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Schuylkill County News

Are the Comment Cops Coming Back to the Courthouse?

By making a big stink over what people say, a bigger stink is made of what they’re saying.

Things got slightly out of hand during last week’s Schuylkill County Salary Board meeting when the topic of the current Children & Youth Director and her alleged time card fraud activity back in 2019 came up during Public Comment.

Less than a minute into a comment by Melinda Deibert, a North Manheim Township resident who has been persistently discussing this topic for several months, Commissioner Boots Hetherington objected to this topic being mentioned.

“Is this a Salary Board issue,” Hetherington asked of Commissioners and Salary Board Chair Larry Padora.

Deibert jumped in, emphatically saying, “Yes, it is. Yes, it is.”

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Hetherington turned to Solicitor David Rice, asking, “Mr. Solicitor, would you give us a ruling on this?”

The former Commissioners Chairman wanted this particular subject muted because it wasn’t on this particular Salary Board meeting’s agenda for March 6.

Indeed, the subject of Lisa Stevens’ alleged time card fraud does have a bit of age on it. It’s alleged to have happened more than 4 years ago. 

That’s when Stevens allegedly encouraged Children & Youth case workers to put in for overtime – hours that she actually worked – on their time sheets and then pay her in cash once the County paid them for the time they didn’t work.

Based on our reporting of this issue from the depositions submitted as evidence in the 2021 Jane Doe v. Schuylkill County harassment and retaliation lawsuit, when it was discussed, Stevens received a two-week suspension from work after these allegations were allegedly investigated internally at the Courthouse.

But Deibert and others who are often critical of the County government believe that suspension wasn’t enough. Deibert routinely pushes the idea that what Stevens is alleged to have done rises to the level of a felony for theft by deception and wants the Commissioners to urge Schuylkill County District Attorney Mike O’Pake to investigate.

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However, the Salary Board – essentially, the Commissoners – didn’t want to hear about it and/or feel there is nothing they can do. And that’s where the contention came in on Wednesday.

The debate became not about the alleged act but whether or not it could be discussed during a Salary Board meeting more than 4 years later.

Yes, we’re back to attempting to police comments once again at the Courthouse. We’d gone a few months without this happening. But here we were, talking about what people are allowed to talk about during public comments.

In fact, this very conversation played out almost verbatim back in December with a few new players this time around …

So, we’re 30 seconds into Deibert’s comments when Hetherington interrupts the first time. He asked Rice for advice.

Rice asked Deibert if her comments had anything to do with the Salary Board. She said her comments did have to do with salaries and that she’d be bringing up her salary in her comments. 

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Deibert continued and indeed did bring up Stevens’ salary thorugh the years, specifically from the time of the alleged time card theft incident to now.

While Deibert was rattling off figures, Hetherington once again interrupted and asked Rice for another clarification. 

“I thought Salary Board had to do with agenda items,” he said. 

Deibert disagreed with that take and said if the Salary Board and Commissioners wanted to institute a policy that restricted comments in a meeting to agenda items only, they’d need to have two Public Comment portions of their meetings, one for general comments and another for agenda-specific comments. 

At that point, another traditional County government antagonist, Jeffrey Dunkel, chimed in from the back of the Board Room gallery and reminded Hetherington that he’d gotten rid of separate Public Comment portions of meetings when he served as Chairman in the last 3 years. 

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That ruffled Hetherington and then voices were getting raised in the Board Room, both at the front and back of the house. 

Rice said, at least partially before getting drowned out, “I think we should stop …”

Deibert raised her voice noting how she was, in fact, discussing salaries. 

Hetherington then said, “Mrs. Deibert …”

You could then hear Rice mention something about how something wasn’t “directly related to the topic.”

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Deibert once again raised her voice in opposition to Rice’s opinion. 

At that point, Padora had had enough and attempted to bring some form of order to the room and may have called upon his parenting techniques a bit.

“Boots, shush a minute,” he said. 

Deibert continued to state her case before she was interrupted by Padora, too. 

The Chairman said, “OK, Melinda, stop a second. Boots, stop a second. I want to hear from the Solicitor.”

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Rice said Deibert’s comments were “not directly related” to the issues that were to come before the Salary Board during that specific meeting. 

He said it was “not relevant” to that day’s meeting but Deibert objected, saying “Yes, it is!”

Rice then raised his voice, because why not, everyone else was, and said, “Not in my opinion.”

For what it’s worth, Padora did allow Deibert to conclude her comments, during which she noted Stevens’ 2023 salary. 

Her point in the comments she made is that she believes Stevens should have been more harshly punished but instead, the County has raised her salary since that alleged 2019 incident.

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In a follow-up comment, Dunkel asked the Salary Board to provide a written copy of a County policy that legally restricts public comments in those meetings to agenda items only.

Padora asked Rice if he’d provide that to Dunkel. We checked with Dunkel over the weekend and he said he hadn’t received that policy.

Regarding the meat of Deibert’s comments, Padora indicated O’Pake would look into the claims but later in the meeting – a meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes, by the way – it was unclear when and if O’Pake was ever made aware of these allegations.

You can see and hear how all that transpired in the full video of this Salary Board meeting below. We’ll follow up on that story in due time.

However, and it’s been months since it’s been an issue, it seems the County still wants to be into the business of policing public comments rather than just giving the few people that do turn up for open meetings their 3 minutes to speak their piece.

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Maybe we saw a bit of a turning of the tide on Wednesday. For all the debate and loud voices in the room, Deibert was permitted to continue with her comments.

But are we really headed back down the road of policing public comments?

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Val

    March 12, 2024 at 11:27 am

    “Don’t debate with an attorney”:-)) This new commissioner sounds like he is mentoring his child during public comments. Schuylkill County Solicitors deserve a separate article imho.. Stevens’ actions must be investigated.

  2. insider

    March 12, 2024 at 9:39 pm

    Question. Is Deibert…Melinda Kantner… Former elected official in the county????

    • Melinda

      March 13, 2024 at 5:02 pm

      Yes, she is! Still trying to look out for the good people of this County.

  3. Val

    March 13, 2024 at 12:01 pm

    Question. What is the reason so many county officials, including a recently elected commissioner Padora, are openly against the investigation ?
    Meanwhile the same officials love to point the finger at other counties, sort of “Look! The other counties do the same”. This time even the other counties don’t do the same. Samples: Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties CYS investigations. In the first case local officials initiated the investigation that saved them a lot of headaches in the future. Again, there is the law and there is Schuylkill County..

  4. Tom

    March 14, 2024 at 9:46 am

    Someone must be making a big stink over this article, Canary. Looks like you keep having to repost it. Someone not wanting information to reach the masses?

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