a photo illustration of a microwave on a purple background
Canva stock image. (Photo illustration by Stephanie Mirah and Natasha Vicens/Rtvsrece)

Eric Boerer estimates that he attends more than 100 public meetings a year. For the advocacy director of Bike Pittsburgh, being able to join a meeting online makes it easier to pop in and stay updated or give input on something that otherwise might not be a priority. You can, he notes, “listen in while you cook,” and there’s no need to hire a babysitter.

Carol Hardeman, executive director of the Hill District Consensus Group, values the more personal experience of in-person meetings. She has missed at least one opportunity to speak due to difficulties she had getting on screen on time.

Carol Hardeman, executive director of the Hill District Consensus Group, talks about the effects of housing policy on her community, during a virtual press conference on Jan. 21, 2021. (Screenshot)
Carol Hardeman, executive director of the Hill District Consensus Group, talks about the effects of housing policy on her community, during a virtual press conference on Jan. 21, 2021. (Screenshot)

The two are among many civic-minded people trying to participate in the community at a time when tools exist for a golden age of public engagement, but when each agency seems to have its own unique rules for when and how citizens can have input into decision-making.

More than three years after COVID-19 drove most public processes online, there's no consistency among Pittsburgh and Allegheny County agencies regarding citizen participation. Some of the region’s most important agencies are split on practices, and a few appear to be running afoul of state guidance.

Unelected boards and commissions make important decisions affecting how you travel, the water you drink and flush, the availability of housing and other buildings and even aspects of the educational system.

Want to get involved with local boards and commissions? 5 tips for effective engagement.

Rtvsrece, in its Board Explorer tool, gives readers a look at some 60 panels that make important decisions for the region. This fall, we zoomed in on 10 of those, asking how they're interacting with the public.

Before 2020, the rules and practices for public engagement with such panels were relatively simple, and guided by the Sunshine Act. In short, governmental decisions have to be made at regular or advertised meetings, open to the public, with deliberations on most issues held in full view amid opportunities for citizen comment.

Early in the pandemic, when the usual standard of in-person meetings wasn’t always prudent or viable, the General Assembly passed Act 15 of 2020, which allowed agencies to conduct meetings with “an authorized telecommunications device until the expiration or termination of the COVID-19 disaster emergency.” That emergency, though, officially ended in mid-2021.

The state Office of Open Records now considers the virtual-only option expired. The office provides for exemptions in cases of declared local disasters, but now generally expects all public meetings to have in-person access, according to Liz Wagenseller, the office’s executive director.

That suits Hardeman, who wants to look people in the eye, and finds it useful to observe, and use, body language. When someone is on Zoom, and their video is off, she can’t tell if they are really listening to her or to other public speakers.

Boerer acknowledged that the ease of meeting online comes with a trade-off. He feels you get more out of an in-person meeting and can connect and chat with residents and staffers afterwards. “You can get a sense of the room, how people are feeling.”

Panning cameras vs. invisible boards

Three of the 10 boards and commissions reviewed by Rtvsrece continue to conduct online-only meetings.

The Pittsburgh City Planning Commission, Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA] and Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] all cite the closure of their longtime Ross Street offices and their relocation from there to 412 Boulevard of the Allies as the reason. David Geiger, the URA’s director of government and strategic affairs, said the conference room on the ground floor of the agencies’ current location is undergoing renovation. Representatives of all three agencies said they intend to reincorporate an in-person component once renovations are complete. Geiger gave no estimated date of completion.

Instead of crowded in-person meetings, the URA, HACP and Planning Commission use Zoom.

For the URA’s September board meeting, members logged in from separate spaces.

For much of the meeting, the virtual setup allowed viewers to see only the person speaking, making it impossible for the audience to know whether other members were actively listening.

A screenshot of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board's virtual meeting on Oct. 12, 2023. A selection of board members and URA staff can be seen on the right.
A screenshot of the Urban Redevelopment Authority board's virtual meeting on Oct. 12, 2023. A selection of board members and URA staff can be seen on the right.

The URA reports, though, that virtual attendance numbers regularly exceed 50 and push 100, and complaints about access have dropped since the meetings were held in a Ross Street meeting room with limited capacity.

Two boards — the Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC] and the Allegheny County Housing Authority — have reverted to in-person public meetings format, although ACHA will also set up a virtual link upon request.

Other agencies are holding hybrid meetings, potentially offering the best of both worlds — in-person access with the convenience of remote participation. Not all hybrid formats, though, are created equal.

During the Sept. 15 meeting of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, board members kept their video off as the meeting was conducted on the platform WebEx instead of the more commonly used Zoom. Starting at 11 a.m., it concluded by 11:30. Agenda items and a presentation were read speedily with no discussion of any item.

In contrast, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] convenes board members in one room. They face a spread of seats assembled for the public and a podium for speakers. The online viewer gets to see both the public arena, the speaker and the board members, as the camera pans to each area depending on who has the stage.

According to Rebecca Zito, PWSA’s senior manager of public relations, the agency invested $19,200 during the pandemic to hire an audio visual contractor and now devotes a staff person to each meeting to ensure “a seamless experience.”

However, Zito said that public attendance at PWSA board meetings was actually down to 10 to 15 people, versus pre-pandemic levels of 25 to 35 people.

Pittsburgh, Allegheny commissions all over the board on public engagement

In the wake of the pandemic's upending of norms of public participation in government, 10 key local boards and commissions have very different procedures for giving citizens windows into their deliberations, and voice in their decisions.

Scroll right for additional transparency info on boards and commissions. ➡️

Public participation 101

Lucyna de Barbaro, of Squirrel Hill, attends only a few public meetings each year despite her concern for environmental and social justice issues.

“I never know how to find out about them,” de Barbaro said. She generally relies on organizations to prompt her to show up.

“Once you know through your network or through some organizing efforts that the meeting is happening, then everything is kind of easy, the information is out there, there is a way to sign up, rules are provided so that is not a problem,” she said. “The problem is knowing — even knowing — which organizations would take our input.”

Even with prompting, speaking up at a meeting can be “a little intimidating in the sense that if you don’t participate and observe the workings of the board, you actually do not know what type of input you can provide. ... Will my comments matter?"

If you, too, want to have more of a say in the decisions of important agencies in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, here are five steps toward more effective engagement.

Step 1: Identify panels in which you have an interest

Rtvsrece provides Board Explorer, a tool for navigating some 60 of the most influential panels overseeing functions of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County governance.

The city lists its panels here.

The county provides a drop-down list of its panels here.

Step 2: Review the agenda — as soon as it becomes available

Agendas outline the business at hand and often allot a period for public comment. If comments are heard early in the meeting, you can more confidently plan a return to work or childcare pick-up. If placed at the end, as they are, for example, at Pittsburgh Regional Transit [PRT] meetings, you might need to make open-ended plans, as some meetings last hours.

Amendments to the Sunshine Act made in 2021 require that agencies post agendas 24 hours in advance. Some panels do better, posting agendas three to seven days prior to meetings. Others, though, come close to the 24-hour rule.

That might create difficulties for those who want to physically attend, but need to arrange medical transport, as it often takes more than 24 hours to reserve a ride, said Paul O’Hanlon, a disability advocate and a longtime advisory member of the City-County Task Force on Disabilities.

Step 3: Plan ahead if accessibility is an issue

Do you want to attend the meeting in-person or virtually? Check the meeting options and decide. Consider parking locations and the cost to park for the time you expect to be there. Travel via public transit may involve additional walk time. The transit stop nearest the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN] board meeting room, for instance, is roughly a 28-minute walk away.

All agencies told Rtvsrece they would do their best to accommodate reasonable requests for deaf and blind participants’ needs with advance notice. The URA noted challenges with a shortage of ASL interpreters. And while HACP has a Disability Compliance Officer, not all agencies do. For virtual or hybrid meetings, check that Zoom’s closed captions settings are automatically set to ‘on’ by the host.

Step 4: Hone your planned comments, usually to 3 minutes

Check on any limits or requirements needed to speak in advance. Many require prior registration. Can you fit everything you want to say into three minutes? Agencies may use lights, buzzers or verbal interruption with a gentle warning to cue the end of a participant’s time. It can help to write out what you want to say in advance, noting that three minutes is usually about one typed page, and practice with a few run-throughs out loud at varying speeds.

Paul O'Hanlon, pictured in 2019, outside of his home in Regent Square (Photo by Jay Manning/Rtvsrece)
Paul O'Hanlon, pictured in 2019, outside of his home in Regent Square (Photo by Jay Manning/Rtvsrece)

“The three-minute rule can be difficult for someone who needs a little time to think through what they want to say,” said O’Hanlon.

Written comments, including by email, are another way to give input in advance of a board action, but not all agency websites make it clear where comments can be sent. Some have web forms, while one accepts written comments only by postal mail. Pay attention to any deadlines for comment submission.

Step 5: If you’re scratching your head, ask

Maybe you're looking for the agenda or minutes from many months ago, a video link or an address for the meeting. If you can’t find it online, locate agency contact info and ask. Just posing a question can prompt change. Rtvsrece’s inquiry about the budget of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, for instance, spurred that agency to rapidly post current information.

Don't be discouraged if navigating a public meeting isn’t yet what you hoped it would be.

Chardaé Jones, the former mayor of Braddock, has been on both sides of the table. As a volunteer for organizations, she kept showing up at public meetings, seeing what her community needed and volunteering to do it until she ended up in office. “As mayor, I saw community engagement as essential because without it you don't know how you're doing as a person in office.”

The pandemic may have caused a seismic shift in the landscape of public meetings, but it also created opportunities for improvement.

“I don’t know of anybody that is perfect, but my experience is that most everybody, kind of, is willing to learn. In my experience, people make adjustments,” said O’Hanlon. “It is just an ongoing challenge.”

Christine Graziano is a freelance reporter and can be reached at info@rtvsrece.com.

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.

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