Brian O'Neill: Government transparency worth hard look
July 9, 2014 11:34 PM
Is the Peduto administration living up to its promises of transparency?
By Brian O'Neill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
By definition, transparency can’t be seen, thus it’s not easy to track. Politicians love to promise it nonetheless.
Mayor Bill Peduto and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald came into office promising to be more open than the men who preceded them.
In Mr. Peduto’s case that didn‘t pose much of a challenge. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, by the end of his tenure, was only slightly less reclusive than most hermits. In contrast, the Peduto administration provides the media a public schedule of his daily events — even when he’s in Copenhagen at a bike conference.
On June 25, he could be reached at the Danish Architecture, Strandgrade 27B, Room 2 (Lokale 2) between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m., in case you were curious.
Mr. Peduto has had “Mayor’s Night Out’’ meetings to mix with residents in city neighborhoods and “Mayor’s Night In’’ meetings at the City-County Building. Even before he was elected, he waded through an “Ask Me Anything’’ forum on the Reddit Pittsburgh website, tackling online questions on everything from mass transit to his favorite pierogi in those running dumpling races at Pirates games. (He boldly went on record as a Jalapeno Hannah man, which had to hurt him in the Oliver Onion community.) Mr. Peduto even went back to answer more questions in the forum long after he said the session was through.
Because the promise of transparency is so all-encompassing and at the same time so nebulous, however, it’s never fully realized. To paraphrase an old Shoe cartoon, this is where the public’s right to know may run smack into the politician’s right not to care. A group of colleagues here at the Post-Gazette has been monitoring how well Mr. Peduto and Mr. Fitzgerald are doing in meeting their pledges of openness.
The idea is provide web links to those stories that may touch on, however briefly, an administration’s transparency or lack thereof. Readers will be left free to decide how big or small a hole in the information blanket the politicos are leaving.
For instance, when the mayor’s office says it has placed an officer on leave following the controversial arrest of a woman at PrideFest but the mayor does not refer to the officer by name, that might show up on the page.
When Allegheny County suspends five jail guards without pay and reviews an incident in which an employee violates policy by bringing her own gun to jail — yet won’t say whether the suspensions are related to the weapons investigation — that’s a transparency issue.
By themselves, each individual case might not amount to much. We should be interested, though, in whether the various cases amount to a pattern.
The Peduto administration is proud of its data-driven record here so far. Spokesman Tim McNulty rattled off a list:
• Adapting the old 311 complaint system to Twitter, which greatly reduced the pothole response time even as complaints about potholes soared.
• Six public meetings and a site for online remarks at www.pittsburghpa.mindmixer.com in the search for a new police chief. The next three public forums will be 6 p.m. Wednesday at the South Hills Senior Residences, 125 Ruth St. in Beltzhoover/Knoxville; 6 p.m. July 22 at the Jewish Community Center, 5738 Forbes Ave. in Squirrel Hill; and 6 p.m. July 24 at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, 907 Middle St., Deutschtown/East Allegheny.
• A Nextdoor.com site for neighbor-to-neighbor contact on community issues, and an Open Data Forum (http://pittsburghpa.gov/pghdataforum/) where citizens can tell the city what they want to see and why. The administration says it is ”setting the city’s default to ‘open.’“
PG readers may be able help that along. We invite our online readers to go to http://bit.ly/PGtransparency to get links to stories concerning the city and county governments where the goals of open government have been tested.
It‘s not an exhaustive list, but this project is just beginning. It’s erring on the side of a strict standard. Readers who have suggestions for the page may contact Assistant Managing Editor/Investigations Lillian Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are no hard and fast rules, but when there‘s a lack of transparency, well, you ought to know it when you see it.
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