Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Bethlehem Tp Comm'rs to Let the Public Speak
The public right to speak during municipal meetings is guaranteed by Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act, which is designed to make local government more transparent. That law specifically provides that open meetings are "vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process." As stated by Judge Damon Keith, "Democracy dies behind closed doors."
Though the public has the right to speak, numerous boards throughout the Lehigh Valley impose time limits on speakers in order to keep meetings moving. Bethlehem Township Commissioners tabled a discussion on this limitation in September, but resurrected the issue recently after two meetings in which PennEast Pipeline opponents, most of them nonresidents, made lengthy and redundant presentations.
After a meeting in which ten residents spoke, Commissioners again decided to table the adoption of any public comment policy. It is a topic that was recently brought up at a debate.
"This is where we get our frustration out on you!" joked Martin Comer, himself a former Commissioner and a regular at every meeting. His thoughts were echoed by Bill Berry, another former Commissioner. "There's an issue of transparency in the Township," he warned. He added that, as a regular at meetings, he's seen no reason for a formal policy.
Micahel Hudak, a proponent of the policy, agreed with other Commissioners to table the matter, especially with an election less than a month away. But he defended the policy as a "fire extinguisher" that the President of the Board would invoke only when needed.
"Nobody's trying to stifle anybody," he assured everyone.
Tom Nolan, who previously spoke out against a formal public comment policy, stated it would "have more than a negative impact on our meetings."