While Election Day might seem far off, there are only a few weeks left to determine whether the citizen-led initiative will remain on the ballot.
UPDATED: 4:40 PM — Wed., Oct. 31
On Wednesday morning, an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas judge heard the city of Pittsburgh’s challenge to a referendum to change the city’s home rule charter. The city argues the proposed open government amendment unduly hampers city government.
Judge Joseph James had a question for the City of Pittsburgh and OpenPittsburgh.org. “Could you have made this any more complicated?”
In order to determine whether or not the open government amendment referendum will remain on the ballot, the judge heard a series of procedural challenges. The city argued thousands of signatures should be struck because of how they were collected, and that the ballot question is misleading. In the past, when people signed similar petitions, they attested they had read and understood the amendment, says assistant city solicitor Matthew McHale.
“And that was not done in this case, and, you know, in some ways it’s not surprising, given the density of the amendment and the ambiguities that it has and those kinds of considerations.”
It will be up to OpenPittsburgh.org to convince the voters of the merits of their 33-page amendment, said the group’s attorney Lawrence Otter. But in the meantime, only a registered voter has the standing to challenge the signatures.
OpenPittsburgh.org collected more than 12,000 signatures in favor of its open government amendment. It calls for a lot of things, including digitizing all city records and making all city government meetings available by video. But the most problematic provision is its creation of a Citizen Advisory Panel, says Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff Kevin Acklin.
“It would completely undermine the basic structure of city government. It proposes to have an unelected body of citizens without limitation, being able to summon the mayor, council members to meetings at various times. It would grind city government to a halt.”
While the administration supports the spirit of the amendment, and encourages open government, the language posed to voters is misleading, says Acklin.
“The problem is the ballot question doesn’t match what the actual referendum stands for. And that difference between the two is unconstitutionally vague.”
But the city’s challenge to the amendment was served after the deadline, says Lawrence Otter, OpenPittsburgh.org’s attorney, who was confident the judge would dismiss the challenge. After the hearing on Wednesday, Otter says the question of timing still remains.
“The problem the city still has is, they did not serve the right people with this until after 5 o’clock.”
Judge James asked for briefs by next Tuesday. The case is ongoing.