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Allegheny County Council Considers Bills To Boost Transparency In Elections, Procurement

Election watchers photo.jpeg
Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA
Certified poll watchers observe Allegheny County election workers as they count ballots on the night of the 2020 presidential election. Two new county council bills also would allow watchers to supervise the set-up of voting equipment as well as internal election audits.

Allegheny County Council took up several measures Tuesday to give the public more access to key government functions. Three bipartisan bills strive to set new rules for monitoring elections, while a Democratic proposal seeks to publicize more information on county contracts, such as a controversial pair of agreements to furnish county jail employees with less-lethal weapons and militaristic training.

One of the election-monitoring bills would establish a formal policy to govern video surveillance that already takes place at the county’s central elections warehouse. In a notable departure from current practice, however, the bill would require the county to stream video online of elections-related activity that takes place at county-owned facilities.

Republican Sam DeMarco and Democrat Pat Catena are sponsoring the legislation. DeMarco acknowledged that the 2020 presidential election stoked unfounded claims of voting fraud within his party. And he noted that, after the 2016 election, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein sued Pennsylvania for allegedly using voting machines that were vulnerable to hacking and created barriers to a recount.

“What I'm trying to do here,” DeMarco said, “is … help Allegheny County lead the way in the state of Pennsylvania in providing full transparency.”

A member of the county’s Board of Elections, DeMarco said his legislation “is something that, regardless of what party you're from, whether you're independent or just a concerned citizen, should make you feel more comfortable that all of the things that we do as we look to administer elections are done with the best intentions, and that the elections are to be held free and fair.”

Under DeMarco and Catena’s bill, streamed video footage would start before election workers begin to “pre-canvass” ballots, or prepare them in advance of tabulating results on Election Day. It would end after an election is certified.

The county would be required to save the video recordings for at least five years, and to share them with the public upon request under Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law.

There are no county laws governing such processes, the bill notes.

DeMarco and Catena also introduced a bill to allow registered voters to be certified as “watchers” of the set-up, testing and evaluation of voting machine hardware. A separate measure would permit watchers to supervise election audits conducted internally by election officials — a standard post-election practice, unlike forensic audits of 2020 general election results that are taking place in Arizona and being advanced by some Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature.

Both of the county council bills would expand a county program that certifies watchers to observe polling places as well as the counting of ballots.

A spokesperson for County Executive Rich Fitzgerald declined to comment on how any of DeMarco and Catena’s bills could impact existing protocols.

Also on Tuesday, five Democrats introduced a bill that would require officials to publicize more of the county’s efforts to procure supplies and services, a process that often begins with a “request for proposals.” The county council measure comes after administrators drew criticism earlier this month for approving contracts to provide less-lethal weapons and military-style training at the Allegheny County Jail.

The no-bid contracts total $442,700, and on Tuesday they provoked the threat of lawsuits. In a letter to county solicitor Andy Szefi, attorneys at the Abolitionist Law Center said, “The county is liable for adopting and implementing … unconstitutional policies and trainings … which [use] excessive force on incarcerated individuals in violation of their constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.”

The weapons the county purchased include high-velocity “star” projectiles and flashbangs. Those munitions are designed to be used at close range and to reduce the likelihood of penetration, broken bones or deep internal injuries, according to the jail’s supplier, Lightfield Less Lethal Research. Jail warden Orlando Harper has said the tools will help his staff to maintain order without the use of solitary confinement, which county voters largely chose to outlaw this spring.

But citing the facility’s disproportionate use of force and its plan to deploy a militaristic training program, ALC’s lawyers said there is a risk that corrections staff will abuse the weapons.

The attorneys said they will sue the county if it does not cancel the contracts. The attorneys also promised lawsuits against Lightfield if its products injure anyone at the county jail.

A spokesperson for the county executive’s office declined to comment on the threat of litigation.

Bethany Hallam, the councilor who sits on Allegheny County’s Jail Oversight Board, sponsored the bill that seeks to increase notice requirements for the county’s procurement process, along with Catena, Olivia Bennett, Bob Palmosina, and Anita Prizio.

It would require the county to post requests for proposals, as well as no-bid contracts, on its website so that the public can view them free of charge. Today, the county conducts its procurement process via a portal that requires a paid subscription.

In addition, the bill would require the county to provide more notice when it issues requests for proposals.

Under current policy, the county must publish the requests at least a week before it begins to accept bids that exceed $30,000. The county council bill would lower that threshold to $18,500, a level that the legislation says is mandated under state law. The measure also would require the county to provide notice of requests that exceed $18,500 two times before the bidding period begins.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.