Meadville Tribune

March 4, 2013

County to public: Comment on comments

By Keith Gushard
Meadville Tribune

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.



Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.



Partial list of proposed guidelines

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 the proposed public participation guidelines proposed by the board. A full copy of the guidelines is available at meadvilletribune.com by doing an article search for “commissioner public comment.”

Work sessions

-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.

Regular meetings

-People wishing to speak to the board need to contact the board three days in advance of the meeting.

-Each person will be limited to five minutes, but the time 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



How to submit comments

Written comments about Crawford County Board of Commissioners’ proposed public comment policy are asked to submitted by Thursday. Commissioners hope to have the public participation guidelines in place by late April.

Written comments may be delivered to the county commissioners’ office at the county courthouse, 903 Diamond Park, Meadville, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; mailed to Crawford County Board of Commissioners, 903 Diamond Park, Meadville, Pa. 16335; or emailed to Cheri Porter-Jackson, chief clerk of Crawford County, at cporter-jackson@co.crawford.pa.us

Below is the text of the written comments Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz submitted Feb. 22 to the Crawford County Board of Commissioners on the board’s proposed public comment policy for commissioner work sessions and board meetings. It reads:

“Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to provide comments regarding the proposed public participation policy. It is quite clear that clear guidelines must be established. 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. 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.

“At both the work session and the regular business meeting, public comment should be limited to items that are on the official agenda. The public should not be able to provide comment on anything that is not on the official agenda for either meeting. Such a rule would prevent members of the public from making repeated baseless accusations about our county officials and departments. For example, if the Office of District Attorney is not on the agenda, members of the public should not be permitted to make statements about me or the office. If there is not anything related to the Crawford County Correctional Facility on either agenda, members of the public should not be able to comment on the operation of the facility. The purpose of the public comment provision in the Sunshine Law is to permit the public to comment on items that are 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. 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.

“If you have any questions or comments about the above, please do not hesitate to contact me.”

— District Attorney Francis J. Schultz