Monday, December 22, 2008

UPDATE 2: Pittsburgh's Emergency Overseers

ittsburgh's state-appointed Oversight Board is holding an emergency meeting at 9 AM. Here's an excerpt from my e-mail to the board's attorney, chair, and executive director:

A few quick questions:

By what legal definition is the Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008 meeting of the ICA an "emergency"?

How does it differ from a regular meeting?

How much advance legal notice of your public meetings is required if they are not labeled an "emergency"?

What percentage of ICA meetings have been labeled an "emergency" or "special" over the past three years, and for what reasons?

Update 1:

From Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law:

Section 703. Definitions
"Emergency meeting." A meeting called for the purpose of dealing with a real or potential emergency involving a clear and present danger to life or property.

Section 709. Public notice
(a) Meetings. An agency shall give public notice of its first regular meeting of each calendar or fiscal year not less than three days in advance of the meeting and shall give public notice of the schedule of its remaining regular meetings. An agency shall give public notice of each special meeting or each rescheduled regular or special meeting at least 24 hours in advance of the time of the convening of the meeting specified in the notice. Public notice is not required in the case of an emergency meeting or a conference.

In my experience with the ICA (Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority), notice of its public meetings comes late or not at all. The most memorable instance was when it issued a faxed news release in the afternoon, after a morning meeting had already occurred. I believe that on at least one occasion, a public notice on the ICA's website appeared to be dated earlier than its actual posting online. The ICA contracted a media consultant to help handle release of its Fire Bureau study, but -- after three years of requests -- it still hasn't been able to provide consistent notice of its public meetings.

Update 2:

An e-mail exchange with Oversight Board Chair Barbara McNees:

McNees: "Mr. Mahone [ICA's solicitor] can explain the language. This is a year end to clear up approvals. Mostly administrative. Should only take 10 minutes at most. Henry [Sciortino, ICA Executive Director] was to post agenda on web site."

Mayo: "I did some quick research myself, and the material [I've quoted from the Sunshine Law] may prove informative. As a reporter, what I'm asking for is that the ICA honor the spirit of the Sunshine Law.

Now, let's check Post-Gazette reporter Rich Lord's story on this morning's meeting, "City, oversight board near agreement on debt payments":

"The city of Pittsburgh and its state-picked fiscal overseers are close to finishing an agreement on paying off future municipal debt, officials from the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority said at a hastily called meeting today."

So, as it turned out, this was a newsworthy meeting and not simply "clean up". Continuing from the PG:

"Councilman Patrick Dowd, who has asked repeatedly for the terms of the agreement, attended the meeting and wasn't satisfied with the level of detail provided. He said there was no guarantee that setting aside $45.3 million now would shave $51 million off of future city debt payments, as called for in the city's five-year plan."

Perhaps if the ICA had not treated the "mostly administrative" meeting as "an emergency", members of the general public and representatives of city retirees and employees would have attended to offer public comment as well.

In a followup e-mail exchange, Oversight Board Chair McNees responded to my request that the ICA honor the spirit of the Sunshine Law:

McNees: "I agree. Reed Smith was supposed to have posted in normal manner. Unfortunatley [An attorney for the ICA] had a sudden death in the family and notice dropped through the cracks. We needed to get year end meeting in and most people not available next week."

Mayo: "I'm sorry to hear about [the attorney's] loss. My concern reflects the cumulative conduct of the ICA on Sunshine matters over the course of three years, however, and not simply the current instance."


From: Mahone, Glenn R.
Sent: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 3:33 PM



Please pardon my delay in getting back to you with answers to your inquiry.

Today's meeting was not an "emergency", as defined under the Sunshine Act, and it should not have been so noticed. I understand that my Partner [...] prepared a notice of special meeting and sent the notice for newspaper publication in last Friday's paper; however, the notice was not published as requested. We were so notified on Monday. [...] is out today due to a death in his immediate family, and I do not have all of the details. As you may know, the Sunshine Act requires, among other things, no less than three day's notice of the first meeting in each calendar or fiscal year. Special meetings require 24 hours notice, and emergency meetings, as you might expect, require no notice.

In the absence of sufficient time to notice the 12/23 meeting as a "special meeting" following the failed publication, and in the spirit of the Sunshine Act, we emailed the notice to representatives of the major media in the area.

See the Sunshine Act for more details on Regular, Special and Emergency meetings. Most Authority meetings are regular meetings. The Authority has held special meetings, but I do not recall any emergency meetings. The minutes of each meeting are posted on the website, including meeting notices. Both will indicate whether the meeting was regular, special, or emergency.

We can return to courtesy emails of meeting notices to major media.

Let me know if you need additional information.

Glenn R. Mahone
Reed Smith LLP

My response:

Mr. Mahone,

As you'll see in reviewing my e-mail exchanges with Chair McNees, I've already quoted to her the same passages of the Sunshine Law that you've quoted to me.

I'm glad to hear that there is no emergency ("a real or potential emergency involving a clear and present danger to life or property") as defined by the law.

I've lost exact count of the many times over the past three years that I've complained to Mr. Sciortino about the public notice practices of the ICA.

I note that the ICA e-mail notice sent to some -- but not all -- local news organizations includes the city government beat reporters for the PG and the Trib but excludes me, despite my numerous requests as our station's reporter covering city government. It was also sent on less that the 24 hours notice you cite in the law.

While a copy went to the assignment desk at WTAE, no fewer than four staffers at the Tribune-Review were included in your e-mailing.

Also missing from the list are KQV Radio, which covers city government, The Associated Press, The New Pittsburgh Courier, The Pittsburgh Business Times, Pittsburgh City Paper, KDKA Radio and WDUQ Radio.

(In updating your media e-mail list, you should note that WPGH TV's news department ceased operations a few years ago. Also note that the city hall reporter for the Trib is , not . )

In quoting the Sunshine Act, you omitted the passage which says the ICA " shall give public notice of the schedule of its remaining regular meetings" when it "give[s] public notice of its first regular meeting of each calendar or fiscal year, not less than three days in advance of the meeting". I don't recall the ICA ever giving public notice of the schedule of its remaining regular meetings at the start of the year. Does it intend to begin doing so in 2009?

Bob Mayo

This final exchange of e-mails with Chair McNeees -- from more than a year ago -- illustrates my past requests to the ICA. It was preceded and followed by many similar communications with Executive Director Sciortino:

From: Bob Mayo
Sent: Thursday, August 16, 2007 10:26 AM
To: Barbara McNees
Subject: Next ICA Board Meeting

Dear Ms McNees,

Is there any word yet on when the ICA board will hold its next meeting?
I'd submitted a question via the ICA's "contact us" web form a couple of days ago, but hadn't heard back.
Who can provide information about [this. How] far in advance will the ICA be giving notice to the general public and to the media, and by what means?

Thanks for your help.

----- Original Message -----
From: Barbara McNees
Sent: 08/20/2007 09:09 AM AST
To: Bob Mayo
Subject: RE: Next ICA Board Meeting

Henry Scrotino has been on vacation. Sorry for the delay. We have not scheduled a meeting yet for the Fall. I will make sure we give plenty of advance notice.



Mark Rauterkus said...

Bob, you're on holiday.

You know, bloggers never take a real holiday, unlike those who are left with jobs in the MSM.

g u i l t t r i p l o o m s

Have a good day. No worries. Be happy.

EdHeath said...

I don't think you "proved" that the ICA is remiss in its notification schedule and process, in the sense that a judge would take action based on what you say here. But I think when a major reporter for major news outlet in town (and I feel safe characterizing you as that) feels there is a problem, the ICA ought do to do more than try to (defensively) explain your concerns away.

The ICA might well be the key to the city's future. The only way I can see Pittsburgh emerging from its twin crushing burdens of debt and pension obligations is through Act 47, specifically a second, more far reaching five year plan. This is especially true since the Nordenberg report (the report on consolidation) was in no way aggressive in its view on county wide consolidation. Perhaps that just reflects the reality of the situation, but it does nothing to help the City with its financial picture. So we need to know and have input into our financial future in the since of knowing when the ICA meetings. It may be inconvenient for them, but it is our future.

Bob Mayo said...

Thanks, Ed. I wouldn't say my anecdotes and e-mails prove anything; they're just snapshots of my experiences dealing with the ICA over time. They're the sort of things that don't make it into a TV news story, but they do provide a window on how the ICA deals with the Sunshine Law.

Heck, I have the ICA website bookmarked and check it periodically. Most people don't. As with my blogging about my exchanges with the city's Ethics Hearing Board, this is about spotlighting the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

These aren't difficult laws and requests to comply with, but the responses to them can be telling.


Bram Reichbaum said...

I just noticed this post for some reason; I thought the Christmas post immediate followed the billboard post. Great stuff.

If the citizens of Pittsburgh are dissatisfied with the conduct of their ICA, I wonder who they are supposed to take it out on?

Bob Mayo said...


That's the thing about news stories -- and blog posts -- heading into holidays or weekends. Fewer people notice them.

In the past week there have been two examples.

The Oversight Board meeting that was called without public notice became a item in the newspapers on Dec. 24th -- Christmas Eve. The Zoning Board's long-in-coming ruling on the electronic billboard? Word of its release came around 4:30 Friday afternoon, heading into the weekend before Christmas.

Initially, I was told I only had until 5:15 to pick up the billboard decision at the city's zoning counter. I joked that I hoped there wouldn't be a problem with the counter staying open for me past 4:15. In the end, they were able to fax a copy to our newsroom.