Monday, March 23, 2009

Allentown City Council Muzzles Citizen Participation

"All we want from you is silence, and damn little of that!"

That seems to be Allentown City Council's mantra. Increasingly, it is shutting people down. Just a few weeks ago, Council Prez Mike D'Amore stopped a former golf course restaurant operator from criticizing the city's decision to replace him with a Mayor Pawlowski crony. But that's minor in comparison to what happened last week. According to Queen City Daily, Allentown citizen Lou Hershman was barred from speaking at all.

In silencing Hershman, City Council violated Allentown's Home Rule Charter as well as The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. It deprived itself of the opportunity to learn from someone who has long served Allentown, as both Council member (8 years) and Controller (24 years). Worst of all, its muzzle undermines public confidence in the democratic process and sends a chilling message to anyone interested in getting involved. It's an insider's club.

Before last week's meeting ever started, D'Amore anticipated that Hershman might want to speak. So he and the city attorney huddled together until they found something they could use to silence him - an arcane rule passed by some city council sometime that ostensibly prevents candidates from addressing city council during courtesy of the floor. But the rule itself is a nullity.

Let's start with Allentown's Home Rule Charter, obviously drafted to bring government closer to the people. One of its twelve articles is devoted exclusively to "citizens' rights and participation." The rights granted are so broad that any collection of thirty-five citizens can actually place a matter on city council's agenda. Registered voters can even force a special meeting. The City's Constitution also specifically provides for a citizen's right to be heard in very clear language.

"The Council must provide reasonable opportunity for interested citizens and taxpayers to address the Council on matters of general or special concern. Citizens’ right to be heard shall be the first order of business at all public meetings and before a vote on any Council business. The public shall be granted the opportunity to comment at Council meetings without time limitations, except when the Council President, imposes a reasonable time limitation deemed necessary. Council members, by a vote of a majority plus one (1), may override the Council president’s time limitation."

Nothing in that sweeping language permits a city council to muzzle a person simply because he is a candidate for office. Clearly, their reason for creating this ban, out of thin air, is to protect themselves. It's nothing more than an incumbent protection rule. D'Amore, himself a candidate for reelection, is obviously scared to death that Hershman just might say something that resonates with the voters a little better than his own message. If this blog is any indication, people are disgusted by the Pawlowski'D'Amore super-secret committee of campaign contributors studying Allentown's fiscal woes.

Regardless of any incumbent's concern, City Council simply has no authority to silence someone. It has no power to adopt rules that restrict unilaterally the very inclusive language of the Home Rule Charter.

In addition to completely ignoring its own Home Rule Charter, Allentown City Council has also thumbed its nose at The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. That law, which trumps everything, specifically provides that residents and taxpayers must be given a reasonable opportunity "to comment on matters of concern, official action or deliberation which are or may be before the board or council prior to taking official action." Nothing in the Act allows a Council to muzzle someone simply because he is running for office.

Despite the clear language in both Home Rule Charter and Sunshine Act, City Council member Michael Donovan lamely tries to justify the muzzle, and ironically does so in a post that demands a return of the "fairness doctrine." There's nothing fair about muzzling candidates. But Donovan argues that if all seven council candidates came and actually spoke at city council meetings, they'd consume twenty-one minutes.

Horrors! That's about as long as it takes me to put on my pants.

This twenty-one minute time period is called democracy. Even candidates have the right to speak. Under Donovan's Orwellian logic, commentary should eventually be limited to only those people who absolutely have no interest in government.

In addition to being anti-Democratic, Donovan's concerns are actually refuted by what I've seen in local government. As a student of Northampton County government, I've watched candidates at many election cycles. A few do use courtesy of the floor to promote their message. Most do not. Candidates have never made government unmanageable. But they've made some incumbents uncomfortable, and that's the real reason for this muzzle.

Hershman tells me he'll be back at the next city council meeting, demanding the right to be heard. I'll tag along. You see, the Sunshine Act allows "any person" to object publicly to any perceived violation. Even boonies from Northampton County.

Amazingly, this muzzle has actually been cheered by one Hershman hater, who chuckles that Lou should start a "toast" party. Isn't that nice? Home Rule Charter and Sunshine Act violations are OK because they get Lou, I guess. But when we chop down every tree in the forest to get at the devil, where do we hide when the devil turns on us?

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bernie,

Remember the mantra and this makes perfect sense; if you are not part of the solution (agreers/believers) here then you are part of the problem (heretics/Complainers).

Allentown (and now America) moving forward.

Allentown Democrat Voter

Anonymous said...

Hershman was part of the problem. He's been making enemies at City Hall for thirty years. If there's one person I wish would move away, it is him. He has never gotten along with anyone down here, and he never will.
Please stand up at the next City Council meeting BO, I want to see what you look like in person. I hope I can recognize you without you showing me you are number one!

Bernie O'Hare said...

I see. Hershman is part of the problem, so let's violate the Home Rule Charter and Sunshine Act to show him who's boss. And let's make some menacing remark about wanting to know whatI look like in person. Dude, I come from the world of NC politics, and you'll have to do a little better than that if you want to frighten me. Let me know who you are and I'll be sure to give you a big wet kiss.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this information.
Had no idea this happened. Why Allentown residents don't insist on public TV airing of their meetings...Tiny Emmaus borough has had live TV for several years. Maybe Ramblings might wish to investigate golf course restaurant saga as some have said site should have opened
March 1st and still is not
operable. There was some talk of a daily fine. Is there one? Is
it being collected?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Emmaus is in a league of its own and is a model for all municipalities to follow. Allentown's policy is a disgrace. It starts at the top with a leader who hides things like a budget deficit from the public. From there it trickles down to the wannabes, who are scared to death that a candidate might actually say something that makes them look bad.

I will look into the golf course.

Anonymous said...

let lou talk, you can't understand what the mushmouth says anyway. all campaigning should be kept outside city council chambers though. IMO.

Anonymous said...

Citizens everywhere are losing.
Councils forbid citizens to speak more than 3 or 5 minutes at many govt. centers. Imagine, taxpayers only being allotted 3 minutes to speak or facing the threat of arrest if councils so dictate.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Limiting the length of time one may speak is specifically authorized by The Sunshine Act. If you can't say what needs to be said in three minutes, you've already lost. But what is NOT authorized is limiting specific groups of people. So long as you are a resident or a taxpayer, you must be allowed to speak.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, but I was only curious who you were because I've never seen you. You have no reason to be frightened of me.
are you that paranoid?

So you come from NC politics, that means you are a professional bull shitter? Is that pictire at the other blog really you? that's all I meant.

I've lived in Allentown all my life, and I remember Dadonna taking out ads in NY city papers to encourage people to move here.
Hershman supported that. Do you think he has any regrets?
The man has to answer for what he did in previous terms. He screwed up, and doesn't deserve any more. I get tired of people (Like you)blaming all the present problems on the current government. This crap was started decades ago.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"I was only curious who you were because I've never seen you. You have no reason to be frightened of me."

I'm not.

"So you come from NC politics, that means you are a professional bull shitter?"

No, that means I come from a world in which I've gained ample experience with the Sunshine Act. I know all the tricks.

"The man has to answer for what he did in previous terms. He screwed up, and doesn't deserve any more."

I've spoken to and admire Lou Hershman, who really cares about the city. But let's assume you are right. Let's assume he's a terrible candidate. He still has the right to speak. You can't ignore the HRC or Sunshine Act simply because you don't like what the person is saying.

"I get tired of people (Like you)blaming all the present problems on the current government."

The take a nap nc I'm just warming up. This post is not about something that happened decades ago. This is about something that happened last week.

Tom Foolery said...

I know Mike and if my memory serves me correctly you usually have good things to say about him.
I'm not sure why he would do this because it makes no sense. Not even political sense..So my question would be is there more here than meets the eye? Were you at the meeting? Did you ask Mike about it? If this happened as you say it should have been a headline in the call..Was it?? Just wondering..

Bernie O'Hare said...

Tom Foolery,

I generally do have good things to say about Donovan and D'Amore, but I get really upset when a local government slams a door on open government.

I did not attend the city council meeting and knew nothing about what had happened until I saw Jarrett Renshaw's story in the QCD. That completely blew my mind because Jarrett describes a blatant violation of both Home Rule Charter and Sunshine Act. What disturbed me even more was to read the snark at Hershman that immediately follows Renshaw's post. Whenther Hershman is a bad guy or a good guy should have nothing to do w/ what happened.

After reading Renshaw's blog, I spoke to Hershman and he confirmed that Renshaw had it right. He also tells me that the city solicitor now realizes she screwed up. I need to confirm that so don't know if that part is true.

After this I visited Donovan's blog. Amazingly, he tried to defend this clear violation of the public's right to speak. This disturbs me even more because I had been under the impression that Donovan was an open government advocate. Instead, he talks about the need that government be efficient, etc. He actually starts making goofy ethical arguments that have no bearing on this question.

I believe the right to petition government for the redress of grievances is a basic right, not merely a Sunshine Act right. I am deeply disturbed when it is casually tossed aside by people who should know better. I have filed five lawsuits over this Act. I take it very seriously. I am very upset about this.

Although not a first hand account, I believe my blog is accurate. I can guarantee you that the next account about a city hall meeting will be a first hand account. No one, not even Donovan, has challenged me factually.

This was not a MC headliner, but Renshaw did feature the story on the MC blog or I would never have known about it. The press did its job. I rue the day they disappear. I criticize tham all the time, but they are our greatest ally.

michael molovinsky said...

the queen city blog refers to D'Amore having studied up on the arcane rule before hitting hershman with it, more or less a targeted victim. it was used on me by then president howells in 2005. for the next meeting i had a proxy make my points. before that time i had never seen it used, although i attended city council meetings for years. ironically, many of our current city council members had no history of attending meetings. the last two republican slates which lost on the other hand, attended faithfully for years. strange town.

PA Iconoclast said...

Long served is a hell of a lot different from well served. Hershman is getting his karmic payback. Do I disagree with D'Amore and the Charter? Yes. But do I give a shit because it Hershman? Not a bit.

I know - selective enforcement, constitutionality, the weaker player, and all that. But Lou can shove it just like he made everybody else shove it for all those years where he dominated the discussion by weaving between his two persona - teenager and doddering old man.

Hasn't anyone noticed that the decline of Allentown coincides directly with his stints as Controller and Councillor? Not that he created the problem but that he didn't help stop it. He only had 32 years. How much more does he need?

Jesus, I agree with what Casey said yesterday, That's really f**kng sad.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Jesus, I agree with what Casey said yesterday, That's really f**kng sad."

Yes, it is, but you're better than that. Deep down, you know you can't have one set of rules for those you like and a different set for those you detest. Hate the player, but don't hate the game.

Michael Donovan said...

Greetings:

Since I am the councilor being slammed here, I thought I would speak up.

Well, I guess I am the devil because I do feel that a city council is not only a place for citizens to have a voice, but also a place to do government business. From my perspective, and it is only my perspective, when a citizen announces candidacy, they become a public figure, and have opportunities for voice greater than a non-candidate citizen, which is why "courtesy" exists in the first place.

Now, on my blog, there have been many arguments made why I'm wrong (and even a nasty person who somehow is not the person I try to project myself as.). Some of those points have merit. I do believe people should have a voice. However, I also believe that there needs to be some efficiency and fairness in making decisions.

Therefore, I would rather reserve courtesy of the floor for individuals who have no other way to make a point to council, and simultaneously keep it manageable for those who have come to council so that they may do business in a timely fashion on items that are on the agenda. I would make this argument to any candidate by saying that he or she owes some courtesy to those who are not running. Of course, points can always be made by a "proxy" as Mr. Molivinsky notes.

I apologize to my critics who now feel that I have turned into this totalitarian pig who wants to thwart anyone's ability to have a voice in government. I don't believe that I am a pig nor a totalitarian. I try to develop my points of view as fairly as possible. And I have to draw a line somewhere. This is where I draw a line. I believe it is a reasonable rule.

Personally, I will also argue that city council is not a place for political debates by candidates at courtesy of the floor, which it would become because if you allow one, you MUST allow all. Nor are councilmembers supposed to be engaging in campaign debates. We have rules about that. Yes, one can be sly and be political, but you know, no system is perfect.

I don't see PA legislators or Congress having citizens, let alone candidates, speaking before their sessions. Do they? I may be wrong, but I don't think so.

I'm all for voice. But I'm also for structure and reasonableness.

One final note. I think that the debate on this and my blog is reasonable, and I think that there are arguments to be made on both sides. However, I refuse to be dragged into a namecalling, knock-down battle just to make points. The issue of appropriatness in structuring policy is always an important topic.

Mr. Hershman will attest that I have tried to answer or resolve every issue that he has raised with me (in writing or verbally). He makes some very interesting and valid points. Sometimes, I have provided information that has refutted what he feels is accurate. Other times, I have found evidence that confirms that at least a question needs to be asked.

So, if all of you who are critics wish to raise points with me, please do so. However, if you cannot be civil about it, you risk my not listening as intently. I may listen, but as with any social exchange, screaming and yelling does not usually get as much action as reasonable conversation.

Best regards, all.

Michael Donovan

michael molovinsky said...

lou hershman brings out the worst in the democratic zombie's, because he's a democrat willing to be a thorn in the side of their machine. if you think allentown compares to the city it was 20 years ago, you truly are a zombie. lou will win come november, despite all the insults here

michael molovinsky said...

often in comment replies, another comment is interjected between when one begins to write, and when it is published, such was the case here. my zombie remark was in reply to pa iconoclast, not michael donovan. iconoclast and other anonymous commenters think lou's time has come and gone, they have no idea how much money lou has saved the taxpayers over the years, shaving a mil here and a mil there.

Anonymous said...

Michael Donovan is afraid to listen to three minutes of criticism. Period. Spare the "efficiency" argument. Public comment is part of what you get paid to listen to. Three minutes doesn't even qualify for the "if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen" routine.

Come on Mike. How about a little courage here? Three minutes.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Mike Donovan ever addressed council when he was a candidate.

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

Did you see how many words Michael Donovan used in his post? He must must be so smart. I'm glad I voted for him when I pushed the straight-party button!

Allentown Democrat Voter

Bernie O'Hare said...

Michael (Donovan), I'll give you credit for engaging and defending your views publicly. I appreciate and respect that. But honestly, your arguments are horrible. They fly in the face of the plain language of your own HRC. You are intelligent so you must have noticed that. I don't know how you can justify violating your own constitution, but it seems to me that you are ruled more by political expedience than logic or a desire for good government. I am very sorry, but this is basic stuff. If you can't be trusted to let people speak, you can't be trusted.

Anonymous said...

Can I ask, why didn't Lou push to remove this rule when he was on council two years ago or four years ago? This rule has been around a long time and Mike Donovan and Mike D'Amore both followed it. So I guess Lou had no problem when he an incumbent with this rule. Also, Lou is a very smart guy, he knew this rule exists, why did he not try to fight it when he knew he was running? If it is a clear cut a violation as you say Bernie then not only should Lou have no problem getting it overturned, but I am quite surprised he did not do anything about it when he was on council.

Anonymous said...

A new O'Hare mancrush. I hope you bought more condoms.

Anonymous said...

Bernie -

In Allentown, violations - and outright ignorance - of the Home Rule Charter is nothing new when it comes to our elected officials.

The rule is wrong and should be abolished.

However, I might be willing to keep it if Michael Donovan would keep his comments at council meetings to only three minutes. If he is concerned about the efficiency of meetings, that's a good place to start.

I also propose a one-hundred word limit for the "Councilor" on blog postings.

Anonymous said...

"Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact."

George Eliot (who didn't even know Councilor Donovan)

Anonymous said...

In Allentown long speeches and/or presentations have been the weapon of choice to stifle dissent or end questioning. Case in point the now infamous Pawlowski Power Point Presentations. When I saw one during his campaign I thought he was finished as a politician, it was that bad. They still are yet too many of the city D's only care about party not substance.
Many of the city D's talk a good game but in the end they all seem to tow the line. That is not good government,it is just politics.

Scott Armstrong

Bernie O'Hare said...

"I guess Lou had no problem when he an incumbent with this rule."

If you read MM's comment, posted above, he notes the rule was uysed against him in '05. Prior to that, he had never seen it used. I get the impression this rule was pretty much ignored until recently so I doubt, therefore that Hershman was intimately familiar with it.

But that does not matter. If a rule is wrong, it's wrong.

eckville press said...

This post brings back almost forgotten long lost memories when Kermit Delong Jr, now a Lynn Township Supervisor, proclaimed to Mr. Najarian, a sitting supervisor," Are you saying Lynn Townships dirty?. Your insulating our elected officials."

When the facts became clear, Lynn Township had their share of dirty elected officials and still due in some cases.

That's insulating the local taxpayers!!!

Anonymous said...

"If you read MM's comment, posted above, he notes the rule was uysed against him in '05. "

Lou was on council in 05. He would have been sitting there when this happened to MM, so why did he do nothing then? Bernie, I know you like Lou but if he sat there and let this happen to MM four years ago and did nothing about it, and did nothing for two more years isn't he as guilty according to your criteria as Donvon and D'Amore are? Or does Lou get special treatment because you like him and he will use he campaign to bash Mayor Pawlowski? Just curious

Bernie O'Hare said...

Lou Hershman was a council member when the rule was invoked against MM in '05. But he was not council Prez, the person who actually invokes the rule. Nor did he attempt to justify the rule, as Doonovan has done. And, to be honest, I doubt Lou was aware about the Sunshine Act or Home Rule Charter until I pointed it out.

But let's assume that Lou weas chomping at the bit to muzzle MM. That does not justify an illegal rule being applied to him now. You see, this has nothing to do with bashing Pawlowski and everything to do w/ the Sunshine Act and Home Rule Charter.

Yes, I like Lou and respect him. But to be honest, he and I probably disagree on very many issues. This is not about politics - this is about the public's right to speak.

Whether Lou followed the law is irrelevant to that question. You can't justify a breach of the Sunshine Act by saying that someone else, when in office, breached it as well.

Anonymous said...

It is good to see Lou Hershman will have an apologist blog. Just like you blast the Mayor for. I find it more disturbing that you are ok with a 30+ year incumbent who does not know a rule voilates the HRC or the Sunshine Law (your opinion). What the hell was he doing for all those years? This comes down to the fact that you like Lou, so he gets a pass and the others who are just asking that he follow the same rule everyone else has get bashed. Again, Lou saw no problem with this rule when he was on the dias, only when he has to abide by it does he see a problem. I hope he challanges it, but in the meantime I want the rules (which by the way as a member of council he would have to have voted on from time to time, curious how he voted) to be universally enforced until such time as a court of law not public opinion deams them wrong.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Like I said, this has nothing to do with Lou Hershman. He is only one of 7 or 8 candidates in this race. My argument applies to all of them. It has nothing to do weith the personlaities and everything to do w/ the basic right to speak. Your argument is bullshit.

Anonymous said...

You only use the profanity when you are really backed into a corner. I also note how you keep ignoring the point that Lou ignored this travesty of free speach while on council for at least two years if not longer. You prove my point for me my friend. You accuse Mike Donovon of not being consistent, yet you are not consistent. By your logic everyone on council who supports this (and by not voicing opisition the members of council including Tony Phillips, and LOU HERSHMEN when he was a member give and gave their support to this rule)should be guilty of a violation. How many people in history have been convicted of complicity by not trying to stop a crime. My point is you are not being consistent. My two questions for you are thus.

1. Please find out why if Lou is so upset by this rule (and lets remove the legality and just talk about the fairness of it) why did he not stand up for MM in 2005 and why did he not push to change it in 2005,2006, and 2007?

2. Why is it ok for Lou to not stand up to this rule until now? I would have more respect for the man if he would have stood up to this when he had nothing to gain but more discourse with concerned citizen when he was on council.

I am asking to logical and fair questions here. I ask that you respond in kind and actually participate in the debate style you are fighting for instead of descending into profanity. I will even make you a deal. I will ask the city clerk to pull the minutes from MM's 2005 meeting to see how Lou reacted. I can only assume that MM with a good a memory as he has would have told us if Lou stood up to the rule. If Lou did then he is consistent (to a degree) and I am wrong. If he did not, than can we at least agree that no matter what we think of the rule Lou's new found disgust and surprise is nothing more than politics as usual grandstanding? I like Lou a lot but like all politicians of either party he grandstands.

Bernie, you are seeking consistancy out of Mike Donovon, that is all I am seeking from you.

Anonymous said...

Again all Scott Armstrong can do is take another cheap shot at Democrats. Why not run Scott. You blame the voters and the residents for the terrible office holders, yet what has the Republican Party fielded.

So run Scott, when people see and hear your eloquence you will win by over 80%, or not.

Maybe people will just see a whinning, moaning idealogue who enjoys being a self-styled victim.

Chris Telgen

Bernie O'Hare said...

No I use profanity to make points. My point is that your argument is bullshit because it does not matter whether Lou did or did not advocate muzzles when he was on council.

Your suggestion that you will ask the clerk to pull the records is a good one. Tomorrow, I will call Lou and find out whether he objected and what is general feeling was at the time that MM was muzzled. You can report here and so will I.

Tony P, I know for a fact, was upset at what had happened and has said so. He has not tried to defend the action.

Here's my point. Donovan has opened himself up to criticism because he has publicly defended the muzzle. He may not like it being called a muzzle, but that's exactly what it was. Moreover, it is an illegal muzzle.

Hershman, to my knowledge, has never advocated that muzzle. If he has, then he can be criticized for that just like Donovan is getting nailed for defending an illegal action.

But regardless of what Lou may or may not have advocated, he is still entitled to speak. That's my point. Even if he actively sought to muzzle others, that is no justification for muzzling him now. That's why I say your argument is bullshit.

My argument, incidentally, applies to EVERY candidate, not just Lou. It is my position that the Sunshine Act and HRC would require council to listen even if the mayor himself wanted to address them during courtesy of the floor.

Anonymous said...

Chris Telgen

In this country it is the right of every citizen to speak out. Good government springs from a civil discourse of events and ideas.
I have done far more than my share for the city. Allentown,c'est fini.

Scott Armstrong

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 12:27,

I spoke w/ Lou Hershman. He was present when the gag rule was invoked against MM. He is opposed to the gag rule and would have allowed MM to speak if it were up to him. But as he explained, those decisions are made by the chair.

In Donovan's case, he has publicly supported this gag rule, and continues to bray away this morning. This is in addition to his support of secret meetings by some group of uneelected campaign contributors who will possibly recommend city worker layoffs.

Donovan has lost my support. Instead of standing for inclusion, he stands for exclusion. He is willing to trust the fate of blue collar city workers to some cabal of unelected campaign contribiutors. He is willing to cut off public debate from people who are interested in city issues. He no longer stands for open and accountable government. He stands for the status quo. I'm deeply disappointed.

Marc Grammes said...

It has been my experience that if a candidate has the willingness to appear before a group of elected officials and express his or her opinion, it shows that they have an interest in the the office they seek. It is, after all, a public meeting. As a candidate, I was given the courtesy to speak before the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners. I also spoke before several local municipal bodies while a candidate, if only to introduce myself. While a member of the Board of Commissioners , candidates came before us and they were given the courtesy of the floor just the same as any other citizen. It shows interest in the office. And it shows interest in the people who come before the Board. Elected officials are public servants. Part of public service is listening to the views of your constituents, whether or not you agree with them. Excluding individuals from participation in their government weakens the democratic process.