By Sue Kerr
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
I’ve been blogging about the Mayor’s LGBTQ Advisory Group since it was first proposed under then-Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in the fall of 2008. I’ve watched it ebb and flow with changes in membership, duties, and investment from the Mayors Ravenstahl and Peduto. I’ve sat in countless planning meetings and spent hundreds of hours trying to pry information about this body from the City to make it accessible to my readers and the LGBTQ community. As recently as February 2019, I was blogging about the Administration’s failure to adequately staff the committee.
When established in 2008, it was a much-needed step forward for Pittsburgh and the Mayor’s office. It created a new degree of visibility and priority for LGBTQ residents throughout the City. Granted the group’s effectiveness has waxed and waned over the years. Recent comments from members of the current advisory group indicate not just a broken relationship with the Mayor, but the reality that the model of a Mayoral Advisory Group is no longer effective.
In fact, it should be dissolved.
It is time for Pittsburgh to establish an Office of LGBTQ Affairs with a dedicated paid staff. This Office will be a resource for all City Departments and Programs, City Council and the City Commissions, Boards, and Authorities.
In addition, a LGBTQ Community Advisory Group should be created to work with this staff and Office. They can be trained on Municipal Government 101 to ease their transition into this expanded role.
Recent examples of how this type of staff could have saved the City time and resources (and money):
- Vetting the RFP process to ensure an LGBTQ artist was selected to create the commemorative Stonewall crosswalk mural in Shadyside.
- Working with the Carnegie Library, the Children’s Museum, the Warhol Museum and others targeted by threats about Drag Queen Story Hour to ensure a thoughtful response.
- Coordinating SOGI trainings for Citi Pool lifeguard staff to ensure all residents feel safe and welcome at every facility.
- Work with community event organizers like the Pittsburgh Marathon to robustly explore the impact of anti-LGBTQ businesses in very high profile sponsorships.
- Overhaul all City forms that use gendered language, including permit & fee applications as well as the paperwork to get your pet spayed or neutered.
The current Advisory Group wants better communication between the City and LGBTQ residents. Some of their requests are implausible to impossible. Public government resources like email addresses and social media accounts cannot be managed by residents who are not City employees. It would set a precedent that could be a slippery slope. What if all 35 boards, commissions, and authorities demanded the same?
There are issues about public disclosure, accountability, right-to-know, even simple issues like web filters that need to be addressed. My blog was blocked in 2013 by the City and in spite of multiple promises, there has never been follow up on the core issue that caused the problem. That’s six years of lag time. It was just 2017 when the ACLU addressed social media malfunctions by members of City Council. It was a gay man (still) employed by County government who used his work computer resources to harass his ex-boyfriend as recently as 2017. There’s no reason to create a special exemption for LGBTQ advisors and plenty of reasons not to do so.
A dedicated staff person would be able to respond to email in a timely manner and report out on communication to its own Advisory Group. And those communications are covered under the Freedom of Information act so there’s no reason to hide any of it.
Another request is for more meetings with the Mayor. That’s also not practical. Meeting even quarterly with all 35 boards, commissions, and authorities in addition to the advisory type groups would become a full-time task for him and that’s not good governance. But a staff liaison meeting with the Mayor’s inner circle and the Chief of Staff regularly can be effective in achieving the same end goal of stronger communication.
Rather than budgeting for the Mayor’s Advisory Group, let’s budget for a City-wide Office to have the maximum impact for everyone. Create a new Community Advisory Group working with that office. Let’s acknowledge that the LGBTQ community has a range of needs and issues that require the undivided attention of a cabinet-level leader and a fully prepared advisory group.
The City did this in 2016 with the Gender Equity Commission, a new body that has a part-time Executive Director. There are multiple models to consider and ways to share support staff and other resources. Perhaps our good government friends in Pittsburgh’s foundation community could assist in funding an exploratory group to assess best practices?
The LGBTQ landscape in Pittsburgh has changed dramatically since 2008. It is time for the City to build a municipal resource that reflects where we are heading in 2019.