Mayor Bill Peduto spoke to representatives from the Pittsburgh Student Government Council about the issues that impact them Thursday night, addressing immigration, harassment and a changing Pittsburgh.
The council’s representatives are from 10 Pittsburgh higher education institutions, including Pitt, Robert Morris and Carnegie Mellon. Pittsburgh student government leaders founded the group in 2010 after working together to oppose former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s proposed tuition tax.
Ravenstahl proposed the tax as a “Fair Share Tax” to help Pittsburgh fund city employee pensions and later withdrew the proposal after an uproar from both university administrators and students.
The group has since moved on from the tax debacle — holding government stakeholders accountable for other issues affecting Pittsburgh today. Peduto’s talk — which started as a history lesson — was cognitive of those potential problems, as he recounted Pittsburgh’s rise as an industrial powerhouse and its fall during de-industrialization. While Peduto remained hopeful that Pittsburgh was heading into a new era of growth, he cautioned that, as it had during the Gilded Age of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick, inequality can rise with prosperity.
“Future Pittsburgh won’t be impressed that we had the first robot cars. They’ll be impressed we made a city for all,” Peduto said.
He also encouraged the students to remain active in government and their communities to keep Pittsburgh “special” and not overrun by “Starbucks next to an Au Bon Pain next to a Cinnabon.”
After the speech, Peduto took questions. Senior Rohit Anand, Pitt Student Government Board vice president, asked Peduto about changing Pittsburgh zoning ordinances to address the 3-person rule, which says that no more than three unrelated people may live together in a home zoned as a single-family residence.
The issue is often the center of controversy between Pitt and the Oakland community. Permanent Oakland residents say that a lack of zoning enforcement has caused overcrowding, limited on-street parking, litter and student mischief.
Peduto was non-committal to changes but did float the idea that the PSGC could help the city government look into the issue with suggestions.
Maria Taylor, Chatham Student Government’s executive vice president and communications director, also had some concerns for the mayor. She told Peduto she was worried about catcalling in the city’s East End after student complaints and asked if the city would consider passing code to specifically target street harassment.
Peduto said that he thought the city already had laws to stop harassment and instead said it was an enforcement issue. He encouraged students concerned about harassment to call 911 or 311. He noted that non-emergencies could even be reported by tweet.
If enough reports come in, Peduto said, students could expect to see Pittsburgh police on patrol in areas that show up frequently in complaints, like intersections or bus stops.
Taylor said after the meeting that she wasn’t satisfied with Peduto’s answer. She hasn’t found any specific statutes in the city that prevent harassment. While there are state laws against harassment and disorderly conduct in general, including laws against ”lewd, lascivious, threatening or obscene words, language, drawings or caricatures,” the city does not have any specific code related to sexual harassment of women in public space.
Taylor said she wants the city to pass the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW — a UN compact that protects women’s rights. The convention didn’t pass in the United States, but some American cities like San Francisco have started to add pieces of it to their own laws. A CEDAW proposal didn’t pass city council when presented in November.
“I would have liked to hear more,” she said.
Brett Meeder, La Roche College student government’s Public Relations Chair, brought up recent political debates over undocumented students on campus and asked what the city was doing to help.
Peduto responded by insisting that the city does not cooperate with ICE and is working on community outreach to help immigrant and refugee communities. He also described America’s long history of xenophobia to the students and told them not to fret standing up to the federal government’s new priorities.
“You’re on the right side of history,” Peduto said.