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In hearing held over Internet, court directs city to implement virtual meetings
An Allegheny County judge on Wednesday directed McKeesport officials to find a way to allow the public to fully participate in city council meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a hearing held over video-conferencing, Judge Jack McVay Jr. ordered the city to postpone the council meeting scheduled for that evening, and present him with a plan to prevent future violations of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“You can have a meeting as soon as you implement what was proposed,” McVay said.
On Tuesday, four residents, including former councilwoman Fawn Walker Montgomery, sought an emergency injunction against the city for its plans to close Wednesday’s meeting to the public, and filed a lawsuit accusing the city of violating the Open Meetings Law as well as the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
McVay said county courts have been conducting hearings — including Wednesday’s — successfully over video-conferencing for almost a year, due to the pandemic.
“It has its drawbacks, certainly, but we are able to conduct court,” McVay said.
McVay did not issue a decision on whether the city violated the Open Meetings Law, also known as the Sunshine Act.
Citing the limited capacity of city council chambers, McKeesport officials closed the Jan. 6 meeting to the public, allowing only two members of the media to attend.
A group of residents — including Montgomery — had planned to attend the meeting to voice their concerns about the behavior of police during the search Dec. 20 for a man accused of shooting a city police officer.
There was no February council meeting.
In the suit filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh law firm of Saul, Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr, the four residents, including Montgomery, Courtney Thompkins, Tracey Jordan and Janina Riley, argued that the city closed the meeting specifically to prevent them from addressing council.
McKeesport officials, including Mayor Michael Cherepko and city Solicitor J. Jason Elash, have contended that the city is allowed to hold meetings without the public present under the provisions of Act 15 of 2020, a law passed by the state General Assembly last year that suspended some provisions of the Open Meetings Act.
Following Wednesday’s hearing, Cherepko said the city believed it was complying with the standards of Act 15, which allow meetings to be held without the public present, as long as minutes are published afterward.
“We thought we were within the law, and we still do,” Cherepko told the Almanac. “We are going to try to get above and beyond what we were obligated to do.”
But Tierra Bradford, an attorney with the ACLU, told the Almanac Wednesday night that Cherepko was mistaken.
“The ACLU doesn’t believe the city council was complying with Act 15 — because they weren’t,” Bradford said.
Although the city granted permission for Tube City Community Media to stream Wednesday’s council meeting, that method didn’t provide a way for citizens to voice their comments, she said.
“There was no way for people to provide oral testimony at the meetings,” she said.
In addition, the city did not provide adequate notification before the Jan. 6 meeting that it would be closed to the public, Bradford said.
“Simply broadcasting the meeting is not sufficient,” she said. “People need to be able to participate. Without participation and issues from community members being brought to the attention of council people, how will they even be able to do their jobs efficiently?”
Cherepko said Wednesday that McKeesport officials twice announced that meetings would be closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic — at the Dec. 2 council meeting, and again in a legal advertisement Dec. 18 in the Mon Valley Independent.
The city does not have money to spend on the technology necessary to stream the city’s council meetings for only a short period of time, he said.
“If vaccinations are accessible to the public by May or June, but we’re only having one meeting a month, we’re talking two or three meetings” that will be affected, Cherepko said.
The city will look for additional ways to ensure public participation, including the option of allowing residents to call into the meeting by telephone, Cherepko said.
McKeesport hopes to have its formal response to McVay before Friday, he said.
“The allegation that we were trying to purposely violate the Sunshine Law is absolutely ridiculous,” Cherepko said. “If anyone doesn’t know by now, we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
Bradford, who serves as a criminal justice policy advocate in the ACLU’s Pittsburgh office, said the agency will wait to see if the city’s proposed remedy is adequate.
“People need to be able to provide oral comments at meetings,” she told the Almanac. “If not in person, then by video or phone.
“Also, if people provide written comments they should be acknowledged at the meeting, and preferably read at the meeting,” Bradford said. “At the very least, written comments need to be added to the meeting minutes that are posted on the council website.”
Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published March 04, 2021.