- County Commissioners passed the new rules on Public Comments.
- It didn’t go over well. Lots of arguing.
- The County is probably going to get sued.
Schuylkill County Commissioners passed a set of controversial rules this week that severely limits public participation during public meetings.
The new rules voted into effect on Wednesday require the public to submit any public comments in writing that they want to be read during Commissioners meetings. Rules also ban the public and press from recording meetings without notifying the Commissioners ahead of time.
Mostly, these rules apply to public meetings held via Zoom or any other “virtual” format.
The Commissioners were split on the vote on Wednesday. Majority Commissioners Boots Hetherington and George Halcovage voted in favor of the new rules. Democrat Commissioner Gary Hess opposed it.
These rules were first proposed at a meeting last week but the issue was tabled for further review. However, this week, the rules appeared unchanged on the Commissioners meeting agenda.
Both before and after the rules were passed, a fuming public let the Commissioners know they’re not happy with the end result.
Schuylkill Commissioners Pass Controversial Public Comments Policy
There are numerous new rules implemented with this policy. Here are a few of the highlights:
Two Public Comment Periods
This has been in place since shortly after Hetherington took over for Halcovage as Commissioners Chairman. Halcovage stepped aside as Chair amid an investigation into alleged sexual harassment at the Courthouse.
During the first period, held right after the Pledge of Allegiance to open the meeting, the public may comment on items included in the weekly meeting agenda.
Random comments on non-agenda items will be relegated to a period toward the end of the meeting.
All Comments Submitted in Writing
Any member of the public wishing to have their comments heard must submit them in writing to the Courthouse via email by 3 p.m. the day prior to a public meeting. Commissioners say they’ll have an agenda posted no later than 10 a.m. the day before a meeting. But that gives just 5 hours (in the middle of a workday) to submit comments.
The Commissioners didn’t discuss protocol for accepting or rejecting public comments submitted by writing.
3 Topics, Everyone Knows the Rules
People submitting public comments or those speaking in person at Commissioners meetings may only discss 3 non-agenda topics.
3 Minute Time Limit
Instead of 5 minutes, comments are now limited to just 3 minutes.
Comment by Proxy
If the Commissioners Chairman decides too many people want to make comments on the same topic, they can require that a spokesperson be appointed on behalf of the group.
In a direct attack on the press and public, the Chair requires that anyone wishing to record these public meetings give prior notice that they’re doing so.
These new rules are littered with inconsistencies and obvious unconstitutional mandates. For instance, Pennsylvania law does not require that any consent or notice be given to record public meetings.
And how can a spokesperson be appointed if comments are going to be read by someone from the County physically at the meeting?
It’s at this point we should remind readers that the County waited a full week to pass these rules after balking at them last week. In the meantime, they were once again reviewed by at least one attorney.
(See full new rules below.)
Why were the rules passed?
Hetherington appears to the be one spearheading this push to enact the new rules. He’s becoming increasingly frustrated during his short time as Commissioners chairman with the subject matter of the public comments.
Boots said several times on Wednesday that his new rules were about restoring order and bringing a sense of decorum to the weekly meetings.
Many, since he took over the gavel, have focused on Halcovage and the scandal in which he’s involved currently. Comments made by some have the Commissioner doing this, that, and the other and at this point, are merely accusations.
The Commissioners also felt the heat from the public recently over their bloodthirsty pursuit of the former GIANT grocery store property in Pottsville.
And for the last couple months, the board has been peppered by calls wanting to know when small businesses might benefit from some of the CARES Act funding the County received and continues to spend.
Prior to these new rules passing, Hetherington has tinkered with and shown increased frustration with the comments period.
Accusations used to flow freely right at the top of the meeting. Then, Boots split the public comments periods between agenda and non-agenda items.
In the last month or so, Boots has fired back at callers when he feels they’ve gotten out of line. That really came to a head on Wednesday, especially after the bullish Commissioners adopted the new rules, surely knowing they’d be challenged in court.
On Wednesday, he said that these rules weren’t written to stifle public comment, rather establish some order to the meetings.
“Anyone who knows me personally knows I listen,” Hetherington said. “Calls have gotten out of control.”
Hetherington also said Wednesday that he believes the 3 people who comment regularly “monopolize” the entire public comment period.
“How is that free speech?” he wondered.
Boots said, last week 32 people were on the Zoom line but only 3 spoke. However, at no time were the public comments periods closed from further discussion, so anyone else listening to the call on Zoom could have easily spoken up and said they’d like to comment. Nothing stopped them.
Hetherington really didn’t seem to like how the prolonged comment sessions extended the time of the meetings longer than he’d like.
“It’s taking a lot of our time. It’s the same comments over and over again,” he said.
Backlash to New Schuylkill County Commissioners Public Comment Rules
The backlash to the Commissioners insistence on pushing for these new rules was swift and furious.
At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Hetherington was clearly beside himself. You could hear someone in the Commissioners board room tell him to “take your time” after a few seconds of radio silence. Hetherington seemed to mute one speaker, former Mount Carbon Mayor Jeff Dunkel, during the second public comment session Wednesday. The commissioner had ruled the speaker out of order and the two battled each other for air time until the audio went silent.
But prior to that episode, several members of the public and the lone dissenting Commissioner, Hess, expressed their displeasure with Wednesday’s vote.
“We work for the people. We serve at the will of the people,” Hess said just before the vote was taken. “My point is, you listen to them. Proper decorum is needed. This is a professional setting. To call names is not good.”
Hess also believes there shouldn’t be separate rules for people who attend meetings in person versus virtually through the County’s Zoom line.
He also said he wants to be able to see what comments are submitted.
“I want to read them in their entirety to make sure nothing gets tossed away,” he added. “Public servant is supposed to listen. You’ve got to take, sometimes, the criticism and ridicule. Sometimes, it’s hard,” Hess said. “You take the advice and go correct it. It’s the only way you can make a good, sound vote.
“With the way this is written, deep in my heart, I can not approve this,” Hess said. “We need the people to speak, to hear them.”
Halcovage, who voted in favor of the rules, cited “Robert’s Rules of Order” in saying it’s up to the Commissioners Chairman to decide how meetings function.
He defended Hetherington by saying that Boots apparently contacted other counties to see what their rules were on public comments. Based on the conversation in the board room on Wednesday, it sounds like Berks County was contacted.
“Follow the law”
Clerk of Courts Maria Casey said, despite what Boots said about the First Amendment, that what the Commissioners were doing was illegal.
“You can not abridge peoples’ First Amendment rights,” she said.
Casey believes these rules are moving forward in an effort to protect Halcovage from more accusations.
“This is all designed to protect him and the underlying litigation where 4 women have currently charged him with sexual harassment and that is what this is designed to do,” she said. “To keep …”
At that point, Hetherington interrupted Casey and said, “This is a personnel matter. You probably shouldn’t be discussing that in the board room.”
Casey did not appreciate being cut off and then lectured Hetherington on her interpretation of the law.
“Follow the law on free speech,” she told Boots.
“Don’t cut me off!”
Ringtown resident Doug Litwhiler apparently crossed Boots’ line on order during his second comment period of the day. He was discussing matters involving Halcovage and got the hook from Hetherington.
But that didn’t go over well with the caller.
“Listen. Don’t cut me off. I’m tired of you cutting people off,” he said. “You say slander. The only thing we talk is the truth. You know why there’s 40 people on the call? People in the courthouse send us messages. This stuff comes from the people who you’re supposed to be in charge of. We don’t make it up.”
Savas Logothetides, the head of Pottsville Area Development Corp. (among other roles), has commented once in a while about the status of the CARES Act money and the county’s pursuit of the former GIANT property. He says the Commissioners only have themselves to blame for the comments getting out of control.
“I’ve conducted myself with respect and dignity throughout this comment period and I find it very offensive the enacting of this policy,” he said. “What has perpetuated these comments is your own lack of transparency.”
Logothetides also questioned the limited time window in which the public can submit comments in writing going forward.
“It’s not sensible,” he said. “It’s not logical and it’s not right. Just because Berks County has set a precedent does not mean that it’s right.”
“Public feedback comes with the job.”
Commenting prior to the vote on Wednesday, Lisa Von Ahn, co-chair of Schuylkill Indivisible, said, “I’m appalled at this public comment policy. Public feedback comes with the job, which I believe also comes with a taxpayer-funded salary. I’m concerned this is a license to censor and vet valid comments about the way the county’s being run. There is no reason why anyone should ask permission to record it.”
You can read the full text of the new rules below:
10-21-20 Motion Public Comments BOC Mtgs (1)