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As Pittsburgh lawyers argue ballot question, absentee ballots being sent

| Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, 5:09 p.m.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Court has a shrinking window to decide whether November ballots will include a controversial amendment to Pittsburgh's City Charter, even as ballots currently being sent to the most remote absentee voters already include the question.

OpenPittsburgh.org is seeking a referendum on the November ballot that would require the city to put more of its information and meetings online and establish a citizens advisory committee to hear legislative and administrative proposals. The city of Pittsburgh is challenging whether the group gathered enough valid signatures and whether the 30-page amendment can properly be understood as a blurb on a petition or a ballot.

At a court hearing Wednesday, Common Pleas Judge Joseph James acknowledged time was of the essence given the rapidly approaching election and some deadlines that were already passing.

Allegheny County Elections Division had to send out a ballot that included the disputed question to a single military voter serving in a “remote or isolated area of the world,” because the deadline to send them out via email was Tuesday, said Elections Manager Mark Wolosik. Military/overseas absentee ballots have the earliest deadlines because voters have to print them, fill them out and mail them back to Allegheny County, he said.

To print more than 500,000 other absentee and provisional ballots, as well as program and test all the county's voting machines, Wolosik said, would make the last week of October the latest possible deadline for a ruling from the court.

Elections officials must distill the ballot question to 75 words or fewer; the first ballot re-used the wording from the petition, despite the city's argument that it couldn't capture the scope of what OpenPittsburgh was proposing.

“Nobody disagrees with transparency. Nobody disagrees with open government. But the meat of what's being proposed, the actual 30-page amendment, is something quite different,” said Assistant City Solicitor Matthew McHale. “The people who signed could not have been on notice of what they were signing.”

McHale called the proposed charter amendment an “unfunded mandate” and “a jobs program for lawyers” given the number of new requirements that could put the city at risk for legal action from citizens, such as a stipulation that speakers at meetings be given a microphone.

Larry Otter, one of the group's lawyers, countered that the proposed question met all the requirements of the law to appear on the ballot and it should be up to the voters to decide.

McHale and the city were also challenging the number of signatures OpenPittsburgh collected to get the question on the ballot.

Judge James did not rule Wednesday, giving both parties until Tuesday afternoon to file briefs outlining their arguments. But as the absentee ballot already sent out demonstrated, James said, the clock was ticking on deadlines to print ballots and program voting machines.

“We're on August 31 and Mr. Wolosik wants to send the ballots out... and he's running out of time,” James said.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412 391 0927 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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