session must be announced at the open meeting occurring immediately prior or subsequent to the executive session." The law also narrowly defines the purposes of excluding the public. (See my e-mail for details.) The ethics board had once discussed holding bi-monthly closed door meetings in executive session. If the board were to hold "umbrella" closed meetings covering a variety of topics, the prospect increases for discussion of matters beyond the narrow scope permitted by the Sunshine Law. That's one reason why adopting the legally-required practice of publicly announcing the specific reason for a narrowly-focused private meeting is important.

From: Bob Mayo
Subject: Re: Sunshine Act
Date: November 17, 2007 7:49:49 AM EST
To: Sister Patrice Hughes, Kathleen Buechel, Rabbi Daniel Schiff, Rev. John Welch, Penny Zacharias
Cc: Kate DeSimone, Bob Longo, Roberta Petterson, Bob Mayo

To Chair Sister Hughes & Members of the Pittsburgh Ethics Hearing Board:

Thanks for getting back to me. It's not clear if your response constitutes yes-or-no answers to my specific requests for action, so I'll recap them here.

In my role as a journalist who covers city government, I am asking that ethics board members:

1) provide a copy of the law department's memo summarizing Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law;

2) not attempt to use "executive sessions" for its educational briefings on other cities' ethics laws;

3) use "conferences" for this purpose and open these conferences to the public;

4) adopt the legally-required practice of announcing the specific reasons for each executive session at a public meeting immediately prior or subsequent to the executive session.

Would you please clarify: are each of these requests granted or denied?

Also, you responded "that information can be shared and discussions can be held [in Executive Sessions], but no decisions can be made during these sessions".

As you know, the Sunshine Act has six specific justifications for holding an "executive session" which, by the law's own definition, "is a meeting from which the public is excluded". (Section 703, Definitions; Section 708 a, 1 through 6, Executive Sessions, Purpose.) They are discussions of: personnel matters, labor relations, property purchases, litigation, confidential investigations & deliberations, and academic admission or standing.

For the sake of clarity, I'll add this yes-or-no question:

5) Is it the board's position that it can use executive sessions to exclude the public from meetings for any reasons other than these six specifically and narrowly defined in the law?

I'll again quote the 2003 publication from the Governor's Center for Local Government Services entitled "Open Meetings/Open Records: The Sunshine Act and the Right to Know Law". It notes on page 9:

"The concept of a meeting where members are simply informed and do not discuss issues ignores the basics of group dynamics. Members are all too likely to ask questions, pose possible responses by the municipal government and debate various courses of action. The court decisions cited above do not provide any support to the theory that so-called "informational sessions" are anywhere authorized as closed meetings by the Sunshine Law."

The same publication notes on page 6:

"The reason for holding an executive session must be announced at a public meeting occurring immediately prior or subsequent to the executive session."


"The appellate court stated even though it is in the public interest that certain matters be discussed in private, the public has a right to know what matter is being addressed in private sessions. The reason stated by the agency must be specific, indicating a real, discrete matter that is best addressed in private."

6) If the answer to question 5 is yes, will you please provide specific citations which contradict the guidance in the Governor's Center publication?

I look forward to your responses.

Thanks again.

Bob Mayo



Monday, January 7, 2008

New City Council: Notes & Quotes

his post is my first of the new year. I've been spending all of my free time working on a special event that's coming to Pittsburgh in March.

I'll be blogging about what's in the works once the details are confirmed. By the way, The Busman's Holiday is now just over a year old.

Meanwhile, here are some breakout quotes Pittsburgh Council's launch into 2008. It brings three new members on the nine member body, pledges of cooperation, and assertions of independence. In the end, Doug Shields' expected opponent for the council presidency was the one to nominate him.

The vote unanimous among the members president, but one was absent. In response to my query by phone, Councilwoman Tonya Payne's staffer said that the councilwoman was involved in meetings inside her office while the public meeting was under way.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl at City Council's swearing-in ceremony:

• "...that I can work with this city council, to do a good job. to unite, to put forth a common agenda for the best interest of residents of the city of Pittsburgh."

Council President Doug Shields on his re-election to that post:

• "I think there was a recognition in the body that they wanted to maintain a certain independence, that they wanted to maintain a healthy check and balance system."

• "There's that side of this business that everybody likes to (wonder) 'oh, what's going to happen bad next?' ...and what we want, what this council wants, is unity, not schism."

• "We shall heal political wounds, and we shall all be focused on the purpose of which we were sent here, and that is to do the people's business and to do so honorably."

Councilman Jim Motznik on the race for council president:

• "...and the consensus was Doug Shields was doing a decent job as president , a good job as president, and a change probably wasn't needed."

• "The mayor didn't weigh in on the council presidency. I believe if he would have, I would have been the president. Council should decide on who's president."

Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess on his pledge to work for social justice:

• "..equity, in every contract proposed, in every development planned. Equity in every public dollar allocated and every public policy recommended."

Councilman Bruce Kraus
on council unity:

• "The most important issue we face is consensus and cooperation. That's really what this council is going to be about. It is consensus and cooperation."

Councilman Patrick Dowd on that same theme:

• ".. this council is interested in sort of governing from the center and trying to find a way to work with the administration to build that common agenda."

• "...things like city finances, trying to deal with the long term financial health of the city, trying to address the performance of city services, to better deliver services, ethical reform. All sorts of stuff."