Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Public Speaking

Public comment before Pottstown Borough Council has been 
expanded to both monthly meetings, and at least one session
will be televised as a result of a unanimous vote Monday.
It has become a little bit easier to talk to your local government this year.

Previously, borough council meetings were structured so that the only point in the cycle at which the public was allowed to address all of council was at the beginning of the second meeting of the month, the voting meeting when, for all intents and purposes, most decisions about ho votes were going to be cast had already been made.

Paradoxically, the only meetings which were ever televised on PCTV, for those who could not, or did not want to, attend were the "work sessions" the Wednesday before the voting meeting.

That is where almost all discussion, whatever there was, occurred, but the public could not join in that discussion.
Gus Tellis films a council work session for PCTV.

In any case, under this arrangement no one watching from home ever had any idea what public comments had been made to council, other than those reported in The Mercury or summarized in council minutes.

This year, that has changed in two ways, over two different nights.

When Borough Council re-organized on Jan. 6, the rules were changed to allow public comment at both meetings; at the end of the Wednesday work sessions and, as usual, at the beginning of the Monday voting meetings.

However, council enacted a caveat: that the public comments from the Wednesday night meetings were not to be televised.

Once again, those watching from home got hosed.

But the hosing did not last long.

Dan Weand
At the Jan. 8 work session, Councilman Dan Weand expressed second thoughts.

Calling it "an injustice to our citizens," Weand proposed the ban on televising comments from the Wednesday work sessions be lifted.

"I want as much transparency as possible and I think with not putting those comments on television we stop short and to say we're going to hold back part of what happened at the meeting, seems unfair and discriminatory," Weand said at the Jan. 8 meeting.

 Televising comments from the Wednesday meeting "give an opportunity for those at home to hear what their neighbors and fellow citizens have to say," he argued.

On Monday night, the rest of council agreed.

Mayor Sharon Thomas asked if it was necessary for council to ask citizens commenting on television to sign hold-harmless agreements so council is not held legally responsible for things said at the meeting, but Borough Solicitor Charles D. Garner Jr. said no.

"This body hears its citizens and any one who is at the meeting can hear what is said, I don't see how we could be held accountable," he said.

The only restriction would be on PCTV to comply with Federal Communications Commission rules to ensure that no profanity be broadcast, he said.

Travis Gery
Council Vice President Travis Gery said he supports the move but had a concern that speaking in front of a television camera could have "a chilling effect" on those who are not comfortable doing so.

However, he was reassured those uncomfortable speaking before a camera could always speak on Mondays, when there is no camera, or directly with their council person.

To make things even easier, Garner explained that council's rules, adopted annually, make no mention of televising any part of the meeting and that the decision to televise, or not, can be re-visited at any point in the year.

"It's fair game at any time," he said.

However, he advised against any attempt to "edit" any comments, saying "it would seem contradictory to say we're going to expand public comment and then try to censor it."

With that, council voted unanimously to allow the public comments made at Wednesday night work sessions to be part of the PCTV broadcast of that meeting.

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