PITTSBURGH - McKeesport residents and the City Council reached agreement on a “consent order” today, ending a two-month dispute over public access to council meetings. With representation from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP, local activists with the community group Take Action Mon Valley had filed a lawsuit against the city last week after residents were shut out of public participation in the council’s meeting in January. In the lawsuit, the activists and the lawyers accused City Council of violating the state Sunshine Act.
In the settlement reached today, which occurred after two hearings last week before Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge John T. McVay, Jr. and his order blocking McKeesport from holding further public hearings until the Sunshine Act problems were fixed, the city agreed to reopen public access to meetings. Until the City Council can again safely hold meetings in person, the public will be able to observe proceedings live via at least audio, with the court emphasizing its preference for an online video component. Residents can also submit comments in writing and in person during council meetings.
The following can be attributed to Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania:
“Today’s settlement is a total win for government transparency and democracy. A year into the pandemic, governments should know by now how to operate both openly and safely. We are grateful that the city recognized the importance of maintaining public access to its business.”
The following can be attributed to Fawn Walker-Montgomery, one of the plaintiffs in the case and the executive director of Take Action Mon Valley:
"Thanks to the ACLU and the team at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr for their help. I stand by my initial comments that this is crazy and ridiculous that we even had to file a lawsuit to get this far.
“The citizens of McKeesport deserve a transparent government that doesn’t play politics with their tax dollars and rights. They deserve better. It’s a 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. 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. 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 following can be attributed to Allison Burdette of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP:
“The litigation and recent consent order reaffirm that open government remains of paramount importance. The Sunshine Act is a powerful tool to ensure that the public can meaningfully review and evaluate government decision making. Despite the pandemic creating new challenges for all of us, we are pleased that the McKeesport City Council has acknowledged that we cannot let the threat of COVID-19 prevent the public from observing and meaningfully participating in its meetings. We are fortunate enough to live in a time when technology can enable us to observe and speak to our public officials regardless of location. We look forward to the City Council following through with this legal obligation to open government.”
A copy of the consent order is available at aclupa.org/McKeesport.