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Editorial: County council’s abstentions excuse lack of firm stances

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Wikipedia Creative Commons

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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As the Allegheny County Council is facing growing questions about its transparency over the past months, recent analysis of the council members’ tendencies to abstain from votes without providing proper explanation should be even more worrisome.

Council members have abstained 29 times since the beginning of 2015. Despite a rule saying they cannot do so without an explanation, only 16 of those abstentions were explained, according to analysis from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Although members aren’t required to verbally state why they abstain from a vote during the roll call, they are supposed to provide a written explanation to be included in the meeting minutes.

This county rule is a rare one by county council standards. It goes farther beyond the state’s simple rules about abstaining from votes in which one has a conflict of interest. Since January 2015, 12 council members accounted for the 29 absentations. Of the 16 abstentions explained, only five members cited potential conflicts of interest. This means there were 13 unexplained abstentions and 11 further abstentions for reasons other than conflict of interest, most often citing lack of sufficient information to come to a decision.

Without proper enforcement of the county rule, council members aren’t being held responsible to either do what they were elected for — to vote on issues critical to the county — or explain why they didn’t.

This kind of stand, or lack thereof, has become a normal one to take in politics, and we’ve seen it repeated everywhere from local to state levels. In reality, it’s not a stand at all but rather a tactic that allows politicians and leaders to seem active while actually remaining neutral in hopes of appeasing as many people as possible. And if we ever want to achieve actual change in politics, it’s time for politicians to take the lead on decisions.

The truly ineffective and unhelpful nature of ignoring the rule was highlighted during the council’s vote on the potential vaping ban earlier this month. The ban was approved in an 8-5 vote with two abstentions from council President John DeFazio and member Nicholas Futules. Futules didn’t provide an explanation in the minutes for his abstention, but he’s abstained before due to conflicts of interest with the restaurant he owns in the county — a place the vaping ban will definitely impact.

DeFazio didn’t explain the reason for his abstention at the time but later told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he figured he didn’t need to vote since it was “already a done deal.” Since he was the last name to be called to vote in the role call, and the ban already garnered 8 votes — the threshold the ban needed to gain a majority and pass — he assumed his vote wouldn’t make a difference.

He is right, it wouldn’t make a difference in the decision on whether vaping would be banned in Allegheny County or not. But abstaining for that reason is woefully ignorant of his own position as an elected official. As a county council member — let alone the president — his job is to make decisions on behalf of the public he represents. So when he failed to take a firm stand, even though his vote wouldn’t technically make a difference, he voluntarily failed to represent his constituents.

And this is a common theme we see with our decision-makers on every level. We criticized Gov. Tom Wolf just last week for not taking a solid stance on the legalization of marijuana. We also called out Chancellor Patrick Gallagher for failing to stand up to Pitt’s Board of Trustees and represent students properly without telling us why. Now the county council has made the list of representatives who’d prefer to save face rather than focus on change.

It’s important to hold leaders and elected officials accountable for the stands they take on issues. Apparently, now it’s just as important to make sure representatives are actually taking stands and not simply trying to remain impartial. And when a stand is not taken, officials better be ready to explain their logic with something more than assuming a vote was a “done deal.”

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: don’t hem and haw or give us compromised answers. Give us real ones, with thought and vision, and then follow through on them.

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Editorial: County council’s abstentions excuse lack of firm stances