"Are you registered to vote?" Dave Tessitor asked a man as he walked past the library in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
"Yes," the man said, not stopping.
Tessitor fell in step. "We're collecting signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot," he said, walking up the street with the man. He only turned back several blocks later, the cargo pocket of his shorts one pamphlet lighter. He shrugged and smiled. And then a young couple came out of the library. "Excuse me, are you registered to vote?"
Tessitor chairs OpenPittsburgh.org, a group that wants to add an open government amendment to the city of Pittsburgh's home rule charter.
Open government is an ethos that promotes "transparency, participation, and collaboration," and it depends on the existence of open data: information made available to the public for free, without restrictions. In municipalities that publish data, residents can examine the workings of government and demand that it be accountable and transparent.
Across Pennsylvania, holding government accountable takes various forms, but OpenPittsburgh.org wants to put people in the middle of the action. The proposed open government amendment calls for a lot of things, but if the referendum passes, what would be most immediately different is the creation of a Citizen Advisory Panel.
"Elected officials don't have 24 hours a day to listen to everybody," said Tessitor.
So the Citizen Advisory Panel, open to any interested city resident, would be a conduit for citizen concerns, providing a one-stop shop for receiving community input and channeling it to City Council, Tessitor said.
"This creates a situation which is ongoing continuously and can look at any issues that may not even be considered right now on the agenda of the public officials."
For instance, if you were concerned about energy use at city senior centers, you could bring the data published by the city to the Citizens Advisory Panel, and they could request to make a presentation to City Council. Instead of finding the time to speak at a public meeting, follow up with your city council representative, and write letters, the Citizens Advisory Panel would provide institutional follow-through. Tessitor said the amendment isn't revolution, but evolution.
"The ability to bring together the citizenry to work together from the grassroots level up," he said.