Meadville Tribune

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March 4, 2013

County to public: Comment on comments

MEADVILLE — As the deadline draws near for written public comment on proposed guidelines for public participation at weekly work sessions and twice-monthly meetings of Crawford County commissioners, the only written responses have come from two other county officials — District Attorney Francis Schultz and Sheriff Nick Hoke — and not the public at large.

Francis Weiderspahn Jr., commissioner chairman, is asking all written public comment be submitted to the county by Thursday so any comments may be taken into consideration as the board refines its guidelines. A proposed schedule has the public participation guidelines in place by late April, Weiderspahn said.

Clear guidelines need to be established by commissioners, according to District Attorney Francis Schultz and Sheriff Nick Hoke concurs.

“Currently, the meetings have become somewhat of a fiasco with certain residents being permitted to ask questions at will and also being permitted to make wild accusations about elected officials, department heads and certain departments,” Schultz wrote to the county. “Many of these wild accusations are repeated at meeting after meeting. This policy, as long as it is enforced, will bring order back to these meetings.”

Sheriff Nick Hoke’s written comment to the county was only on Schultz’s written comments about the guildelines. Hoke’s response to the county was “Well-spoken and I whole heartedly agree.”

Weiderspahn said he and fellow commissioners Jack Lynch and C. Sherman Allen aren’t trying to limit or inhibit public comment, but need order at the board’s twice-monthly public board meetings.

For months, audience members have been bombarding both the current board of commissioners that took office in January 2012 and the previous board with questions on agenda items as they come up for action at board meetings.

Among those whom have been frequent visitors and speakers at commissioner meetings and work sessions has been Guys Mills area resident Gary Young.

Young repeatedly has told commissioners at meetings and work sessions the reason he appears and speaks out is he hasn’t been able to get answers to his questions from the heads of various county departments.

For the past several years, Young has been vocal critic of operations of the county’s Children and Youth Services, District Attorney and Sheriff offices.

In his written comments to the county on the proposed public comment policy, District Attorney Schultz wrote that the public comment provision in Pennsylvania’s open meetings law is to permit the public to comment on items to be acted upon by a governmental body.

“The purpose is not to provide the public with a forum for unfettered commentary on any issue under the sun,” Schultz wrote. “Certainly, the commissioners, as a group or as individuals, can meet with citizens (outside a public meeting) to hear any matter or concern of a particular citizen or group.”

Weiderspahn said commissioners continue to welcome public comment, have no concerns with public comment or questions at the weekly Tuesday work sessions and have no plans to limit public comment at work sessions.

Commissioners hope to take formal action on the public participation guidelines at their March 21 board meeting, he said.

If approved, the guidelines then would be posted for 30 days and would go into effect April 22, he said.

Action on a written policy on public participation at public meetings is something Weiderspahn, Allen and Lynch said they would consider when they took office in January 2012 as the new board of commissioners.

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