We’re Not Dumb, Council
Hanover Borough Council has spoken: they don’t want you to speak.
That’s the gist of the news from last night’s committee meeting as reported by Lauren Linhard from The Evening Sun.
(C)ouncil discussed the possibility of creating a Sunshine Act policy that would limit speakers during public comment sessions or meetings.
Yep, council wants to make sure they hear less feedback. They seem to be particularly worried that they will have to sit through the concerns of people who own a business in the borough, but live elsewhere. Gee, I wonder what precipitated that? Besides, it’s pretty funny (some might say deliberate) that this policy comes up at the first meeting after the borough started putting agendas online in advance of a meeting. What a coincidence that they decide they want to limit public comment right after they give people an opportunity to be prepared to give public comments.
UPDATE: The item was not on the draft agenda released Monday – I couldn’t remember, but someone just confirmed that. So it all of a sudden became a big deal …. or was not put on there on purpose so as to not arouse suspicion. Oh, and the borough website has been down for more than an hour as I post this shortly after 3:30 p.m.
Let’s recap what has happened recently:
- Council complains that people who complain don’t come to meetings to learn the real story
- People come to meetings to learn the real story
- People complain and demand accountability from council
- Council is forced to reverse course on the library plan and the nature trail debacle
- Council moves to limit the number of people and amount of time for complaining and demanding accountability
We don’t have enough time or enough numbers to outline why this plan stinks, but let’s give a few of them a shot. First of all, the Sunshine Act does allow for some restrictions on public comment, but I really don’t think the borough can really provide any justification for why they need to take this step.
Are there numbers justifying the amount of time wasted on excessive public comments? (I would give a run down on the length of some of the council meetings during the past six months or so, but the borough’s web site is down so I can’t get to the info.) Have they tracked the trends of public comment? Do they have details on the length of speaking by those commenting? Have they mapped this out for residents vs. non-residents to see where the “problem” is happening? Besides, as council member Sonny Eline has told us so many times (even though he was proven so, so, so, so, so so, so, so, so, so so, so, so, so, so so, so, so, so, so so, so, so, so, so so, so, so, so, so so, so, so, so, so wrong at the nature trail public hearing) the group of those complaining is just a small number of folks who have axes to grind. So if it’s just a few of us, why worry about limiting comments (unless you really do know that it’s a lot of people with smart, well-reasoned arguments that undercut everything you say).
And while the law does specify that residents and taxpayers are the primary audience for comments, it doesn’t say what kind of tax defines this group. Business owners pay taxes. People who work in the borough also do (at least I think they still have an occupational “privilege” tax). So it’s not just residents who fund the government that so desperately wants us to just sit down and shut up. Plus, do residents of other municipalities who are customers of Hanover’s water and sewer system have a claim as a “taxpayer?”
So it’s not as clear cut as council wants it to be. They may think that excluding a few people means nothing in the big picture, but it really just shows their pettiness. They may worry that people from all over may come and share an unpopular opinion about their decisions, but that’s just tough. That’s what happens when you sign up for this gig. If the borough really got a seasoned administrator back in 2011 when they elevated Barb Krebs to the top position, she would be telling them that public comment is part of the job and limiting it really just opens up a can of worms. Instead, she’s leading this charge because the plan she and council president John Gerken hatched to put her into power and execute their plans through secrecy and intimidation has started to hit some roadblocks. This is the borough manager who promised increased communication was a pivotal part of her plans when she got the job.
Council was wrong on the library modifications. Council was wrong on the nature trail. Now council is wrong on public comment. Hopefully they start to see the pattern here and realize they need more information, not less because they are working from a tremendous position of weakness which is fueled by hubris, denial and immaturity.