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Allegheny

Pittsburgh council secretly hires new city clerk

Bob Bauder
| Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, 5:03 p.m.
Brenda F. Pree was hired as the new Pittsburgh city clerk without a public vote or discussion in what appears to be a violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act and a city ordinance.
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Brenda F. Pree was hired as the new Pittsburgh city clerk without a public vote or discussion in what appears to be a violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act and a city ordinance.

Pittsburgh City Council hired a new city clerk without a public vote or discussion in what appears to be a violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act and a city ordinance.

The clerk, hired to oversee the administrative affairs of council, was fired from a previous job as a city clerk in Mississippi and has a pending lawsuit against a county there.

Brenda F. Pree started work Monday at an annual salary of $94,432, according to the city Personnel Department. Pittsburgh's website listed her Wednesday as the city clerk and provided her office telephone number.

Council President Bruce Kraus, who supervises the clerk's office, said members would likely vote Tuesday on Pree's hiring. Council members reached by the Tribune-Review said the decision to hire her happened during a series of private executive sessions before they left for an annual summer recess in late July.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania News Media Association, said state law requires public agencies to take official action — including the hiring of employees — during a public meeting where residents are permitted to comment before a vote.

“There's no question this was official action,” Melewsky said. “She's already working, so they already made a decision. What they're doing is a formality. It's not in compliance with the law. What's not supposed to happen is they have a discussion behind closed doors, they hire someone behind closed doors, and then three weeks later they ratify it.”

Kraus declined to answer questions, but said in an email that council followed the law.

“I have every confidence that council expeditiously followed all procedure and protocol as it relates to the Sunshine Act and our gathering in executive session to discuss matters of personnel,” he said.

Pree declined comment.

The city clerk is appointed to a three-year term and is responsible for recording all council actions, scheduling all meetings, maintaining council records and providing council members with administrative support, among other things.

Pree is replacing retiring Clerk Mary Beth Doheny, whose last day is Thursday. Doheny returned to work Monday following a lengthy recovery from a broken leg. Deputy Clerk Kimberly Clark-Baskin had assumed the duties of clerk during Doheny's absence.

Council has traditionally promoted the deputy clerk, but this year it decided to advertise nationally for job candidates.

Pree has worked in government for 20 years, including a five-year stint as city clerk in Jackson, Miss., and most recently as an elections manager in Fairfax, Va., according to her online LinkedIn page.

Jackson City Council fired her during a public meeting on June 17, 2014, without giving a reason, according to online meeting minutes.

Calls to current and former Jackson council members were not returned.

The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson reported that Pree's firing happened following the election of a new mayor and a political shake-up of City Hall. A council member told the paper when asked about Pree's firing that members wanted to “try a different direction.”

Pree, who is black, also has a pending federal lawsuit against Washington County, Miss., north of Jackson, alleging racial discrimination.

The lawsuit contends county supervisors passed her over for an administrative position and hired a lesser-qualified white woman, according to online court documents. The supervisors claimed the other woman was more qualified and that Pree lied on her resume, according to court documents.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith of Westwood said she opposed Pree's hiring and felt council should have promoted Clark-Baskin.

“I felt there should be some consideration for the person doing the job, and doing it well, and a person who is from Pittsburgh,” she said.

Other council members contacted by the Trib referred questions to Kraus.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312, bbauder@tribweb.com or @bobbauder.

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