By Keith Gushard
New guidelines for public comment go into effect next week at Crawford County Board of Commissioners meetings and work sessions, but not without some protest about the process.
County commissioners Thursday unanimously formally approved new guidelines for public participation that are effective Tuesday. The county had posted the guidelines more than 30 days ago, but Sam Byrd Jr., a Meadville resident, objected not to the content, but to the process used.
The proposed guidelines were posted March 12 outside the commissioners’ meeting room at the Crawford County Courthouse in Meadville as well as on a bulletin board near the entrance to the courthouse for more than 30 days for public comment.
The guidelines also have been available at the commissioners’ office at the courthouse and online at both the county’s website and at meadvilletribune.com.
Byrd questioned the board on when public discussions were held on the matter.
Byrd admitted he had not attended every commissioner meeting or work session, but he didn’t recall public discussion on the matter. Byrd said a lack of public discussion violated Pennsylvania’s Open Meeting Law or Sunshine Law and said the resolution was out of order because of it.
Byrd asked for minutes of public work sessions when the matter was discussed, but commissioners reiterated formal minutes only are kept for the board’s meetings, not work sessions.
Byrd said Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law requires minutes of work sessions be kept as well as those of formal meetings.
Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with Pennsylvania News Media Association, a trade association for Pennsylvania-based newspapers and online media in Harrisburg, agreed.
“If they are deliberating agency business, minutes have to be kept,” Melewsky said in a telephone interview Thursday. “The minutes have to be kept anytime there’s a quorum of the members.”
Commissioners do plan to have future commissioner work sessions recorded but did take exception Thursday to Byrd’s comments discussion that the guidelines weren’t public.
“I cannot more vigorously disagree,” Commissioner Jack Lynch said to Byrd about the discussions. “You indicated yourself you had no problem with it.”
Lynch said public participation guidelines first were proposed back in August.
Commissioner C. Sherman Allen said the county’s work sessions have been very open, but there was no comment on the proposed policy.
“If it was a problem, we were all ears, but we didn’t hear anything,” Allen said.
Commissioner Chairman Francis Weiderspahn said there was no mention of concerns by the public about the new guidelines during any work sessions.
Both Allen and Weiderspahn noted changes from the first to second draft in early March took both their own and public concerns into consideration by removing a requirement of three-day advance notice to address the board at meetings; and adding two public comment periods at meetings — one on agenda items at the start of the meeting and another on items of general county interest near the close of the meeting.
The commissioners hold public work sessions each Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. at the courthouse and formal public board meetings the first and third Thursday of each month at 9:30 a.m. The twice-monthly public board meetings are when the board takes official action on items such as paying bills, contracts and other items.
Under the new guidelines, commissioners will allow an individual or group up to three minutes to ask questions about agenda items prior to the meeting. At the close of the meeting, a person may have 10 minutes to comment, while public participation will be limited to 30 minutes.
Commissioners said they welcome comment and have no concerns with public comment or questions at the weekly Tuesday work sessions.
The guidelines are to try to bring some order to their twice-monthly public board meetings and not inhibit public comment.
The Crawford County Board of Commissioners holds public work sessions each Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. at the courthouse and formal public board meetings the first and third Thursday of each month at 9:30 a.m. The twice-monthly public board meetings are when the board takes official action on items such as paying bills, contracts and other items.
Below is a partial list of public participation guidelines proposed by the board. A full copy of the guidelines is available at meadvilletribune.com.
- Commissioners request comments be made with a recognition of time constraints on county staff as well as a courtesy to others in the audience that may wish to comment. The chairman will allocate sufficient time for public comment but reserves the right to limit comment that exceeds a reasonable time, isn’t germane to business at hand or cannot be reasonably accommodated at a work session.
- If commissioners determine there isn’t sufficient time for public comments, the comment period will be deferred to the next work session or a special meeting prior to the next regularly scheduled business meeting.
- People wishing to speak to the board need to contact the chief clerk in advance of the meeting.
- Each person will be limited to 10 minutes, but that time limit may be waived by the chairman.
- No person may speak more than once on the same topic during the meeting.
- Public participation will be limited to 30 minutes total.
- Commissioners retain the right to refuse permission to any individual to speak at a regular meeting to address the same subject matter discussed at a previous meeting.
- Comments must be addressed to the chairman of the board.
- The chairman may interrupt or terminate a statement if it is too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, threatening, derogatory, obscene or irrelevant.