Private Council meetings to halt

Democrats met behind closed doors

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Allegheny County Council's Democratic caucus will stop its long-standing practice of meeting behind closed doors with enough members present to form a quorum of council, President Rich Fitzgerald said.

Mr. Fitzgerald revealed last week that council Democrats, who hold an 11-4 majority on the 15-member council, have for years been meeting in private with enough members to comprise a quorum.

"We have decided not to caucus anymore," Mr. Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill, said yesterday following a special meeting of the committee on government reform.

In a Monday Post-Gazette story, Melissa Melewsky, media counsel of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, and Tom McGough, an attorney at Reed Smith who represents the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, argued that the caucus meetings behind closed doors violated Pennsylvania's open records and meetings laws every time they had a quorum.

Both Mr. Fitzgerald and Councilman John DeFazio, chairman of the Democratic caucus, said, however, they still don't believe the meetings violated the Sunshine Act, and they only decided to end them because of the appearance of impropriety.

"We got opinions from our solicitors and we are perfectly within our legal rights to [keep holding the caucus meetings]," said Mr. DeFazio, D-Shaler. "We are changing, but we are not saying we were wrong," he added.

Both Ms. Melewsky and Mr. McGough contend that a quorum of council, which requires eight members, cannot meet to discuss potential council business behind closed doors without violating Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act.

This is the second time the Post-Gazette has challenged County Council to open its closed-door quorum meetings to the public.

In March, council attempted to hold a closed-door meeting with Allegheny County's delegation of state legislators to discuss a fee on nonprofit entities and potentially changing the Purely Public Charities Act of 1997.

Yesterday, Mr. Fitzgerald said the Democrats will no longer hold their caucus meetings, which they have been twice a month, right before council's scheduled public meetings.

"As a citizen legislator, I feel strongly that we have an open process of deliberation," he said.

Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, who chairs the four-person Republican caucus, said it will continue caucusing because it doesn't have enough members to comprise a quorum of council in closed-door meetings.

Meanwhile, members of council's committee on government reform voted 4-3 yesterday to push forward a referendum question for the November ballot that would ask voters to choose between reducing the county's 10 percent drink tax and increasing property taxes.

The referendum ordinance, sponsored by Mr. Fitzgerald, will be considered by the full council in a special meeting Tuesday. Council must complete its referendum question before the Aug. 5 deadline, when ballot initiatives for the November election must be received by the county elections office.

Council's proposal is an attempt to counter a referendum question sponsored by Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation, which started a drive in June to ask voters to reduce the 10 percent drink tax to 0.5 percent.

County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, who implemented drink and car rental taxes in January to fund the county's $30 million subsidy of the Port Authority, has consistently said a repeal or reduction of the drink tax would force him to raise property taxes by as much as 25 percent.

Council's proposed referendum would require an increase in the property tax rate to make up for the revenue lost from the reduction in the drink tax, but officials have not calculated how much of an increase.

Yesterday, Mr. Gastgeb and council members Chuck McCullough, R-Upper St. Clair, and Jim Ellenbogen, D-Banksville, voted "no" on moving the referendum question forward, citing a lack of specifics on how a property tax increase would be implemented to counter a repeal or reduction of drink tax revenues.


Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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