You’re About To Be Muzzled

Welcome to the new year!  We have a lot of work ahead of us! Buckle up!

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

I know many of you are very concerned about the situation between the Hellertown Area Library and the LST Council.  That particular issue is not on the agenda for Monday’s Council meeting (more about that later), but there is something even more compelling on the agenda that needs to be confronted if we are to continue to work towards good government marked by transparency and accountability in this township. That is an attempt to revise the public comment and agenda-setting rules and regulations to clamp down on your right to present your comments to your elected representatives who, I will point out, work for you, the electorate.

This first meeting of any township in the new year is, by law, required to be an organizational meeting.   The agenda for the organizational portion is a laundry list of appointments, resolutions and approvals to set up the township to function in the new year.  While it’s tedious, it often goes fairly quickly.  Tucked into that list is election of Council president and vice-president for the new year.  Look for Banonis to be elected president.  Whoever is elected will take over immediately from Yerger.

After the organizational meeting is adjourned, the general business meeting will be convened.  This is why it’s important that you stick around through all the organizational fol-de-rol.

The first item under Township Business Items is Resolution #31-2022 – Revision of Agenda Policy and Code of Conduct for Council Meetings.  According to the supporting documentation, “Council Member Jason Banonis submitted the attached resolution for discussion and possible adoption.”  Here’s where the trouble starts.

LST resident Victoria Opthof-Cordaro, a lawyer, has provided a very concise explanation of the dangers inherent in this resolution.  With her permission, I include it here:

“Important takeaways from the proposal:

1. Residents will not be allowed to comment after each agenda item. Currently residents can comment at the beginning of the meeting [on non-agenda items] and after each agenda item. The proposal gives only one opportunity to speak at the beginning of the meeting [on agenda items] and that is all. [Ed. Note:  there is also an opportunity to speak on non-agenda items at the end of the meeting]

2. Only residents and taxpayers will be permitted to speak. Residents from Hellertown or any other municipality do not have any opportunities to speak.

3. If there is a common concern among attendees only 2 persons will be permitted to speak on that issue. The council President can cut off anyone who raises the same issue. 

4. Attendees may not “give” their time to other attendees to speak. 

5. Speakers may not question or criticize council members’ opinions or decisions. Council members have no obligation to answer questions or give dialogue on an issue.”

There’s a lot more in the complete resolution.  I suggest you read it in its entirety here (pages 49-54). where you can also compare it to the current rules that were put in place in 2020.

Much of the wording of the resolution is taken from Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act (Title 65, Chapter 7).  Of course much of it has been, shall we say, massaged for the purpose of controlling the audience.

There are some particularly egregious sections I’d like to point out.  Much of the introductory material – all the whereases – is laughable considering the past behavior of members of this council.  They are “authorized to establish a level of civility,” “promote an atmosphere of reasoned expression.”  The Council is a “strong advocate of free speech.” Really?? Gaslighting at its finest.  Go back and read minutes and blogs of previous meetings where residents and other council members were belittled, cut off, shouted down whenever the position expressed didn’t line up with the Banonis-Carocci point of view.  Ask Mrs. Stauffer if she feels that she was accorded an “atmosphere of reasoned expression” when the township’s solicitor came within inches of telling her not to speak at all. Or when Banonis made a motion(!) to mute Mrs. Stauffer in a discussion over library issues.  Or ask Mrs. deLeon about when Banonis implied that she had ulterior motives in the discussion of awarding the Berkheimer tax collector contract because Mrs. deLeon’s sister works there.

Be prepared when this resolution is introduced to hear a lot of blah-blah about more efficient meetings, less wasted time, staying on point, being civil.  It will all be bullshit.

Broad latitude is given to the Council president in the new resolution for determining what is “defamatory, contentious, scandalous, impertinent, redundant or disruptive.”  How exactly will those judgements be made?  Of course, one could argue that if the president applies the same standards as were applied the last two years to Council member behavior, there should be no problem.  All of that kind of behavior was tolerated.  Especially “redundant.” Does anyone remember sitting through Banonis’ completely redundant and superfluous recounting of the entire 2019 election cycle and judicial proceedings in his attempt to prove Mrs. Stauffer unfit for the seat to which she had just been legally appointed by the judge?  Somehow, I expect that the standards will suddenly be completely different.  

And also ask yourself, why are you as a resident subject to standards that are not applied to actual Council members?

FYI:  The resolution currently in place also allows for “scandalous, impertinent, or redundant” comments to be ruled out of order.  Guess they forgot that part in the last two years.

The Sunshine Act does not include any kind of detail regarding rules and regulations for conduct of meetings, giving the “agency” (read: township) the ability to adopt “by official action the rules and regulations necessary for the conduct of its meetings and the maintenance of order.”  But then there is one more, vitally important sentence in the Sunshine Act. “The rules and regulations shall not be made to violate the intent of this chapter.” (meaning the Sunshine Act). Do you think these rules and regulations sound like they meet that caveat?  I don’t.

Who Controls the Agenda?

As if all of this persiflage about public comment is not enough, let’s look a lot more closely at the new rules for creating a Council meeting agenda.  The current rules in accordance with the Sunshine Act say only that an agenda should be provided 3 days before a scheduled meeting.  The Sunshine Act does not speak directly to how to construct an agenda except in cases where there is an emergency, business arises 24 hours before a meeting or business arises during a meeting.  But Lower Saucon feels they need more control so witness this little beauty:

“Any Councilperson who wishes to have an item listed on an Agenda shall present a written request to the Township Manager, with sufficient detail to describe the item, at least 7 calendar days prior to the date of the meeting. The written request shall be accompanied by the assent of one other Councilperson to the request.” [emphasis added]

Currently, any Councilperson can request that an item be added to the agenda but now that person will need at least one other person to agree to it.  Hmmmm – let’s consider a hypothetical.  There’s a problem with – say – the landfill that Mrs. deLeon would like to have added to the agenda. Who is the second councilperson who will agree to that?  Banonis/Carocci?  You must be kidding.  Yerger?  She sometimes betrays a glimpse of an independent streak but I wouldn’t count on her vote.  The new member, Zavacky?  Let’s just say that it is not Republican Party practice to recruit people to run on its slate because they expect that those people will have independent thoughts and be willing to take independent action.  Especially when that slate is promoted with substantial financial support by a PAC run by the landfill’s owners.  So – no.  

What are the odds of an issue about the landfill (unless they need something approved) – or the library – or the livestreaming of council meetings – or anything else like that making it on to the township agenda under the new rules?  Practically nil. But, hey, you’ll get your lavish 3 minutes at the end of a Council meeting to bring up your concerns on that non-agenda item.

What Can You Do About This?

  • Show up for Monday’s Council meeting – 6:30 at Township Hall
  • Hang in there through the organizational meeting till the business meeting
  • When the new resolution is introduced and they call for public comment, speak up about why you object to these new rules and regulations – 3 minutes, cogent, direct

Why Isn’t the Library on the Agenda?

Now here’s an interesting event.  Mrs. deLeon requested – in writing – that an update on the library agreement situation be included on the agenda for January 3 based on the large number of inquiries and comments she had received from township residents.  Leslie Huhn, township manager, replied she didn’t think it was necessary.  Mrs. deLeon replied that she disagreed and again requested that it be put on the agenda.  It’s not there.

What gives Huhn the authority to make that decision? She’s a paid employee, not an elected official.  The new rule about a second Councilperson’s assent is not in place.  The answer:  she has/had no authority to do that. The library item should be on the agenda.

Also ask yourself, why did Banonis’ request for an agenda item get honored and Mrs. deLeon’s get ignored?

What Can You Do About This?

  • Show up for Monday’s Council meeting = 6:30 at Township Hall
  • During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting for non-agenda items, ask what the current status is with the library agreement.
  • At the same time, ask why Huhn refused to put the item on the agenda.
  • Ask what disciplinary measures will be taken to assure that this kind of employee overreach doesn’t happen again.
  • 3 minutes, succinct, cogent, direct.
  • If you don’t get a chance to speak at the beginning of the meeting, wait until the close of the organizational meeting and speak during the public comment period at the beginning of the business meeting.

Connect the Dots

I started attending township council meetings beginning in February 2020.  In that time I have observed the following:

  • Calendar Year 2020 – 21 regular council meetings, 2 special council meetings
  • Calendar Year 2021 – 17 regular council meetings
  • Calendar Year 2022 – 13 proposed regular council meetings (1 additional marked tentative)

Conclusion:  You get what you pay for.  Council people refuse compensation, then feel free to reduce amount of time spent on Council work

  • Calendar Year 2020 and 2021 – public comment limited to 3 minutes per speaker, before meeting – non-agenda items, residents; during meeting – agenda items, residents and non-residents; after meeting – non-agenda items, non-residents
  • Calendar Year 2022 – public comment limited to 3 minutes per speaker, before meeting – agenda items, residents; during meeting – none; after meeting – non-agenda items, residents

Conclusion:  Council has little interest in your comments or input

  • Prior to 2020 – agenda requirements unknown
  • Calendar Year 2020 and 2021 – agenda posted 3 days prior to meeting, items can be requested by any Councilperson; council minutes only appear when agenda appears
  • Calendar Year 2022 – agenda posted 3 days prior to meeting, items must be requested in writing 7 days before meeting, items must have assent of second Councilperson; Council minutes only appear when agenda appears

Conclusion:  Doesn’t matter if you’re an elected Councilperson, if the powers that be don’t want to discuss your issue, they won’t

Like I said, we have our work cut out for us.  Happy New Year.

Photo by Moritz Knöringer on Unsplash

Next Council Meeting – Wednesday, January 19 – 6:30 PM – Township Hall