By David Loomis
INDIANA – Make it three straight for Republican county commissioners. That’s how many consecutive public meetings in which the county board’s two-member majority has exhibited or encouraged – incited — intolerance of viewpoints they dislike. The latest target at their Wednesday meeting:
Item No. 4 on the agenda for the Feb. 10 “regular” commissioners meeting is boilerplate: “Public comment: Anyone making public comment will be limited to three minutes.” The item comes right after the ritual roll call, Pledge of Allegiance and approval of the previous meeting’s minutes.
But on Wednesday, a minute into the meeting, board Chairman R. Michael Keith called an audible: He announced that public comments were acceptable “only on those things that we commissioners will be taking official action to today.”
That seemed to be news to the citizens tuned in on Zoom — 43 of them by one count. And the official agenda offered no guidance, since it made no indication of which items were actionable.
Off limits for public comment, according to Chairman Keith’s new decree, was one agenda item that involved listening to an update on the county’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. To enforce the decree, Mr. Keith and Republican Commissioner Robin Gorman verbally tag-teamed enforcement of the gag rule by verbally cutting off public comments of two citizens seeking to comment on Covid-19. Audio of a third commenter was cut electronically in mid-sentence.
Following is a transcript of the Feb. 10 meeting’s five-minute public-comment segment heard on the official audio. The transcript is lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
CHAIRMAN KEITH: … What I will ask you to do is make comments concerning today’s agenda…. Those public comments are to be made only on those things that we commissioners will be taking official action to today. So anything that is above and beyond our action according to the agenda, I’m sorry but we will not be hearing from you… So, do we have public comments from anybody?
SUSAN WHEATLEY:… I’d like to make a comment about the “Covid-19 update.” [Agenda Item 7]
CHAIRMAN KEITH: Susan, I just want to inform you that, um, we will not be taking any action on Covid-19. All we will be doing is giving an informational update, the Covid action, all we will be doing is giving an informational update from our EMA director. But again, that part of the thing is, that no action is to be taken. Thank you. And if you would like, if you would call the commissioners office and we can make an appointment so we can discuss other areas you wish to discuss. But thank you.
WHEATLEY: So, that’s it? I don’t get to make a comment about that?
CHAIRMAN KEITH: No. Again, we are not taking any official action on that. All that is, is a summation update. But again, you’re welcome to call into the courthouse and speak with us or make an appointment and we can discuss those matters there. We’re just, this is basically, to take care of business on behalf of the commissioners and, with the residents, uh, actions taken only. So thank you.
RON RILEY: I have a comment.
CHAIRMAN KEITH: Speaking?
RILEY: This is Ron Riley. In response to what we’ve just heard, who are we supposed to contact? We’ve been trying for months unsuccessfully to get a single response without any answer.
CHAIRMAN KEITH: Again, Ron ….
RILEY: So you neglect to answer her right now. You neglect to answer us and contact you … for months. Who are we supposed to contact? How do we get anything answered?
CHAIRMAN KEITH: Ron, I don’t mean to interrupt you, but you can call here at the courthouse. We will answer you. You can set up an appointment. We will meet with you. We will direct you to get you an answer if we do not have it.
RILEY: Why has Robin Gorman never responded to anything I’ve sent to her for two months?
COMMISSIONER GORMAN: Ron, you’re totally out of line …. You have talked. You’ve gotten answers, been listened to. People spent hours of time with you, including [emergency management] Director Tom Stutzman, who is the right person to provide you with the right answers.
RILEY: Well, you should …
RILEY: At least Tom has responded. You have not done that. So, I’m done.
CHAIRMAN KEITH: Any other public comments at this time?
DARCY TRUNZO: Yes…. [crosstalk] I’m going to comment on Tom Stutzman, which is what you said. He is going to be commenting later. And that …
CHAIRMAN KEITH: Oh, no, no, no, no ….
TRUNZO: … You’re talking about his weekly comments.
CHAIRMAN KEITH: No. That is information only. There’s no action being taken. We’re not going to discuss that.
TRUNZO: OK, well one of the things that I’m seeing here is a repeated desire to suppress information from the public, to the public, and you actually have not [crosstalk], you have not responded, you have not responded in email form- (audio ends abruptly).
KEITH: Do we have any other public comment at this time?
WHEATLEY: Yes, it’s Susan Wheatley again. I would just like to say … wonderful job with the Covid [clinic]. They’ll be there tomorrow, probably Friday, next week, 15th through 19th, maybe the 23rd . They can only publicize on their website. When they get the product, and they try to fill, they try to judge …
CHAIRMAN KEITH: Thank you.
WHEATLEY: … anyway, I would like to … [crosstalk] … for hearing this comment, and thank you so much, commissioners.
CHAIRMAN KEITH: Thank you, Susan. Any other public comments to action of the agenda to be taken care of? Hearing none, we will move on.
IN ITS REPORT ON the meeting, The Indiana Gazette helpfully quoted state law on public comment during public meetings of public bodies: “The Sunshine Act gives the public the right to comment on issues ‘that are or may be before the board,’ according to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records website.”
Neither commissioner Keith nor Commissioner Gorman responded to a Feb. 10 email request for explanation and elaboration.
However, Democratic Commissioner Sherene Hess did elaborate. She distanced herself from the Keith-Gorman decree.
“I had no idea that the statement was going to be made,” Ms. Hess said in a Feb. 11 phone interview. “ I don’t want to be associated with suppressing people’s rights to make public comments.”
Darcy Trunzo, whose audio was cut during her public comment, said the public-comment policy fits a pattern of behavior by commissioners Keith and Gorman. For months they have exhibited “abdication of their responsibility” to communicate with citizens during the Covid-19 crisis, Trunzo said, citing an example.
“We started asking about the REACH website,” Trunzo said in a Feb. 11 phone interview. “They refused to answer. It was crickets.”
COMMISSIONERS KEITH AND GORMAN may be looking for some direction on public-information and public-comment strategies. Guidelines issued by the state Office of Open Records offer a new beginning:
“As a starting point, it’s key for agencies to remember that transparency builds trust, especially in times of crisis.”
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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