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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Osborne: South Whitehall Inches Towards Transparency

Brad Osborne
South Whitehall took a small, but questionable, step in its meeting last Wednesday to improve the process for citizen input in its virtual meetings. This comes as a welcome response to the pressure put on the township in social media posts since the chaotic meeting in late February when public comment and participant identification was quashed in an effort to avoid derogatory pseudonyms referencing the township manager and preventing discussion about the ongoing Public Works negotiations.

Here are the Rules for Remote Participation & Etiquette, similar to the rules adopted by the Planning Commission and Zoning Hearing Boards months ago:

Public Meeting/Virtual Meeting Rules (verbatim from the slide):

  • All meetings are electronically recorded.

  • Participants'  names will not be displayed during the meeting.

  • All participants will be required to mute their microphones when not participating in the dialogue.

  • If a participant wants courtesy of the floor or to make public comment or have a question on a specific topic they must type their name and address in the chat feature. The meeting facilitator will identify and call on the individual requesting to speak.

  • If someone is participating via phone there will be an opportunity to ask questions/comment once the individual has unmuted their microphone and identified themselves with name and address.

  • If someone has requested COF prior to the meeting via e-mail, the facilitator will identify and call on the individual who has requested COF.

  • Public comment will be limited to 5 minutes per speaker.

These rules were adopted on the very familiar 3-2 vote. It was quite obvious to the observer that these rules were not a product of full board participation and review since the last meeting; in fact, one commissioner stated that they had not received these “rules” until the day of the meeting.

When a motion was made to have the attendees’ names displayed as they have been since the virtual meetings began, the board president countered that the rules were designed “to keep the meeting the same, or similar to, the way it would be in person.” She seemed to have dismissed the fact that the attendees’ names have been displayed at the township’s Planning Commission and Zoning Hearing Board virtual meetings without issue.

However you may feel about the display of attendees’ names during the virtual meeting, what concerns me the most is the board president’s request at the beginning of the meeting for the facilitator to state “like it has been done in the past, read over our public meeting’s Rules & Etiquette.” Having attended many virtual BOC meetings in the past year, I can tell you I don’t recall these rules, if they existed, were ever communicated to the public at any time during a meeting prior to this one. If they were, why would a protracted discussion and vote be necessary in this meeting??

I will have more transparency issues to present this coming week. The next one will be a financial requirement placed upon the youth sports program in South Whitehall. And the familiar theme . . . without public awareness or even discussion among the members of the full board.

And that’s why I say they have “inched” towards transparency. They have a long way to go from here.


Anonymous said...

If schools are pushing to open, local government meetings/buildings need to be in person as well!

Anonymous said...

The names of the people in attendance at these virtual meetings have been posted for all to see, ever since the meetings moved online, even when some of the posted "names" were somewhat obnoxious. But it wasn't until the "names" started becoming critical of Tori Morgan and Renee Bickel that "they" decided to block the names and create these rules. Who is "they"? Nobody knows, because it just happened without discussion or a vote by the board. And it caused the names of ALL people to be blocked, not just the obnoxious ones. This seems to me that it was just an attempt by Morgan and Bickel to minimize criticism of themselves, but at the expense of everyone else. This is not a goal worthy of open government, or the standards that our township leadership should be following. And it prevented other attendees at the meeting from seeing who else was there; another blow to transparency. Yes, they now have formalized the rules (by the usual 3-2 vote), but in fact in formalizes the lack of transparency, and makes it the standard, rather than opening up the names again for all to see.

Anonymous said...

I will bet they will be slow to re-open. When you can work from home with little scrutiny, and get paid 100% why would they rush to return to the office?
Some employees will take all they can get.......

Brad Osborne said...

I hadn’t previously viewed it from the perspective of formalizing the lack of transparency, so I appreciate your comment. Perhaps another way of processing this is to recognize that from a “de facto” point of view, the administration can see who the participants are, but the public they serve cannot.

Anonymous said...

Why does South Whitehall not put their entire Commissioner Meeting packet online like Lower Macungie Township? Why are the citizens of South Whitehall not allowed to see the bills they are paying for?

The meeting packet for Lower Macungie is impressive....they even list people interested on serving on boards!! http://www.lowermac.com/meetings_agendas/021821_AgendaDetail.pdf - 145 pages of information for the taxpayers! what a genuine transparent concept.

The SWT meeting packets are pathetic, or what does SWT have to hide?

Brad Osborne said...

Thank you for your comment. I believe the subject of meeting agenda posting is worth looking into, so I will do that soon. Another transparency issue.