Thursday, November 15, 2012

Three Thoughts

A photo grabbed from the video I shot at Tuesday's borough council meeting. Shown are three plain clothes police officers confronting the bearded man on the right who attempted to comment on the appointment of Police Chief Mark Flanders as Pottstown's new borough manager. He had failed to follow council's procedure and sign up to speak at the beginning of the meeting and he was asked to sit down and quiet down.

So I think it's fair to say, that I've been to my share of public meetings.

More than most.

And I also think it's fair to say that I've been at meetings where audience members were "disgruntled."

But it's not often that I see a plain clothed police response used to deal with  a disgruntled audience member.

Capt. Rick Drumheller
But that's what I saw Tuesday.

"Disgruntled" was the word Police Capt. Rick Drumheller used when I asked him why he had asked members of the police department's Community Response Unit to be at Tuesday's meeting.

“I thought there might be some disgruntled members of the audience,” Drumheller told me Tuesday when I asked why police were there.

But more I thought about that answer, the more questions it spawned.

The first one that sprang to mind was "since when does 'digruntled audience members' require a police presence?"

In more than 25 years of municipal reporting, I have seen borough council presidents, school board presidents, solicitors,township supervisors and managers of all stripes deal with irate members of the public without the need for police intervention.

It's in the job description.

Heck, in the Reporter's Handbook, "irate" and "audience member" are often listed as synonyms.

Let's face it, most people don't come to a municipal meeting, as thrilling as they are, unless they're pissed off about something.

On rare occasions, when an item on the agenda is controversial, I can understand it.

Rick Rabinowitz addresses the Pottsgrove School 

Board. At police presence at meetings like this, 

could be rationalized.
For example, I recall Rick Rabinowitz archly noting the presence of Lower Pottsgrove Police Officers at a Pottsgrove School Board meeting at which the "centers" approach to elementary education was to be voted upon.

It had been controversial for months, and some meetings had ended in shouting.

But what was on council's agenda Tuesday that was so controversial that plain clothes police officers were required to blend in to the audience, as Drumheller described it, to deal with .... what? A riot? Unlikely in the extreme.

The second thought that came to mind was that in addition to Flanders and Drumheller, I counted at least three and possible four police officers in the room.

There are only two possibilities. They were being paid, or they weren't.

If they weren't being paid -- which is unlikely when you consider their contract does not allow them to even work the Pottstown Halloween Parade without getting four hours overtime -- then, as Flanders explained during the parade debate, they were not authorized to use any police powers.

I suppose its possible they were just there for fun or out of civic curiosity and were asking the man trying to ask council a question to be quiet and sit down as fellow citizens ... but then since so few of our police officers live in our town they wouldn't really have standing as "residents."

Which leads me to conclude they were being paid.

If so, I have to wonder if having three or four on-duty officers attend a public meeting at which the most crime that is likely to occur is overly boring political speeches, is a terribly good use of taxpayer resources.

Who was on the street? Was the borough council meeting the top crime priority in Pottstown Tuesday night?

Given that, at least until April when he resigns as chief, every single person in borough hall will answer to one man, I would certainly hope this display of police power is not going to become the norm.

Which brings us to my third thought, perhaps most important one in the long haul.

Much like the ham-handed Pottstown School Board, which complains about a lack of public involvement and yet shuts the public out of every issue in which it actually takes an interest, borough council has been heard to complain that it can't get volunteers for its boards, or interested residents at its meeting.

I would venture to say that the elderly gentleman, whose name I wish I knew, who stood up in the back of council meeting room Tuesday was an interested resident.

No where on the agenda or in the meeting room, does it indicate that if you want to address council, you must sign up to do it at the beginning of the meeting.

Those of us who have spent years at such meetings sometimes forget this.

Also, as an aside, I think that asking people to comment on items before its clear what's going to happen with them, is not really the best way to get the most insightful comments from your constituents.
Number 4 on the agenda was how Flanders' appointment was listed.
How is a member of the public supposed to comment intelligently
on this matter when its contents are a mystery until the
comment period is over?

Case in point, although we had reported several times in The Mercury that Flanders was likely to be appointed, Tuesday's agenda mentioned only a motion to name "an individual" as the new borough manager.

What's the rationale for secrecy? As Council President Stephen Toroney noted in his own carefully noted time line of events, Flanders was made an offer in early October. Not only did council know, but, apparently, the police force knew.

Why is the taxpaying public purposefully kept in the dark and, when it's finally clear what the vote will be, told it's too late to comment?

Which brings us right back to my third thought.

As a veteran audience member of countless council meetings, I frequently have witnessed Toroney ignore the rules he cleaved to Tuesday night, to allow people to address council out of turn.

The aim of meeting rules should be to facilitate

useful participation by the public, not prevent it.
And, as someone in the audience noted Tuesday night, council has the ability to vote to waive its own rules and could easily have allowed that gentleman to express his thoughts, or ask his question.

Any member of council could have made that motion and, as a privileged motion, it would have taken precedence and required an immediate vote.

It's a sad truth of Pottstown civics, and probably everywhere else too, that people don't pay attention until the last minute. But that does not release public officials from their responsibility to seek and bend over backwards to hear what their constituents have to say -- particularly in a public setting.

Certainly, council veterans like Toroney learned this long ago. And if, as they so often say, they want to hear what people think, that sometimes means listening when the people want to say it, not just when its convenient for council to hear it.

It was, to unearth an old cliche, the loss of a "teachable moment." As a teacher at the Western Center for Technical Studies, one would hope that Mr. Toroney would recognize and act upon such moments when they occur.

What possible conclusion could that man reach when he went home Tuesday night, but that council is more interested in its rules than his thoughts? Or, worse, that the rules are designed to prevent useful comment rather than to encourage it.

Why would he ever show up at another meeting to participate in his local government or, perhaps more worrisome, trust that the police will be interested in what he has to say should he require their services?

The incident, which I recorded on a video I have posted below, was also evidence that, if only because it was inconvenient, council was not interested in allowing or hearing more public comment on their decision to appoint Flanders.

I just hope the police weren't there for the same reason.


  1. Excellent article. Outrageous reaction and behavior. I think the video gives enough explanation as to the event. Ironic that a Board sites no involvement from its constituency but tries to suppress them despite their attempt to be involved. If the rules are unwritten and unknown...certainly some leniency could be extended. Seems like an abrasive response to me. Why on Earth would anyone want to participate in such a forum hereafter? Why on Earth would anyone want to Live in that Borough? Remember folks....there is always another election 'just around the corner'. Better check yourselves!

  2. Evan,

    Thank you for posting your thoughts on this portion of the meeting. It's all been on my mind as well.

    I have been at public meetings in NJ where a big issue was on the agenda and a uniformed officer was present. I have no problem with that; everyone understands the officer is on duty and there "just in case." But that is not what happened at Council the other night.

    The sight of a plainclothes posse crowding toward an elderly man, who didn't understand the ass-backward procedure - that I've only ever seen in Pottstown, where public comment is taken BEFORE an issue comes up for discussion - was really alarming. This is the U.S.of A. where citizens are supposed to be allowed to voice their concerns in a MEANINGFUL way, i.e., when it's clear what the governing body is actually about to vote on.Those rules of order should and must be changed before the light of day can shine on Pottstown Borough Council meetings. If a majority of the current Council does not understand how this procedure shuts citizens out of meaningful participation in civic discourse, then we need some new Council members who get it.

    Second, the last I checked Pottstown was not a police state or semi-police state. Either the police are attending a meeting on-duty OR as interested employees or residents. It should be clear in what capacity and the lines should not be blurred. Nothing that elderly man said or did warranted the intimidation tactics that ensued. Your point about whether they were being paid is well-taken.

    Third, I don't think I've ever seen "a possible motion" to hire a manager and extend an employment agreement on an agenda. This seems to indicate that the action might not even have been taken, which was obviously not the case. This decision was made well in advance of the meeting, by the admission of the Council members, and it was full-steam ahead, unanimously. At first I thought "a possible motion" might also indicate that the motion might not be made based on input from the public, but - duh! - how could that happen with the out-of-order procedure described above?

    Allowing the public to have MEANINGFUL input, especially at the local level, is the essence of democracy. Listening to all the elected officials describe their support of the motion was a fascinating display of group-speak: it was a long, one-sided conversation that anticipated objections and arguments... that were actually never made because the public never had a chance to speak at the normal time when there would have been what is commonly recognized as a "conversation."

    Democracy is a give and take. It is messy. It means being open to other points of view. Sometimes it means holding your ground. Sometimes it means being humble enough to change your mind. It's not any different than being in a healthy relationship; there are battles, hurt feelings, compromise, compassion and forgiveness. Then you move on. The dialogue between elected officials and constituents can and should be respectful. It doesn't have to create enemies for life.

    Now, I would like to make a motion that Pottstown Borough Council change its procedure for public comment. All in favor?

  3. Evan,

    Great article! I would like to clarify, however, my own view on the police presence at the meeting you reference in Pottsgrove. I was present at the one previous meeting that was abruptly ended by the board President after a tired and testy audience of parents and teachers started shouting; but the fact is that the shouting started after an outrageous and provocative comment by the (now former) Superintendent and still, the audience dispersed without even a hint of violence. Fast forwarding to the meeting that you reference, the board was to provide a decision on creating centers after months of debate. The overwhelming response from Parents, Teachers and the community at large to the idea of creating centers was a resounding "NO" as evidenced by the petition that I presented to the board that night with more than 1,500 signatures. As we arrived at the meeting, we were shocked to find 3 members of the Pottsgrove police. The general view was that the board had already made up its mind and had requested the police presence, expecting "trouble". Indeed, despite the impassioned public comment against this idea, despite the 1,500 strong petition, the board voted 9 to 0 in favor of this idea and forever severed the trust this community had in its leadership. You may understand why someone in Pottsgrove thought the police were necessary. But I will argue to the end that it was an unnecessary provocation, that there was no reason to think that there would be violence, that shouting is not equal to violence (and the board President was shouting too and we parents weren't offered police protection!), that (if anything) the police presence itself increased the risk of violence rather than diffused it and that the only explanation for the police being present was that the board had deceived the community when we were told that the decision hadn't yet been made!

  4. I'm in favor Sue!! Thanks everyone for your insightful expressions of how this impacted you.

    At first I was confused about what happening, it seemed surreal to see the plain clothes officers approach that gentleman, actually they kind of rushed him. He was siting Roberts Rules of Order which I took a good look at today.

    Council could benefit. Unfortunately, many of our council people admit to being computer illiterate.

    I hope this event does not portend the future of Pottstown. Let it be an isolated incident, please.

  5. I would like to know why the other candidates were not chosen. Lack of experience, money or ?. They hired Jason with minimum experience and Flanders has 6 months Borough Mangement experience.

    Are we suppose to believe for $120k that NO ONE with more than 6 months experience applied?

    Evan - are you able to obtain the information of who the final candiates were and their experience? Since my tax dollars are paying this salary I would like to know which candidates were not considered for the position.

    This issue of Borough Manager will be not discussed next week so either answers are requested now or council will again realize they do not need to answer to taxpayers.

    If this happened in Philadelphia the TV stations would attack the Council members and demand answers. In Pottstown the council members get a free pass and besides a few comments in the newspaper they operate with no accountability.

    1. Actually, finding out who else applied is very difficult.

      Unlike other public documents, because this involves personnel, and because the people applying may have jobs elsewhere, I do not believe it is subject to the open records laws, but I will double check.

  6. The incident itself disgusts me. The fact that there were plain clothes officers there (Flanders' golden boys) to 'subdue' an elderly gentleman for questioning the routine of the meeting, is horrendous! You are either paid (in your uniform) or you are a bystander (not to subdue the general public). But again, this yet proves Flanders' bully tactics and ruling by intimidation. This is how he runs his police department, and now its going to be how he runs the borough. Oh, and let me commend Flanders on his stellar job with the crime in the borough, considering he is leaning towards making the department a 'paper' (tickets, reports, etc) department and not a crime solving department.

    Keep in mind, there is another election coming up. I hear there are 5 seats up for grabs. Who is going to run? If you do, you got my vote! Anyone is better than the back stabbing, trash talking behind your back, current borough council members. I heard the comments and saw it first hand at a social event, just hours after the appointment. It was disgusting. They all need to be replaced!

  7. Just to add to my comment above, those plain clothes officers DO NOT live in the borough, and yes, they were paid to be his private security. Nothing like the tax payers protecting the borough manager and using CRU dollars! I couldve thought of better things that could have been spent on- food kitchen, toys for tots, operation santa, etc. Again, this is how Flanders is. If I cant have it, I will tantrum and fight you with legal ramifications and trumped up charges that equal nothing in the end. Great article Evan!

  8. Just take a look at the Occupy movement. Many of the protests are met with police presence, even if it's nothing more than a voicing of opinions. These police officers go ready to battle, in more gear than a soldier in a battlezone. Unfortunately, verbal protest is considered violence, nowadays. It's sad. This last meeting was proof that even at a small borough level, nothing is different, except for the scale. The response is still to confront any voicing of opinions, that go against what the council wants, with police. I am disgusted that these people run Pottstown. I'm disgusted that you can win a ward in town with less than 100 votes. I hope we can make a big enough stink to get these idiots out of office. I wish I could run. I encourage anybody and everybody to run for council. We need new blood on there. We need people who care about what the people have to say.

  9. Hey, Evan...How about you running for council next year?

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