Schuylkill County Commissioners Chairman Boots Hetherington threw a temper tantrum on Wednesday during the board’s regular meeting.
Boots didn’t like the public comments from regular agitator and former Mount Carbon Mayor Jeff Dunkel. And in the end, Boots threw Dunkel out of the Commissioners board room.
Boots Hetherington Ejects Dunkel Over Public Comments
To justify his actions on Wednesday, Hetherington cited the controversial rules he helped pass last year when Commissioners’ virtual meetings turned into mid-morning must-listen entertainment.
But it seemed as though Hetherington was priming the pump for his actions on Wednesday when he led off the Commissioners meeting with a rundown of his ridiculous and likely illegal rules on public comments. It was like a trigger warning but the only one who got triggered by his rules was Boots himself.
Here’s what Boots said to start the meeting …
“Comments that are not acceptable and will not be tolerated include slander, gossip, hearsay, personal attacks on Commissioners and their businesses and their private life, and also as well as our staff, our administrator, our solicitor, our HR director, will not be tolerated. And also political campaigns, that’s not part of our operation of the Courthouse. You’ll receive one warning if you do not adhere by the rules. And the second one, you’ll lose your chance to make public comment at this meeting.”
In short, if it’s something Boots doesn’t want to hear (aka criticism of his administration), he’ll shut you up and if you refuse to shut up, he’ll throw you out of the Courthouse.
And that’s just what he did on Wednesday.
Following an otherwise unremarkable meeting, the second Public Comment portion of the meeting made up for the snooze fest earlier in the morning. That’s when Dunkel, who comments regularly at these meetings, was given the floor by Hetherington.
This was one of the first meetings that the public was actually allowed into the Commissioners board room since the start of the pandemic. And Dunkel wanted to make up for lost time, clearly. It was pretty clear the reason Hetherington recited his public comments rules – slightly altered from their original version, by the way – was because he saw Dunkel sitting in the gallery.
It didn’t take long for Dunkel to get under Boots’ skin, either.
First, he started by criticizing the audio quality of the Commissioners virtual meetings. Even though the Commissioners are now allowing the public into the Courthouse for the meetings, they’re going to continue to broadcast them on Zoom. Unfortunately for the public, it’s nearly impossible to hear what’s happening. The County says it’s worked hard to improve the audio quality since it started livestreaming the meetings but it hasn’t changed one bit.
Dunkel then criticized the Commissioners, specifically Boots, for not being transparent about how the County spent the $12.7 million in CARES Act funding it received last year. To this day, the County has never made clear how they spent that money or if they’ll have to pay it back because it was spent illegally. They’ve denied numerous attempts to make that information public.
He also claims that the Commissioners changed the rules on public attendance at the board’s work session meeting last week, which was held after the Courthouse lifted its sanctions on public entry to the building due to the pandemic. Dunkel says he showed up to attend the meeting but claims Commissioner George Halcovage, Solicitor Chris Hobbs, and Administrator Gary Bender conspired in private to prevent him from attending.
“It’s a bunch of bull,” Dunkel said. “It’s like a circus here.”
Dunkel then made mention of an article on the lifting of sanctions that was published by the Commissioners newsletter, aka The Republican Herald newspaper. He went off on a tangent about Halcovage always appearing in the paper for photo ops and his proximity to women in those photos.
That was the first trigger point for Boots.
“That’s enough of that,” the Commissioner interjected, saying it was a personal attack against Halcovage. “That’s your first warning. Next time, you’re out.”
To his credit, Boots gave a little bit more leeway to Dunkel. He didn’t assess the second technical foul, as it were, right away.
Dunkel then made reference to a “back door deal” regarding the hiring of Kent Hatter, who was hired back in May as the County’s new Chief Tax Assessor. He says the Orwigsburg businessman is unqualified for the job he got with the County and believes the only reason he got it was because he’s the Campaign Manager for interim Schuylkill County Controller Sharyn Yackenchick.
Indeed, she abstained from voting on his hiring during a previous County Salary Board meeting because of that connection.
That, again, set Boots off and he snapped at Dunkel.
“That’s a personal attack,” the Commissioner said. “You’ve had two warnings now. Either you behave or you get kicked out.”
Boots clearly has a warped definition of a “personal attack” as just criticizing someone that you don’t think is qualified for a government job they got is hardly an attack. It just sounds like Boots doesn’t want to hear criticism and aims to shut it down any chance he gets.
But despite the childish reprimand against Dunkel – telling him to “behave” – that wasn’t the end of the Commissioner’s histrionics.
Solicitor Glen Roth tried to intervene and remind Dunkel that Boots is in charge of order in the Commissioners board room. And Roth also attempted to “educate” Dunkel on how the Tax Assessor’s office was being managed.
Dunkel wasn’t done, however. And this is when things got really heated.
Strawberry Pickin’ Expedition
Boots blew up when Dunkel mentioned an alleged “field trip” the Commissioners and County row officers were taking Thursday afternoon to Boots’ strawberry farm to pick berries to donate to some local nursing homes. While Dunkel thought the gesture was nice, he questioned why it had to be done on a weekday in the middle of the day when all those who went should have been working at the Courthouse, since that’s what they’re paid to do.
That discussion somehow led to Dunkel mentioning how some officials, he claims, are the subject of sexual harassment claims.
Boots interjected, “Mr. Dunkel … again …”
Dunkel spoke over the Commissioner and said, “This is what the public needs to know. The sexual harassment that goes on in this Courthouse is pathetic. And they follow the leader, right there (presumably referencing Halcovage, who faces a federal lawsuit over sexual harassment at the Courthouse).”
“That’s it!” Boots said. “You’re done. You’re done. You’re done.”
Dunkel wrapped up his comments after that reprimand and then made an off-the-cuff comment about picking strawberries.
Boots didn’t want to let that go and somehow perceived that as an attack on his personal business.
“Once again, we talked about personal businesses …,” he started, before getting interrupted by Dunkel.
“The people need to know, Mr. Hetherington. You’re taking these people out on the taxpayers’ dime to your business to pick strawberries,” Dunkel said.
Boots replied, “They’re not County employees, OK? They’re public officials.”
Aside from that being one of the most ludicrous things ever said by a public official or … well, anyone ever, criticizing that activity should be well within the bounds of public comments at a public government meeting. Since Boots didn’t deny that that was going to happen on Thursday, they should all know that we don’t pay them to go on some berry picking expedition, no matter how harmless the intent.
Wouldn’t we all love to get paid – by the public – to go pick strawberries to donate them to senior citizens?
Dunkel continued to say that the public officials or County employees or whomever should be in the Courthouse during regular working hours earning the money we pay them.
That was it for Boots, who interrupted Dunkel for a final time and yelled, “OUT! OUT! OUT! OUT! OUT!”
We boldfaced that last OUT! because Boots really raised his voice on that one, to which Dunkel replied, “Whoa!”
Boots continued to say “OUT!” several more times.
On his way out the door of the Commissioners board room, Dunkel again referenced the strawberries and Boots again ordered him “OUT!”