Schuylkill Commissioners Will Try Again on Tyrannical Public Comments Rules
Schuylkill County Commissioners will try once again this week to pass a series of rules designed to limit public criticism and squash First Amendment rights.
On the agenda for the Wednesday (Oct. 21) work session meeting of Schuylkill County Commissioners is an item asking the board to approve and adopt 2 pages of rules governing public comments at public meetings.
Rules being proposed on Wednesday are duplicates of the ones the Commissioners first proposed last week. Last week, Commissioners agreed to table passing these rules until this week.
Schuylkill Commissioners Will Try Again on New Public Comments Rules
The rules are designed to squash the criticism of the Commissioners lately, namely Republicans Boots Hetherington and George Halcovage, who’ve come under fire for their mismanagement of CARES Act funds the county received earlier this year and for their secretive nature around the potential acquisition of the former GIANT grocery store property in Pottsville.
Halcovage also faces routine criticism for his alleged sexual harassment of female employees at the Courthouse.
In the last couple months, Schuylkill County Commissioners meetings have been fantastic political theater. Several people have used their time during Public Comments to make accusations against the Commissioners and it’s created a definite division among the board.
In short, the new rules applying to public comments would:
- Formally create 2 separate Public Comment periods in the meeting (one for items on the official agenda and one for random topics)
- Require virtual participants to submit their comments by 3 p.m. the day prior to a meeting
- Give power to the Commissioners Chairman to approve or deny those comments
- Limit comment periods to 3 topics per person and a total of 3 minutes per person
- Give power to the Commissioners Chair to adjourn or recess a meeting he feels is out-of-order
- Prohibit comments that are “scandalous, insulting, malicious, slanderous, libelous, defamatory, inappropriate, irrelevant, redundant” and ones that only serve to disrupt or protract a meeting
Another rule would prohibit anyone from recording these public meetings unless intent to record is given to the Commissioners Chair. That rule is directed, presumably, at The Canary, which has been recording audio in our newsroom that also includes audio of the Commissioners meeting playing through a loudspeaker. We routinely publish clips of that audio through a SoundCloud player in our coverage of these meetings.
A report on these rules appearing in the Times-News cites a source at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association who says the Commissioners can not prohibit recording of a public meeting. Still, the Commissioners, after having a week to re-think all these rules, are standing pat.
Regarding the window of time when the public can submit comments in writing to the Courthouse, the Commissioners, per their proposed rules, promise to have public agendas posted “to the County’s internet” by 10 a.m. the day prior to the meeting. That only gives the public 5 hours to review the agenda – in the middle of a workday – and submit comments.
The new rules fail to address a process for rejecting comments and how submitters will be notified of their rejection.
On Tuesday, though the new rules haven’t been adopted, the Agenda and other pertinent material for Wednesday’s meeting, wasn’t posted online until closer to 10:30 a.m.
FOR MORE >> Check out the full text of the new rules below. And see our reports on this issue from last week:
- Schuylkill County Commissioners Attempting to Muzzle the Public with New Comment Rules
- Commissioners Think Twice on Comments Rules – Boots Compared to Hitler
Here’s the full text of the proposed new public comment rules that Schuylkill County Commissioners will consider Wednesday:10-21-20 Motion Public Comments BOC Mtgs
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