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City, ACLU Reach Agreement on Meetings

Order requires council meetings to be streamed, public to be allowed to speak

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
March 09, 2021
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

The City of McKeesport and the American Civil Liberties Union have reached an agreement that settles a lawsuit brought by four residents after the January council meeting was closed to the public.

Under a consent order approved Tuesday by Allegheny County Judge John T. McVay Jr., the city will provide “meaningful public access” including live-streaming audio or audio and video of proceedings; will permit the public to submit comments in writing as well as audio, video or both; and will permanently preserve those comments in the public record.

Although both sides said they were satisfied with the arrangement, each also accused the other of playing politics.

“Today’s settlement is a total win for government transparency and democracy,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of city residents Fawn Walker-Montgomery, Courtney Thompkins, Tracey Jordan and Janina Riley.

McKeesport officials announced at the Dec. 2 council meeting that access to future meetings would be restricted due to rising COVID-19 numbers and the limited capacity of city council chambers.

Officials said the expense and technical limitations prevented the city from streaming the meetings online, or providing videoconferencing.

“A year into the pandemic, governments should know by now how to operate both openly and safely,” Shuford said in a prepared statement. “We are grateful that the city recognized the importance of maintaining public access to its business.”

Residents came to the Jan. 6 meeting to voice their complaints about a police manhunt, searches and road blocks that were set up Dec. 20, during the search for a suspect wanted in connection with the shooting of a city police officer.

When they arrived at the public safety building, they found a notice on the door saying the meeting was closed to the public. There was no February council meeting.

The ACLU said attempts to reach an agreement with city officials before the scheduled March 3 council meeting were not successful, and last week sought an injunction to postpone that meeting.

On Tuesday, Walker-Montgomery, a former city councilwoman and co-founder of Take Action Mon Valley, thanked the ACLU for intervening but called it “crazy and ridiculous” that the dispute ended up in court.

“It’s part of our constitutional rights to be able to present to our government and discuss any topic that affects the city, even if they don’t like the topic,” Walker-Montgomery said. “In addition, it’s a part of the law that we are able to watch and participate in public meetings.

“We should not lose this right just because those in power don’t like the topic or the people presenting it,” she said.

Under the consent order, the city will allow Tube City Community Media Inc. to stream the audio of council meetings until officials “decide on a more suitable online platform to provide meaningful public access or (until) meetings are open to the public in person.”

In addition, members of the public who wish to comment will be able to register up to 15 minutes before the start of each public meeting by emailing the mayor’s office at jen.vertullo@mckeesport-pa.gov and providing their name, address, the topic of their remarks and phone number.

The consent order requires the city to contact anyone who registers, and permit them to address council via phone if they want to.

Written comments sent either via email or U.S. Mail must be incorporated into the meeting minutes and posted on the city’s website, according to the consent order.

The consent order recommends the city hold future meetings during the pandemic using a videoconferencing service such as “Zoom, Microsoft Teams (or) Turbo Bridge.”

“We are extremely pleased that Judge McVay’s mediation of this matter led to the plaintiff’s understanding that it was the City of McKeesport’s intent to encourage public participation, even through the challenging times brought on by a global pandemic,” McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said in a prepared statement.

“Because transparency is valued by this administration, we made every effort to encourage public participation by collecting written comments for our official record,” he said.

But Cherepko and Walker-Montgomery — who served together on city council and were often at odds professionally — also criticized one another.

“This agreement between the city and the ACLU proves that these allegations stemmed from nothing more than a few individuals looking to grab headlines for their own political agendas and self-interests,” Cherepko said.

Walker-Montgomery said her only interest was ensuring the public was able to observe and comment on city business.

“The citizens of McKeesport deserve a transparent government that doesn’t play politics with their tax dollars and rights,” she said. “I am pleased that the people will be able to actively participate in local government and will continue to push local elected officials who use politics to push their own agendas.”

The four plaintiffs and the ACLU were represented by the Pittsburgh law firm of Saul, Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr.

The consent order will remain in effect until McVay rules that it can be dismissed. The order allows the ACLU and the plaintiffs to ask the city to pay their attorney’s fees and costs, pursuant to the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, the open-meetings law.

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 March 09, 2021.

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