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?