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Pittsburgh City Council launches new office to help residents access city services

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council has hired a team of staffers who councilors say should help residents access city services — and help council play a larger policy role in some critical areas.

The four-member Office of Community Engagement is intended to better connect community groups and residents with economic, education and social services. The team will work with all nine council members and focus on city-wide initiatives.

“This has always been council’s work. It’s just [previously] been done individually” by each council office, said Councilor Ricky Burgess. “There needs to be this overarching multi-sector, multi-neighborhood effort.”

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The team includes an economic stability coordinator, an education coordinator, a social and community context coordinator and a neighborhood and built environment coordinator. The three will work alongside Ricky Moody, who council hired as its new Health and Human Services policy manager.

According to Council President Theresa Kail-Smith, the team is already beginning to devise new drug- and alcohol-addiction programs, parenting training programs and initiatives that could assist the city’s homeless population.

Money for the team was included in the budget for the office of city clerk, which serves council. According to Burgess, the four new positions make up about $300,000 of the city clerk’s budget. That accounts for most of a $473,000 increase in spending for the office over the previous year.

But Burgess says the cost to taxpayers is much less than that, because similar positions existed under the administration of former Mayor Bill Peduto. Prior to the inauguration of Mayor Ed Gainey last winter, the positions were vacated and went unfilled. Council amended the budget to reinstate the positions — under the legislative branch's umbrella.

“Council understood the necessary role of investing resources into our communities and strengthening citizen participation and community organizations’ participation within city government,” he said. “So we reinstituted [the positions] under council’s purview.”

It remains to be seen how the new positions will mesh with work being done elsewhere in city government. Burgess noted that the Gainey administration is also seeking to connect organizations with city resources. But said council had already undertaken steps to focus resources on such needs before Gainey’s efforts began.

Maria Montaño, a spokesperson for Gainey, said the administration is looking forward to collaborating with council's Community Engagement office.

“We’re always glad that more constituents will have access to the information and the services that they’re looking for,” Montaño said. “We look forward to building relationships with these folks.”

Burgess and Kail-Smith pledged to work with the administration toward their shared goals. But Kail-Smith noted that council may wish to take a different policy approach when confronting an issue. And she said the new council office could serve as a vehicle to do so.

“We have our own agendas and our own missions and our own needs,” Kail-Smith said. “We want to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of our constituency.”

In a similar vein, council appointed its own lawyer last month — a move pondered by councilors for years.

The city's Law Department and its solicitor still represent the city in legal proceedings, and council has traditionally relied on their expertise. But in July, council members hired Daniel Friedson to provide guidance as council drafts and deliberates on bills.

“Council [was] writing these important pieces of legislation without direct legal advice on the front end,” Burgess said. Now, council members can call on their solicitor to ensure new ordinances are consistent with state and federal laws.

Burgess and Kail-Smith also argued an independent legal representative would help council speed up the legislative process, claiming that bills could be reviewed sooner with a solicitor dedicated to that work.

Both Burgess and Kail-Smith stressed that council will work closely with the Gainey administration despite the new hires. Burgess noted similarities between council’s plan for the Office of Community Engagement and Gainey’s “Pittsburgh Plan for Peace.” Both approaches seek to tackle crime by addressing economic instability as a root cause.

The office was partly inspired by conversations council members had with at-risk teenagers earlier this summer. Kail-Smith said several teens asked her to help their parents with training and economic opportunities. “They asked us to make sure that we were getting help to their parents,” she said.

But well before that, Burgess said, the need for a community engagement office became apparent during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID showed the health disparities in our city,” said Burgess, who noted that Black residents and business owners suffered the brunt of the pandemic — often without knowledge of resources designed to help them.

“Our poor and at-risk communities lack the infrastructure to promote healthy lifestyles," he added. “They need technical assistance at the grassroots level.”

Each coordinator will be able to offer administrative help connecting community groups with shared goals, or getting information out about city services to a particular community.

“We are the legislative branch, we are the branch that is closest to the people,” Burgess said. “We’re here to serve them, but we’re [also] here to strengthen them.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.