Schuylkill County Commissioners Attempting to Muzzle the Public with New Comment Rules
Schuylkill County Commissioners will vote on a motion Wednesday that would severely limit participation at their weekly public meetings.
The preview to the new rules released on Tuesday read like a 2-page report on how to silence your critics. And they come at a time when Schuylkill County Commissioners act increasingly behind a veil of secrecy.
Schuylkill County Commissioners Propose New Rules on Public Comments
According to the motion as it’s written, these proposed new rules for public comments at Schuylkill County Commissioners meetings are designed to maintain order. But it really sounds like they want to edit and censor what’s said and even how the public can participate.
Commissioners promise to have the public Agenda released “on the County’s internet” on or before 10 a.m. the day prior to their next meeting.
“On the County’s internet” … #OKboomers.
2 Comment Portions
This proposed rule also seeks to formalize the 2 Public Comment sessions per meeting. The rule would establish a Public Comment session near the beginning of the meeting for items included on the public Agenda. And a comment session at the end is for general comments.
This “rule” is already in place and pushed by Commissioners Chair Boots Hetherington after he got frustrated by comments early in the meeting dealing with Commissioner George Halcovage.
Rules for In-person Public Comments
The Commissioners want to lay some ground rules for all comments.
There are different rules for in-person meetings and attendees as well as meetings attended virtually. Right now, the public is not welcome at the Courthouse for these public meetings so they have to listen and participate via Zoom.
Here are the proposed rules for in-person meetings and comments:
- The Commissioners Chair must recognize the person before a comment is delivered.
- The speaker must say their name and municipality.
- The Commissioners Chair can rule any comments out-of-order if they believe it’s: personal gossip, untenable, scandalous, insulting, malicious, slanderous, libelous, defamatory, inappropriate, irrelevant or redundant, or is meant to disrupt or protract a meeting.
It’s up to the sole discretion of the Commissioners Chair what comments meet that criteria.
- The Commissioners Chair can kick anyone out of the meeting that violates these rules. And they can employ the use of the County Sheriffs to haul someone out of a meeting.
- A recess can be called at any time by the Commissioners Chair if the “lack of public decorum interferes with the orderly conduct of the meeting.”
- The public is limited to 3 minutes of commentary per person.
Rule 3 clearly aims at silencing people who call in to discuss alleged details of the scandal involving Commissioner Halcovage. That’s a scandal that’s currently being re-investigated by the County’s interim Human Resources Dept., which means it involves spending more County taxpayer money on it. It’s also being investigated by the state Attorney General.
How that can be considered “scandalous” or “inappropriate” would be an interesting defense to hear.
Also, Rule 6 now contracts the amount of time a person is given to comment. If this rule passes, as it probably will, it shrinks the public comment time from 5 minutes to 3 minutes per person.
Rules for Virtual Participants and Comments
The proposed rules for virtual meetings really go the extra mile at silencing critics. Here they are:
- Public comments must be submitted to the County Clerk in writing by 3 p.m. the day prior to the next meeting. If comments aren’t received by the deadline, the Commissioners Chair can exclude them. This rule applies to comments on agenda items.
- This rule is the same as Rule 1 but it covers comments on non-agenda items.
- A person wishing to comment can only make 3 “non-agenda public comments” per meeting.
- The Commissioners Chair can refuse to read or declare any comment out-of-order if they determine it to be: malicious, slanderous, libelous, defamatory, inappropriate, irrelevant, redundant, or meaning to disrupt or “needlessly protract” a meeting.
- Public Comment sessions can only last 30 minutes unless the Commissioners Chair allows for more time. Time is limited to 3 minutes per speaker.
- If a group of people wishing to make public comments on the same topic attends a meeting, they may be “required to designate a spokesperson.”
- Recording of meetings would be prohibited unless done by the County Clerk. Anyone recording a meeting would be required to notify the Commissioners Chair ahead of time.
- Rule 8, per the Commissioners written proposed rules, is exactly the same as Rule 5.
Regarding the proposed rules for virtual meetings and virtual participants, some are clearly problematic. And 2 of them are redundant, which violates their own Rule 4.
Here are some other questionables about these proposed rules:
- As for Rule 1, this gives the public about 5 hours to review the Agenda when it’s posted on the “County’s internet” and submit a written Public Comment. The rules do not indicate if that member of the public will receive confirmation that their comment will be read or rejected.
- Rule 3 is just weird. Pick your battles, apparently.
- In Rule 4, they left out “scandalous” comments as being prohibited.
- Rule 6 doesn’t sound legal at all. If a person wants to speak, they should be allowed to speak. At a recent meeting we attended in North Manheim Township, this actually came up but it was the public group that decided to appoint their own spokesperson. The Solicitor for that zoning board didn’t consider asking or requiring them to appoint a spokesperson.
- And Rule 7 is clearly aimed at The Canary, which has been recording these meetings and publishing clips of highlights to SoundCloud for use in our articles. Technically, we’re not recording just the audio of the meeting through the Zoom app. We put a recording device (smartphone) near a computer speaker playing the audio of the public meeting. So, our recording device is picking up audio from our newsroom, which includes the audio from a public meeting playing on a loudspeaker.
According to the Digital Media Law Project, disclosure of recording a public meeting is not required. It’s only required if we’re to believe the conversations being recorded are meant to be private.
“Governmental bodies may adopt their own rules to maintain order at their meetings, but those rules may not include flat prohibitions on recording,” DMLP writes on its website regarding Pennsylvania law on public meeting recordings.
The Canary records these meetings in the interest of being able to replay and actually decipher what’s being said because the County struggles to produce a meeting with clear audio.
Here is the full text of the proposed rule:10-14-20 Agenda-Motion regarding Public Comments
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