Rules on time limit, conduct established for Northumberland County commissioners' meetings
By Mark Gilger
SUNBURY - After being criticized Tuesday for imposing a two-minute limit on public comment during county commissioners' meetings, Commissioner Chairman Vinny Clausi instructed solicitor Frank Garrigan to recite President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to illustrate his claim that a lot can be said in two minutes.
The theatrics were part of an entertaining 90-minute session in which commissioners established nine rules for the conduct and order of business that include a two-minute limit to speak on agenda items and during the public input portion of the meeting.
Commissioner Richard Shoch, who opposed the motion to adopt the rules, wasn't amused by Clausi's orchestrated effort to prove a point.
"This is another wonderful dog and pony show," Shoch said. "This is a dark day for Northumberland County."
Shoch, who was just presented the rules Monday, said Garrigan's quick recitation of the Gettysburg Address, done in 80 seconds, didn't prove anything since it was read from a prepared document - which the solicitor just happened to have with him after Commissioner Stephen Bridy pointed out that even the Gettysburg Address could be read within two minutes.
Shoch said Garrigan and assistant solicitor John Muncer both oppose the two-minute speaking rule and pointed out that the chairman of the recently formed Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) Authority gave the public three minutes to speak at its first meeting last month.
"If people make an effort to come here to meetings, they should be given reasonable time to speak to the board," Shoch said. "We should be encouraging dialogue and interaction with the citizens instead of trying to limit public input."
The commissioner challenged the legality of having all questions submitted in writing to the chairman and objected to having any citizen rudely cut off during his or her remarks.
Shoch objected to not allowing the public to speak on action items that surface during the meeting, but aren't on the agenda. He also believes only "emergency items" should be allowed to be added to the agenda after the Thursday preceding the scheduled meeting date.
Shoch said he is disturbed that commissioners may refuse to answer questions.
Clausi, who said Shoch has a right to oppose the rules, also told the commissioner he has a right to go to Attorney Kymberley Best and tell David F. Kaleta of Shamokin to sue the county again. Clausi made the sarcastic comment in reference to Kaleta's ongoing lawsuit against the county, Clausi and Bridy over issues related to accessing AOAA land.
Last month's commissioners meeting ended with a call to police when Kaleta ignored Clausi's request to leave after the chairman claimed Kaleta was out of order.
Kaleta's friend, William R. Knapick Sr., of Coal Township, also filed a lawsuit last month against Clausi and the county for not allowing him enough time to express his opinions during a Jan. 22 public meeting after Clausi imposed a two-minute limit on public comment at the beginning of the meeting.
The suit also claims Clausi violated the Sunshine Act by retaliating against a member of the public for objecting to Clausi's alleged violation of the act.
At the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, Knapick again complained that two minutes is not enough time for citizens to speak. He said, "Debate is the most important part of a meeting, according to Roberts Rules of Order. Nobody should be cut off."
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the Sunshine Act allows agencies to impose "reasonable" regulations on the conduct of meetings, but she said she doesn't favor specific public comment time limits, saying it can be problematic.
The following rules for the conduct and order of business were approved Tuesday by Clausi and Bridy:
- The rules shall be posted in the law library at the courthouse and in the foyer of the administration building. A list of dates of regular commissioners' meetings for the current year shall also be posted.
- A commissioner is permitted to participate in a meeting by telephone, video or other electronic means when he or she is unable to attend in person due to illness or absence from the county.
- In governing proceedings of the commissioners' meetings, custom and practice shall prevail. In the absence of custom and practice, the rules contained in Robert's Rules of Order, newly revised, shall be used to govern the proceedings in all cases to which they are applicable.
- Each member of the public shall have two minutes to speak during the citizens' input on agenda items only and public input portions of the meeting, so long as the comment made is not scandalous, slanderous, profane, obscene, vulgar or threatening. The chairperson shall have discretion to grant a speaker additional time to speak. Speakers must speak from the podium provided for public comment.
- Meetings will follow the agenda as established for the particular meeting. Additions to the agenda shall be submitted to the secretaries in the commissioners' office no later than noon of the Thursday preceding a meeting. The chairman or any majority of the commissioners shall have the authority to have an item placed on the agenda for a scheduled meeting. Nothing herein shall prevent a commissioner from introducing a motion during the new matter portion of the meeting.
- Any person who wishes to speak during the citizens' input on agenda items only or public input portions of a meeting shall state their name and address for the record. In the event it is anticipated that a large number of people will be making public comment, the chairman may require that participants who wish to speak sign in. Members of the public shall then be called in the order based upon the sign-in sheet.
- All comments must be addressed to the chairman as the representative of the board and no other without the chairman's approval. All questions by attendees must be submitted in writing to the chairman and shall be addressed at a later date.
- Speakers shall maintain proper decorum and courtesy and shall refrain from the use of offensive, obscene, profane, vulgar or threatening language. This rule will be strictly enforced by the chairperson. Speakers may not yield nor reserve their allotted time once they speak.
- Photography and recording equipment are permitted using only the available light and sound unless the chairman authorizes an exception.