In his 2 years as Schuylkill County Commissioner, Boots Hetherington has been obsessed over the public comments he hears and reads.
He’s addressed the rules – and changed them – about a handful of times. And next week, he’s aiming to have the rules changed one more time.
If they have their way next week, Schuylkill County Commissioners will no longer accept written comments via email or any other means to be read during public meetings.
Schuylkill Commissioners Getting Rid of Written Public Comments
This practice started when the County, in 2020, adhered to pandemic-related orders handed down by the Governor and state Dept. of Health, that restricted public access to the Courthouse, including public meetings.
The Commissioners started streaming a low-quality audio feed of the meetings over Zoom.
Initially, the meetings allowed the public to call in and voice their public comments. But when the Commissioners were all set to buck the state’s barbaric shutdown orders, an angry sector of the public let their voices be heard loudly. Then, a few meetings went off the rails with the audio commentary, and the Commissioners changed the rules to allow only email comments.
However, the window to email those comments – based on the meeting Agenda – was very short. At best, the County posted that Agenda at 10 a.m. the day prior to a meeting. And the window to submit comments closed promptly the same day at 3 p.m.
Eventually, the public was allowed back into the Courthouse for meetings but the email comments stayed. They weren’t used often, however.
And apparently when they were used, Boots revealed on Wednesday, the system was often abused.
Hetherington says he received a call from someone who told him that “people were using an old email account that belonged to his father when they had a business.”
According to Boots, this wasn’t the only situation. He didn’t provide specifics on the nature of the comments from the alleged spoofer. If they were anything like the ones Boots has read during meetings, they probably weren’t too kind.
“But people would do that, take someone else’s former email address and make comments like that,” he said.
He cited two other alleged examples – a person from Klingerstown and from Shenandoah (or Shena-do, as he called it) where a person did or didn’t exist. It was hard to hear over the noise of the feed.
Either way, Boots has had enough of the email comments and the Commissioners seem poised to abolish them after next week.
“I realize we did the written comments when we couldn’t have contact with the Courthouse because of the pandemic. Nothing good came from that exercise. We’re basically going to back to what we had before with the addition of people being able to listen in,” he said. “We’re not taking away any rights or opportunities. We’re getting away from the written comments. It was grossly misused.”
County Solicitor Paul Datte chimed in on the conversation, giving more reasons why he thinks the email comments should be done away with for good.
Datte used the word “abused” to describe the nature of the comments received. And said there was “duplication” in comments between a Work Session meeting and a proper Commissioners meeting, where the majority of votes are taken.
That’s going back to a rule that was added by Boots during his short time as Commissioner to cut down on the relentless, sometimes repetitive nature of comments.
However, it’s an absurd rule and defending it is even more ridiculous. As we’ve noted, it’s only a duplicate comment to someone that attends every meeting religiously. Like in the news business, each article should be written to present at least some context of the past. You’re to assume that a reader is coming to your site or picking up your paper or watching your show for the first time.
And the Commissioners should take that same approach, despite the laborious effort they’ll have to put in to sit quietly for a few minutes and listen to the same comments over and over again. It’s part of the job.
Convenient Only to Them
Datte says, “This way, people have to be here in person to comment.”
Yeah, that sounds easy to people who work at the Courthouse or who have the time in the middle of the day to go attend a public meeting.
The Commissioners meet on Wednesdays at 10 a.m. And remember, the public only finds out what’s going to be on the Agenda 24 hours prior.
How do they expect people to drop what they’re doing – like work or running their business – and attend a meeting that’s convenient only to public officials who need to get the heck out of the Courthouse ASAP because they have their own businesses to run?
It’s the height of being out-of-touch and the Commissioners seem to give not one fig about that.
Just 1 Public Comment Session
Another part of the amended rules, if passed next week, will condense the two Public Comment sections of a Schuylkill County Commissioners meeting into one.
Right now, there’s a session at the beginning of the meeting to address items on the Agenda. And there’s a free-for-all session at the end intended for just about anything.
When these rules pass next week, there will only be one, at the beginning. And that can include anything but it’s got to be limited to 3 minutes because remember, they gotta get the heck outta there.
Boots has often complained that meetings can sometimes drag on and he doesn’t like it when repetitive comments keep him at the Courthouse longer than he has to be.
Commissioner Gary Hess said he agreed with the new rules proposed but offered a suggestion that seemed to fall on deaf ears.
He suggested that two Public Comment periods be kept in the Work Session meetings. Hess said that’ll allow the public to comment on items they’ve just learned about during the Work Session meetings.
“At least we can hear a little bit of comment prior to voting,” Hess says.
Datte reminded Hess that the rules follow the law and didn’t seem to get what Hess was saying.
“Everyone will have an opportunity to present their comments. And 3 minutes is certainly sufficient time to do that. We’re not cutting off anyone’s right to comment.”
“It’s all good,” Hess said. “I’m just making my comment on what I’d like to see and if not, I’ll conform.”
Maybe the Cyber Detectives Were Out That Day
What’s really interesting here – other than one Commissioner’s obsession with Public Comments – is how the cyber sleuths at the Courthouse could be duped by email spoofers.
Remember, the Courthouse did its own internal cyber investigation and even hired an outside law firm to rubber stamp that inquisition as legit, when it wanted to fire two former Tax Claims office employees it accused of improperly using a piece of software to look up people’s personal information.
Now, the County was able to use, as they put it, some real detective skills to find out who was allegedly responsible. Oh, they made a public spectacle of this investigation but, to date, have not released the details of any of it to the public, despite at least 2 media outlets filing Right to Know requests to get it.
But when it comes to deciphering if an email really came from the person who signed it, they’re completely lost.