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Questions Raised After Meeting Closed to Public

Former councilor alleges Sunshine Act was violated
Mayor, solicitor say city is in compliance

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
January 06, 2021
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

A former McKeesport city councilwoman is encouraging supporters to call officials and voice their displeasure after Wednesday’s council meeting was closed to the public.

In a video posted to Facebook Live, Fawn Walker-Montgomery, co-founder of Take Action Mon Valley and a candidate for state representative in 2018, said Wednesday night she planned to file a complaint against the city for allegedly violating the state’s Open Meetings Law, commonly called the “Sunshine Act.”

“There are so many violations that are happening here right now,” Walker-Montgomery said.

McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said the decision to close the meeting was made due to the sharply increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the region.

“This is only going to happen for a couple of months,” he said. “We’re hoping no more than two or three meetings before we’re in the clear.”

The Public Safety Building, where council chambers are located, has been closed to everyone except official visitors since March.

Although the public was allowed to attend council meetings in 2020, they were sparsely attended throughout the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and most council members participated via phone.

City Solicitor J. Jason Elash said McKeesport is complying with the emergency provisions of Act 15 of 2020, passed by both the Pennsylvania Senate and General Assembly, which suspended the requirements for in-person, public meetings temporarily due to the pandemic.

Only one member of council — president Rich Dellapenna Jr. — was present in chambers Wednesday night, and all other six members of council participated over a conference phone.

Reporters from Tube City Almanac and the Mon Valley Independent were called on Wednesday afternoon by the mayor’s office and specifically asked to attend. They were the only people in the audience and were admitted via the police station entrance.

Also present at the meeting were Cherepko, Elash, Finance Director Matt Gergely, police Chief Adam Alfer and assistant to the mayor Jennifer Vertullo.

Earlier on Wednesday, Take Action Mon Valley circulated an announcement on social media encouraging residents to attend the council meeting to voice complaints about the police lockdown and search of city neighborhoods following the Dec. 20 shooting of McKeesport police Officer Jerry Athans.

Koby Lee Francis, 22, has been charged with attempted homicide, aggravated assault, escape, flight to avoid apprehension, and violating the uniform firearms act in connection with wounding Athans.

“They tore our city up, they broke into our houses, we came here to address them about that, and that right was taken away from us,” Walker-Montgomery said on Facebook Live Wednesday night. “And you know we are not going to let that slide.”

Cherepko on Wednesday night disputed Walker-Montgomery’s claims that police officers “broke into houses.”

The mayor said that neither his office nor Alfer have received any complaints, via email or phone, about the Dec. 20 searches.

Instead, Cherepko said, police Detective Lt. Sidney Summers and Detective Sgt. Steve Kondrosky “said they couldn’t believe how accommodating people were” during the searches.

“I welcome any person who has a complaint to feel free to contact me,” Cherepko said. “If there are any complaints, I will surely address them.”

As for the closed meeting, Cherepko said the measure was temporary and that the city is working to stay in compliance with the provisions of Act 15, which require that any meetings held remotely during the pandemic must be advertised in advance in a newspaper, and that a recording or transcript of the meeting be made public.

Elash said Wednesday’s meeting was advertised in the Mon Valley Independent, and was recorded, and the minutes will be posted on the council website when complete.

In advice released to all Pennsylvania counties in March, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys’ Association said communities can comply with the provisions of the Open Meetings Act by offering “conference calls, video chats, transcription of meetings or otherwise recording the meeting and making the recording publicly available or otherwise accessible.”

According to the association, the law is intended “to ensure that the public at large has an opportunity to view their government in action.”

The state Office of Open Records also encourages local governments “to the extent practicable” to provide for public participation in meetings via teleconferencing or videoconferencing.

Walker-Montgomery said on Facebook Wednesday that “no one notified us that no one was allowed to come to these meetings,” and that the city provided no video or audio stream for the public to see or hear the proceedings.

She called the lack of a webstream “ridiculous.”

Cherepko said the technology in council chambers is not capable of generating a live stream. The city investigated the cost of streaming the meetings on the Internet and concluded it would be prohibitive, he said.

Local municipalities have had poor results streaming meetings online.

After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, White Oak Borough Council and McKeesport Area School Board both attempted to stream their meetings, but residents complained they could not hear what was being discussed.

“Some other, more affluent communities and districts have been able to make (webstreams) happen much more easily,” Elash said. “We had a lot of technical problems trying to put something live on a website.”

Cherepko said the agenda to every council meeting is posted on the city’s website, and residents are encouraged to email or write before the meeting with comments that can be read into the record.

But Walker-Montgomery said such a provision doesn’t allow residents to comment on “non-agenda items.”

“Their agenda says ‘public comment,’” she said on Facebook. “They’re not allowing for public comment, so once again, the City of McKeesport is violating our constitutional rights.”

Cherepko accused Walker-Montgomery of stirring division by spreading “innuendo and lies” on social media.

“We have an individual who is a self-proclaimed community leader, who doesn’t care about anybody but herself,” he said.

Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published January 06, 2021.

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