Today, the Allegheny County Council voted to reappoint Gayle Moss to the Jail Oversight Board, despite evidence that Moss had a terrible attendance record. According to County Councilor Bethany Hallam (D-Ross), who is a member of the oversight board, Moss missed all monthly meetings between November 2015 and February 2020.
Moss served as the president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for years. Her attendance record was brought up in the most recent appointment committee meeting, which Hallam chairs.
During that March 25 meeting, councilors in attendance voted 7-2 with one abstention to negatively recommend Moss for reappointment. Moss' reappointment was sponsored last month by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Before today’s vote, Hallam spoke and again urged councilors to reject Moss’ reappointment.
"One of the one reasons I ran for County Council was to reform our broken criminal justice system, and it has been an honor to serve on the Jail Oversight Board,” said Hallam. “But there have to be standards. … If you vote yes, then you are saying participation in our county boards does not matter. Now is not the time to abandon the idea that government institutions need regular accountability.”
However, other councilors who supported Moss reappointment said they spoke to Moss before today’s meeting. County Councilor DeWitt Walton (D-Hill District) said Moss provided an adequate explanation for why she missed so many meetings and an apology. Walton also noted Moss’ body of work in the social justice arena.
“I respect her commitment to social justice,” said Walton. “And believe we should be giving her a second chance to demonstrate that she is committed.”
The vote to re-appoint Moss passed 12-3, with Councilors Hallam, Liv Bennett (D-North Side) and Antia Prizio (D-O’Hara) opposing.
Councilors Nicholas Futules (D-Oakmont) and Paul Klein (D-Squirrel Hill) also said they spoke with Moss and that she provided an explanation and apology for her absences. Klein noted that she is raising two children and served as NAACP president four times, and that she might have taken on more than she should have.
“Going forward, we need to make sure that if we are saying yes to this, that [appointees] can regularly attend meetings,” said Klein.
However, Allegheny County Council has rarely applied much scrutiny to Fitzgerald’s political appointments. Since Fitzgerald was first elected, council has approved virtually all of his nominations. Only a small handful have been rejected, like in 2015 when a businessman who was indicted in Nebraska on embezzlement charges was rejected by council. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, as of last July, the county council has supported 92% of all of Fitzgerald's bills, including appointments. He has served since 2012.
Moss’ reappointment vote comes on the heels of April’s Jail Oversight Board meeting being canceled, which drew the ire of Hallam and Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner (D-Point Breeze), who said the worst time to cancel a meeting looking into issues at the jail is when the jail is under threat from infection during a pandemic.
On March 27, a jail employee who doesn't have contact with inmates tested positive for COVID-19.
Allegheny County President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark chairs the Jail Oversight Board and said the meeting was canceled so the jail staff could continue efforts to keep employees and inmates safe by releasing inmates who can be safely released.
Allegheny County Jail has released hundreds of inmates as part of a collaborative effort between Allegheny County judges, the public defender’s office, and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office. The effort is meant to release inmates with non-violent charges and those who are vulnerable to COVID-19, as a way to stem the spread of coronavirus.
Two weeks ago, Allegheny County Council rejected Hallam’s bill that would have mandated blanket release of inmates charged with non-violent and other low-level offenses. Instead, the jail has been adopting a more piece-meal approach to releasing inmates, despite advocates' call for bolder action.
However, Allegheny County Council did support a resolution today by a 9-6 vote that would urge the jail and halfway houses to work with courts to release inmates being held on technical parole violations or awaiting trial for misdemeanors, drug possession, sex work, or other non-violent crimes. The resolution is non-binding.
Hallam said at today’s meeting that she hopes the councilors who advocated for second chances for Moss’ reappointment remember that sentiment when voting for future criminal justice-related legislation.