A watchdog group is shaming the Philadelphia City Commissioners for no longer livestreaming meetings and holding them in an obscure, out-of-the-way location.
The commissioners, who run elections in the city, say they’re following state transparency laws, but an expert on those laws says despite that, their recent actions are “disturbing.”
The conflict between the group, Protect Our Vote Philly, and the commissioners dates back more than a year. It came to a head after the commissioners’ most recent public meeting, at which they announced a major grant from a nonprofit that would help pay for improvements for the 2020 election. They would include pandemic hazard pay for poll workers, setting up neighborhood election offices where voters could drop off mail-in ballots, and offering more secure ballot drop-off boxes.
To participate in that meeting, interested residents had to go on a bit of a journey.
It was the commissioners’ first in-person election meeting since the pandemic began, and the first in that period they hadn’t live streamed via Zoom. They chose to meet at 3500 Scotts Lane, in a long, low warehouse near East Falls, about a 20-minute drive from City Hall.
The city typically uses the warehouse for shipping voting machines to polling places. It’s about a half-mile from the nearest train and bus stops.
Rich Garella, a POV Philly co-founder, said only four members of the public not affiliated with his group were there. He sees the warehouse meeting as the latest in a long string of anti-transparency moves the city commissioners have made.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve got a critical and really difficult election coming up and a lot of planning that has to be done and plans that have to be changed,” he said. “And we see the Board of Elections … shutting the public out of participation.”
Interested Philadelphians who weren’t attending the meeting in person could email public comments in advance.
A detailed agenda wasn’t posted ahead of the meeting, however, and commissioners and their staff don’t publicly read any of the emails they receive. Meeting minutes aren’t publicly available after the fact.
“In the middle of a pandemic, they cut off the ability of the public to attend virtually,” Garella said. “If you’re not there in person, you wouldn’t ever know what happened at the meeting.”
Nick Custodio, deputy to City Commissioners Chairwoman Lisa Deeley, strenuously disputed Garella and POV Philly’s assessment.
The warehouse, he wrote in an email, had been chosen out of all possible city-controlled locations because its cavernous garages allow “necessary in-person meetings in a socially-distanced fashion, with proper ventilation.”
He said the meetings were no longer being livestreamed because “holding an in-person meeting and a virtual one proved impractical and often caused issues,” like lagging video and platform access problems that drew complaints from the public.
Other city officials, like Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Secretary Thomas Farley, have been holding livestreamed press conferences throughout the pandemic without apparent issue, as have commissioners in different counties.
Custodio said there is no firm protocol for posting meeting agendas, and that the commissioners do not publicize their meeting minutes because “per the City’s contract with the stenography company, copies of transcripts must be obtained directly from them.”
He added that the commissioners believe by allowing Philadelphians to email in comments remotely, they’re going above and beyond their required duties.
“It is unfortunate that this optional, additional service, is drawing complaints because it is meant to make things easier for voters,” he wrote.
POV Philly keeps a frequently-updated document detailing what it sees as the commissioners’ violations of, or “minimal” compliance with, Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act, which requires government agencies to conduct their deliberations publicly.
It includes more than a year of actions they find troubling, and eight other groups have cosigned it.
Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association who specializes in public records and transparency issues, said while none of the commissioners’ transparency decisions seem obviously illegal, they’re “far from ideal” and “not sufficient.”
For instance, she said, not releasing meeting minutes seems counterintuitive.
The minutes are public record, and any member of the media or public should be able to file a Right-To-Know request to obtain them. The commonwealth’s Office of Open Records recommends government agencies post their minutes online as a matter of course.
She added, there’s also no reason the commissioners can’t figure out a way to livestream their in-person meetings so people who can’t get to the warehouse in person — a significant barrier, due to its location and the threat of COVID-19 — have a way to see what’s going on.
“This is a point in time where we have agencies clamoring to offer alternative methods of access, and here we have an agency that’s doing less,” she said. “That’s unusual and problematic.”
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