No Sunshine in Lower Merion, or “How to get chewed out, threatened and humiliated for speaking up in a township meeting”
Last night the Lower Merion commissioners held their committee meetings, which are open to the public and televised. I caught this disaster on television myself.
One topic of discussion by the commissioners during the Finance Committee meeting, for which the public was allowed to comment after the commissioners discussed issues, was whether the Ad Hoc Budget Committee meeting (and one would assume other ad hoc committee meetings) should be open to the public.
I personally see no reason why the Ad Hoc Budget Committee meetings should not be open to the public. Towards the end of last year when the 2009 budget was discussed in the public Finance Committee meeting, I had no idea what was going on in some cases because commissioners at times would say things like “that was discussed in the Ad Hoc Budget Committee meeting“, and then go into no detail, leaving citizens wondering what was said in these Ad Hoc Budget Committee meetings.
There was confusion last night on whether these Ad Hoc Committee meetings are required to be open to the public under law. A township resident and 1st Amendment lawyer addressed the commissioners and stated that under the Sunshine Law these meetings are required to be open to the public. Township Solicitor Gilbert High disagreed, and amazingly he basically challenged this citizen to file a lawsuit against the township. High ended his interpretation of the law by stating in effect to those who disagree with his view of the law that that is why we have “adversarial” means of solving these problems. Township Solicitor High works first and foremost for the people, but as we so often see in Lower Merion, those elected or appointed to serve the people instead only serve the interests of the township or certain senior township staff members.
One woman spoke up that she was appalled that certain commissioners were more concerned about 400 township employees than they were with 59,000 Lower Merion citizens, and she was right on. Since the discussion on whether the Ad Hoc Budget Committee should be open to the public was geared towards concerns about township employees, I couldn’t agree more with this statement.
I stated in a previous thread that there is a simple solution to this. You have one new Ad Hoc Committee meeting that deals only with sensitive personnel issues or active litigation that could possibly be discussed in any other Ad Hoc Committee meeting - with that specific new Ad Hoc Committee meeting not open to the public, and you then open all the other Ad Hoc Committee meetings up to the public because certain “non-public” issues will then not be topics. No commissioner was able to come up with and offer this simple solution last night.
As for “personnel” issues, there is no doubt that many personnel issues should be open to the public. Look what the President of the Radnor Township Board of Commissioners did last week. When charges of impropriety where levied against the township manager by a citizen at a township meeting based on public records, the Radnor board president took the township manager to task at a public meeting, later suspended the township manager and called in the District Attorney while making that public, and tonight Radnor has a public meeting in which the sole topic will be publicly deciding if this high ranking township employee should be terminated.
Lower Merion had a similar issue a ways back where a citizen publicly complained in a township meeting about criminal behavior by the former police chief (who left his job on his own terms and with his pension to great thanks by all LM commissioners) and provided the commissioners with documents backing this up in regards to lying under oath.
What did the Lower Merion commissioners do? Not what they should have done which is to maintain public trust by airing those accusations in the public so the police chief could be either fired, punished in some other manner, or have his name cleared. Nope, the LM commissioners just covered this all up with silence while residents of Lower Merion got to wonder for several years whether the police chief was a criminal or not, and wonder why these public accusations were swept under the rug by the commissioners.
Of particular disgrace last night was long time Lower Merion commissioner Louis Gould, who bizarrely stated “I don‘t fear citizens“. What was that statement all about? Was Gould trying to make a statement to those who exercised their rights to free speech and to petition the government last night? Did Gould for some strange reason feel the need to defend his manhood in a truly bizarre fashion?
The issue of whether these Ad Hoc Committee meetings should be open to the public is an emotional one for many citizens. I watched every citizen speak on this topic last night on television, and certainly strong words were used by citizens as many citizens where very frustrated with the arguments that were used by some commissioners to keep these meetings closed to the public. Speaking up as these citizens did is their Constitutional right. At no point did any of these citizens make any threats of violence or use any obscene words, and for the most part they were pretty composed and their words were well thought out.
So what does LM commissioner Gould (who has sworn an oath to “support, obey and defend” the Constitution) say after all these citizens were finished speaking? Gould states that these citizens were rude for expressing their opinions in a perfectly legal and legitimate manner and he then threatened to have any citizen who speaks up in such a manner thrown out of township meetings in the future - in what would be a patently illegal and unconstitutional manner.
Outside of serving as a means to humiliate those citizens who spoke up and exercised their rights last night, I view this as a disgraceful attempt by Gould to quash free speech and scare citizens away from exercising their rights in future township meetings.
Needless to say, the LM commissioners voted to keep the Ad Hoc Budget Committee meeting closed to the public.
~ As we must account for every idle word, so must we account for every idle silence.