Bradford Commissioners Approve New Rules of Engagement For Public Speakers
Attendees of Recent Meeting Shocked
A much-ballyhooed two-and-a-half hour April 7 Bradford County Commissioners’ meeting that participants referred to as something between “a heated exchange” and “a free-for-all” can now be referred to as “history.” Chairman Mark Smith, who was absent from the meeting but later listened to a recording of it, introduced new guidelines for visiting speakers and questions from the media before the start of the April 14 meeting.
“I put a lot of thought into how we can make these meetings more productive so we’re not sitting here for two hours every week,” he explained before a crowd about half the size of that of the previous week. (It should be noted that there was no commissioners’ meeting on March 31, which likely added to both the extent of the public agenda and the pent up frustration that was apparent on April 7.)
One of the biggest changes laid out in the outline Smith prepared for the meeting is that any citizens wishing to speak at a commissioners’ meeting must sign in at the beginning of the meeting and disclose in advance what they want to talk about during two “visitors’ remarks” segments, one before “unfinished business” that directly relates to the prepared agenda and a second that follows the “new business” portion of the assembly.
Visitors as a whole will be allotted up to one half hour to comment on items already on the official agenda, but individuals are now limited to speaking for three minutes at a time about the agenda or their topics of choice. Each member of the public may talk for no more than six minutes total during one meeting. The time spent by commissioners questioning the public speakers is not deducted from their time, and the chairperson reserves judgment on the appropriateness of comments.
Formal presentations to the board are now limited to 15 minutes, and the media must wait until just before adjournment to ask questions. Smith explained that the new rules are subject to change during a meeting on a majority vote of the board.
After zipping through new business that included authorizing the advertising for bids for new copiers; approval of an agreement with Hunt Engineers, Architects and Land Surveyor, P.C. to investigate alternatives in providing a water supply and distribution system at Mt. Pisgah County Park; approval of an agreement with Northern Tier Solid Waste Authority to provide thermal energy to the Bradford County Correctional Facility and Bradford County Manor; and approving the hiring or transfer of about two dozen county employees, as well as the authorization of their respective salaries, Smith turned to the first of only two people who signed up to address the commissioners.
Walt Wannemaker of Rome announced that it was his first time attending a meeting and speaking before the commissioners and that he was puzzled by the new rules. He had attended the meeting to ask the commissioners what they knew about recent reports that natural gas pulled from Marcellus Shale might be shipped to foreign countries rather than building energy reserves in the United States as he felt had been the selling point of gas drilling all along. Wannemaker asked Smith if this was now a topic that was deemed “inappropriate” for the meetings.
“I don’t have a problem hearing these issues, I just want to organize them,” answered Smith, who began timing Wannemaker and tried to cut him off even though he obviously had prepared much more that he wanted to say. Smith managed to completely silence Wannemaker after about another 60 seconds of his speech, and none of the commissioners offered related commentary.
Carolynn Knapp of Sheshequin Township was given three minutes to query the commissioners on a recently released report by the Associated Press that suggests that Pennsylvania is “rubber stamping” new well drilling applications without significant due process. In the document, Pennsylvania environmental regulators are quoted as saying that they spend as little as 35 minutes reviewing each of thousands of applications they receive each year. Knapp related that she was especially alarmed to learn that, of 7,019 applications processed by the Department of Environmental Protection since 2005, only 31 have been rejected.
Smith acknowledged that he had read the report and that he basically agreed with Knapp. “I know that there has been a lot of concern about changing that policy,” he stated before quickly moving to close the visitors’ remarks segment.
Carol French of Sheshequin Township, who arrived after the meeting began and therefore did not have an opportunity to sign in under the new rules, was taken aback when she was informed that she could not speak.
The meeting was adjourned, and French and other members of the public who felt especially disenfranchized stopped just outside the chamber door to discuss the matter.
“They’re trying to stifle the public,” French claimed. “They don’t want to answer questions because it is an election year.”
“It does establish some order,” Knapp said of the new rules, “but it is also a way to control the public.”
Wannemaker, who was interviewed by phone after the meeting, related that his first experience with the county commissioners was disappointing. “I was surprised that they weren’t more eager to learn about China’s involvement,” he remarked in reference to a Maryland-based gas drilling company that has publicly announced that it will convert the natural gas to a liquid form so that it can be more easily transported overseas. “I don’t want them destroying our backyards for gas to go to China, and I would like to see our officials do something constructive in the defense of not only Bradford County but the people and the animals that live here. I want them to set a precedent,” Wannemaker stated.
As for the time limit on his first time at bat, he said, “Three minutes doesn’t even give you enough time to get the shakes out of you.”
Wannemaker, French, Knapp, and Diane Ward of Standing Stone Township surmise that the new rules for speaking at the commissioners’ meeting are a reaction to increasing complaints from the public about gas drilling, of which, they have contended, the commissioners are too supportive.
Ward noted that county residents are now about five years into the drilling era and are finally speaking out about reservations that they held all along, as well as new concerns that have popped up in the past year.
“People were holding back,” she suggested, adding that, because of a lack of experience with this type of industrialization, few county residents knew what to do or think when it started. “Now is the time that we need open discussion,” Ward continued. “People need answers, and their only recourse is through the government.”
“How else do people get answers to the questions that they ask?” Knapp concurred. “There is no other forum.”
When apprised of the commentary recorded after the meeting, Smith first addressed the issue of a perceived lack of public forums for expressing grievances, noting that residents should be voicing their concerns primarily to legislators who represent them at the state level.
“As a county government, we do what we can with the resources and influence we have,” he stated. “But, ultimately, DEP regulates gas drilling, and the county doesn’t run the DEP.” Smith conceded that even the commissioners have disagreed on this issue, but added, “As a whole, we have tried to ensure that we engage in education, advocating our (differing) views, and facilitating venues or meetings addressing issues.”
As for the dramatic increase in complaints by residents in recent months, he continued, “I not only acknowledge their frustration, I share it.” Smith considers the commissioners meeting to be a business meeting and asserted that he feels that most Bradford County residents expect the assemblies to be run “in a professional, organized, and respectful manner.” In a separate email, Smith suggested that the new rules extend fairness “to all people, not just the loudest ones in the room.”
Knapp suggested that more people sign in at the beginning of the April 21 commissioners’ meeting, express their displeasure with the new rules, and ask for modifications.
Wannemaker, who also plans to attend the next meeting, has decided on a different approach.
“It fired me up,” he said of the limitations on his speaking. “The more I do it, the better I will get at it. I’ll figure out how to cram ten minutes worth of information into two minutes if that’s all they give me.”