Newberry Twp. board boots the public from in-person meetings
On Oct. 20, Will Toothaker asked the Newberry Township Board of Supervisors questions about the township's proposed 2021 budget, specifically its funding for police.
He was promptly asked to leave.
Vice Chair Maxine Kauffman said she meant no disrespect toward Toothaker, a Goldsboro resident, but said the public was not supposed to be at the meetings in person.
"We refused some people that did request to come in," said township manager Tony Miller.
Newberry Township is still prohibiting the public from physically attending its board meetings due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements. Instead, the meetings are streamed live on the township's YouTube channel, and the public must submit their comments and questions via email.
The live chat function on the video stream is disabled.
In an interview Wednesday, Miller said the township didn't realize Toothaker had entered the meeting and officials felt it wouldn't be fair to allow him to stay when other people had been denied access.
Toothaker told the board he didn't realize the meeting was closed to in-person attendance and left without issue. The meeting went on.
But the incident brought to light the difficulty of transparently conducting public business when the public is not allowed to be physically present, all while trying to abide by social distancing guidelines set forth by the state.
In an interview Thursday, Toothaker, who was a township supervisor before moving to Goldsboro, said he went to the meeting because it was advertised online as being "open," and he didn't know the board had prohibited in-person attendance.
He was only able to comment on the police portion of the township's proposed 2021 budget and said he would have asked more questions about other portions if he'd been allowed to stay.
There's significant overlap in services between Goldsboro and Newberry Township, Toothaker said, and he added he still cares about the township and its residents.
"I am concerned if we continue under this model that it will discourage residents from being involved with the township," Toothaker said.
To accommodate for public comment, Miller said he checks his email in his office up until the start of the public meetings, and then he brings his iPad to the meetings so he can monitor for any other messages that arrive at the last minute.
He then reads all of the comments during the public comment period, he said.
"I realize that it’s difficult and it’s kind of weird, and it’s not the same as an open meeting where you can actually walk in," Miller said. "But it’s the best thing that we’ve been able to come up with so far."
At Tuesday's meeting, Miller read an email with questions about a proposed noise ordinance and the township's public works maintenance staff.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said it's always disturbing to hear reports of a member of the public being removed from a public meeting, and that this in case, the board may have been "between a rock and a hard place" because of its prohibition of other public attendance.
At a minimum, the board needs to do a better job explaining whether in-person public participation is allowed at each meeting, Melewsky said.
But providing an internet stream may not be enough to serve the needs of the public, she said.
"There are many people who don’t have access to the internet, and those people will automatically be excluded from public meetings," Melewsky said. "To the extent they (township officials) can offer appropriately distanced physical access to meetings, they should."
Township resident Michael Haugh said he asked the township manager for a 15-minute in-person public comment period so he could address the board at a meeting, and he said he never got a response.
Haugh doesn't use email, he said, and he added he would have to write out his comments by hand and bring them to the township.
"I want to be able to face them because I want their comments back to me," he said.
Supervisor Clair Wintermyer said Thursday the township's biggest difficulty is the small size of the meeting room.
After the supervisors, administrative staff and department heads are gathered, they usually reach the limit of the number of people who can be in the room while keeping a safe distance, Wintermyer said.
The board has considered moving the meetings to the fire hall to allow for more space, he said, but the fire hall doesn't have the video equipment set up for streaming.
"Most people don’t like the email, and I don't like the email either," Wintermyer said. "I’d rather to talk to people in person."
One idea for a remedy would be to use a public comment sign-up sheet with participants' names and phone numbers, Wintermyer said.
The members of the public would wait in the parking lot and would be called one-by-one to come inside, have their public comment time and then leave to make room for the next person to speak, he said.
But in the meantime, the board has decided not to discuss or take action on certain hot-button items until the meetings are fully open to the public again, Wintermyer said, such as the proposed noise ordinance.
"We basically get by with the basic things we need to get by with, for now," he said of the board's official actions.
The other township supervisors — Kauffman, Chair Dave Kirkpatrick, Brandt Cook and Mario Eckert — could not be reached for comment.
Toward the end of Tuesday's meeting, the board voted to enter into executive session.
The screen remained black for 90 minutes before the video feed returned, when Kirkpatrick announced they'd discussed litigation and personnel matters.
They took no votes before adjourning.