Pittsburghers log on to share their thoughts with the mayor, ask questions

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Mayor Bill Peduto told Pittsburghers to ask him — and his administration — anything Thursday night, and Steel City residents logged onto their computers, tablets and smartphones to do just that.

“What are your thoughts on the monopoly that is Comcast and Verizon in Pittsburgh?” one resident posted.

Others asked about topics ranging from the “Pittsburgh left” to litter, decriminalizing marijuana to ride sharing and safety to annexing municipalities.

During the first Mayor’s Night On(line), more than two dozen city employees packed a computer training room in the City-County Building to field these and other questions via an “Ask Me Anything” forum on reddit, a social network and news website that drives conversation as participants vote on the topics’ importance.

The two-hour long event kicked off at 5:30 p.m., with Mr. Peduto loosening his red tie, reading questions aloud and asking chiefs and directors to answer those intimate to their areas of work. As it progressed, he stopped providing direction, and administrators tackled question and even got competitive about it.

About an hour in, Debra Lam, chief of innovation and performance, pumped her hands in the air and yelled, “Yes. I answered another question.” Soon after, she had a white board brought from her office, so they could tally who had responded to the most posts.

At the front of the room, Mr. Peduto’‍s computer was attached to a projector that splayed the conversation on a wall. He typed deliberately, with his responses flashing on the wall before they were saved into the real-time online conversation.

His favorite question asked which of his predecessors he held in highest and lowest regard.

He responded: “Love this question — highest regard David Lawrence (even though his urban renewal efforts went against everything I believe in) — he transformed an entire city government and built the structure for the Renaissance. Least — easy — Joe Barker (google him). ”

Some questions had an even lighter tone, asking about favorite Downtown restaurants and favorite color “(Aside from black and gold...).”

“Mayor Peduto and staff, would you rather fight a horse sized duck, or 100 duck sized horses?” one “redditor” asked.

Parks and Recreation Director Jim Griffin responded: “I'd take the the horse-sized duck. After I defeated it by deflating it, I'd stuff it, paint it yellow and float it down the Allegheny.“

Across the room, chief operations officer Guy Costa and chief administration officer Debbie Lestitian said they were having fun working as a team and interacting with engaged citizens. Neither had ever used reddit.

“I’m amazed at the number of people emailing us,” Mr. Costa said.

Minor technical glitches barely slowed down the conversation, though a bandwidth problem prohibited city responses from being posted as quickly as they’d have liked, said Laura Meixell, analytics and strategy manager. New ventures come with difficulties, she said.

The mayor’‍s staff touted that the forum was the first of its kind in reddit‘‍s nine-year history.

“It provides people with direct access to a government that is theirs,” Mr. Peduto said.

He said the process was incredibly time efficient but didn’‍t allow the same emotion to show through as when parties meet face-to-face.

“The most satisfying part of this experiment was the minuscule amount used to play ‘‍gotcha’‍ or to be mean,” Mr. Peduto said, estimating that less than 5 percent of the 375 comments fell into that category.

Mayor’‍s Night On(line) was the fifth in a series meant to connect communities to their government. A pair of Mayor’s Night In events were held at the City-County Building, and two Mayor’‍s Night Out discussions were conducted in Beltzhoover and Perry North, with the third scheduled for July 30 in the Carrick area.

Mr. Peduto signed off Thursday night after posting a farewell, “They say democracy is an experiment — thanks for experimenting with us tonight. Bill and the Team.”

The conversation can be viewed on Reddit here.

Lexi Belculfine: lbelculfine@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878. Twitter: @LexiBelc.

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