Civility Vs. Transparency New Meeting Rules Feel Oddly Cold
Striking changes in the way in which Bradford County Commissioners’ meetings will be held from now on have prompted a lot of discussion within the circle of residents and activists who have regularly attended and participated in the meetings, as well as among commissioners of neighboring counties and between me and my fellow writers.
The modifications, details of which are included in one of our front-page stories this week, were adopted by the commissioners without discussion on April 14. The new guidelines were designed by chairman Mark Smith to, in his words, “make the meetings more productive, so we aren’t sitting here for two hours every week.” Via email, Smith later added, “I cannot accomplish that goal with interruptions, people speaking out of turn or speaking with no regard for other people’s thoughts and opinions. I refuse to let our business meetings turn into a complete free-for-all.”
To most of the people in attendance on April 14, including myself, the new guidelines are an overreaction to an April 7 meeting that did at times exceed what one might expect at a business meeting run by elected officials in front of civilians. From a reporter’s perspective, the April 7 meeting was very exciting. Visitors’ comments were laced with emotion, but their concerns were valid. Although some people did speak out of turn, those who were recognized to speak were well-prepared and accountable when the sources for the information they brought to the meeting were questioned.
After living most of their lives in a Bradford County that was bucolic and peaceful, albeit it economically challenged, residents are suddenly waking up to a vastly changing landscape spearheaded by natural gas drilling and related industries. I think that it’s safe to say that a formerly complacent citizenry has finally come to realize that they are going to have to get involved and fight harder than they did in the past for what they believe to be just.
Several of the people who had also attended the April 7 meeting at the Bradford County Courthouse agreed that some of the new limitations levied in its wake were warranted, but they also seemed suddenly lost without full access to the commissioners, whom they hold responsible (unfairly or not) for so much of what is going on around them.
Rocket-Courier publisher Dave Keeler, who had watched several video segments of the April 7 meeting that I had recorded, was surprised by the tone of the exchange between Towanda resident Diane Siegmund and commissioner Doug McLinko. He agrees with Smith that something had to be done to keep future meetings on target.
Outside of what I believe are excessive limitations on the amount of time that members of the public can speak and when they can speak, one of the new rules that surprised me most was that, as a member of the press, I am allowed to ask questions only at the end of the meeting, just before adjournment. In other words, reporters have to hope that there is still enough of a cognitive connection and interest in an agenda item that may have been brought up early in the meeting to get an informed response to their questions. I couldn’t help but wonder as I left the courthouse in Towanda how our readers and writers outside Bradford County are treated at similar meetings.
In the hours following the meeting, I faxed copies of the new Bradford County Commissioners’ public speaking rules to the respective commissioner chairpersons in Sullivan, Susquehanna, and Wyoming Counties, asking them for a relative comparison of how their meetings are conducted and how they would feel about implementing the same guidelines. At the suggestion of Wyoming County Commissioner Tony Litwin, who was the first to respond, I also solicited comments from Rocket-Courier reporters D.C. Koviack and Ann Whynman, who cover commissioners’ meetings in Wyoming and Susquehanna Counties, respectively.
I would describe their collective reaction as a pause, a deep breath, and a reserved “wow.” Each of the three chairpersons, including Litwin, Darla Bortz of Sullivan County, and MaryAnn Warren of Susquehanna County, consider their relative meetings to be more interactive and they hope to never have to adopt Bradford County-style guidelines for public speaking.
“We haven’t gone to the formal extreme that Bradford County seems to have done,” said Litwin. “We run pretty informal meetings.”
Koviack corroborated Litwin’s assessment of the Wyoming County meetings, noting that public commentary is invited to speak before the meeting and in conjunction with each agenda item as it is covered.
“(The commissioners) do discuss and deliberate. They do take questions,” Koviack noted. “They don’t shut people down just because they don’t like what they’re hearing.” She further described the meetings in Tunkhannock as very transparent. “It’s no dog and pony show,” said Koviack, adding that she is welcome to ask questions or comment on any agenda item in process.
Whynman’s assessment of Susquehanna County Commissioner proceedings was not as glowing. She described the meetings in Montrose as especially short, without enough open discussion among the commissioners on agenda items prior to approving them.
Warren concedes that, while the items on the printed agenda are clearly outlined and include all pertinent details, “Nobody actually reads out what’s printed,” and added, “I would agree with the public if they don’t agree with that.”
Nonetheless, she insisted that the commissioners do ask for questions and concerns after the second motion on each agenda item, before it is carried and therefore approved. She feels that the printed agenda is laid out better and is easier to read than those at similar meetings that she has attended, and there are usually supportive printed materials for citizens to pick up that provide more details about weightier issues.
Warren questions the practicality of holding off on public commentary until the agenda has been cleared. “At the end, (the public) can go back to discuss a motion, but sometimes you get caught up in what’s happening later and you forget to come back to it.”
So, whether or not the agenda is worded to provoke discussion by visitors or otherwise engage the public, speech at Susquehanna County Commissioners’ meetings is not limited. “We don’t have guidelines,” said Warren. “This is just how it has been done since I started here seven years ago.”
Sullivan County does not have formal guidelines either, according to Darla Bortz. “We have an agenda, and we ask for visitors’ remarks at the beginning of the meetings. We just ask them to keep their comments short and to the point.”
Bortz and others with whom I spoke about this issue acknowledged that Bradford County is in a unique position as the current epicenter of Marcellus Shale drilling, and that burden has likely influenced the actions of the commissioners there.
“I would imagine, if we had a larger crowd, we would have to do something like that,” said Bortz, who realizes that gas drilling is already on Sullivan County’s doorstep and will become a hotter topic in coming years.
As Mark Smith said in defense of the commissioners, “DEP (the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection) regulates gas drilling, and the county doesn’t run the DEP.” Warren agrees, but noted that the Susquehanna County Commissioners still listen to their constituents and ask them to stay after the meeting so that they can be given contact information for the office or agency that will likely accomplish the most on their behalf. On several occasions in Wyoming County, Koviack related, citizens who were merely under-informed or misinformed have been asked to remain after the meeting, at which time they were provided with more information.
Koviack shares my concern that new rules in Bradford County may be targeting the activists considered by Smith to be “the loudest ones in the room.” I know that some of the same people will continue to sign up to speak at these meetings, but many of these people are providing a needed service for residents who feel intimidated by the system and are unlikely to stand up and speak for themselves.
“They are advocates, and they really do care,” Koviack remarked.
What this boils down to is a desire and need by people to be heard, and the regulations recently imposed on Bradford County residents left a bitter taste in so many mouths because it came across as “We don’t really want to hear you.” I’m sure that the reasoning of the commissioners goes deeper than the old adage, “The truth sometimes hurts,” and I’m left pondering Koviack’s summary of the situation.
“I have a sneaky suspicion about people who are overly formal,” she stated. Well put, compadre.