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Politics & Government

Pittsburgh Youth Commission Wants Greater Responsibility, Authority

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Liz Reid
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A bill that would change the rules governing Pittsburgh’s youth commission sparked an intense discussion in City Council Wednesday, with some members of Council expressing concern about whose voices are being heard, and whose are not.

Tom Donahue, former chair of the 15-member Propel Pittsburgh Commission was on hand to answer questions. He said one of the main goals of the legislation is to change the name of the commission to the Young Pittsburgh Advisory Commission, or YPAC, because there are too many other groups using the name “Propel.” The bill will also require the commission to identify policy goals and craft legislation to be considered by Pittsburgh City Council.

“This re-branding and re-wording of the legislation gives the commission a lot more teeth to go out and work with the young Pittsburghers, in particular all of the young Pittsburgh organizations, and to also keep cognizant of all the different districts,” Donahue said.

Commission member Nate Hanson, who was appointed by former City Councilman Patrick Dowd, said the Propel Pittsburgh Commission did not have a clear mission, and that the proposed legislation would rectify that situation.

According to the bill, YPAC would “develop, facilitate, and advocate for a legislative agenda including policies and programs designed to attract, retain, and engage young Pittsburghers.” The bill also requires that any legislation that would impact Pittsburgh’s young people be sent to the commission for comment before being approved by City Council.

Donahue said the commission, which was created in 2007 by then Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, had been “in limbo” since Mayor Bill Peduto took office in January 2014, and that the eight sitting members had worked with the mayor’s office to develop the proposed legislation.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith called the existing commission “elitist,” and said there was not sufficient representation of Pittsburgh’s African American and blue-collar communities. Of the eight people currently serving on the board, two are African American and three are women.

“I don’t want us to ever forget that there’s people that don’t have a voice on any of these commissions and that are most at risk,” Kail-Smith. “If we really want to serve those folks and we really want to make a difference here, we need to make sure they are at the table at a lot of these discussions.”

Donahue said that was one of the reasons for revamping the commission, and pointed out that commission members are nominated by City Council and by the Mayor.

“We need to be very, very purposeful when we are nominating people to this commission that we put our money where our mouth is, and we nominate people that we feel are (the) best representatives of that diversity of the city,” said Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak.

Rudiak also expressed concern over the seven vacancies on the existing Propel Commission, which represents nearly half of the 15-member body. She said the city should come up with a way to track appointments to all boards, commissions, and authorities, so that City Council and others responsible for making nominations know when an appointee’s term is coming to an end and have ample time to nominate a replacement.

Policy director Matt Barron agreed, and said it was something the administration is looking into.

Kail-Smith asked that the legislation replacing Propel with YPAC be put on hold until a post-agenda meeting can be held to explore the issue of diversity on the commission. Council voted in favor of that motion, and Councilwoman Darlene Harris even floated the idea of holding the legislation until the seven vacant seats are filled.

But all Council members agreed that engaging a diverse group of Pittsburghers in the 20-34 age range is essential to the continued vitality of the city.

“It’s important to hear these voices because it’s our responsibility to really plan forward,” said Councilwoman Deb Gross. “We’re making decision to put things in motion and rebuilding a system for many years to come, and really for the future generations.”