Troy's response to public doesn't violate Sunshine Act
TROY - An attorney for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association (PNA) said Troy Borough Council is not violating the Sunshine Act by not answering residents' questions during public meetings, but she said it does raise concerns nonetheless.
At the last borough council meeting, several residents addressed comments and questions to council. Each were thanked, but council did not respond to them during the meeting. This was a departure from previous meetings.
When asked for comment, borough manager Dan Close said that the citizens' questions regarding the "day-to-day operations of the borough" are instead being answered out of his office.
"It is not appropriate to give knee-jerk answers during public meetings nor is it fair to the individuals asking the questions," he stated.
"I record specific questions at the meetings and from the sign-in sheet, I respond to residents in as timely a manner as possible given the issue priority within our operations," he stated.
He also noted that, in the next meeting, the questions from the previous meeting that were answered by letter will be read along with the written response, then appended to the minutes for the record.
When asked for comment, council member Krystle Bristol said that "a good majority" of the questions posed by residents in the public comment period at meetings require an "extensive response."
"It's not just a yes or no question," she said. "They require research."
Citing an example, Bristol mentioned a comment at the last meeting from a resident who asked about a few fire hydrants that he said were still covered in plastic bags.
"When was the last time that our fire hydrants were checked?" the man said. "I mean, it's just a real public safety issue I see not really being addressed." He asked for some information. Council thanked him, but didn't respond to his questions at that time, and he sat back down.
Bristol said this is an example of a question that requires some research.
Melissa Melewsky, PNA Media Law Counsel, acknowledged this aspect of the issue in her comments.
"If a particular question requires research and an answer can't be given immediately, a delayed response is appropriate," she said, when asked for comment by the Review.
At the same time, she noted, "many questions can and should be answered during a public meeting."
"It doesn't make sense to impose a formal, governmental process causing delay where it is not necessary. Surely, elected officials can and should be willing to promptly address the voters who put them in office even if the Sunshine Act does not require them to do so."
If the Troy practice regarding public comments is administered strictly, she said, it would create unnecessary work for both the borough and the citizens asking questions, Melewsky said.
"There is no reason an agency can't or shouldn't answer questions during a public meeting if the questions are easily answered," she said.
Bristol said that she agreed that some questions should be answered. She said if someone is asking why council is buying a tractor prior to the vote, then that question should be answered right away.
"The Sunshine Act does not require agencies to answer questions during (the) public comment portion of an open meeting but many do in order to foster better communication and address residents' questions directly," Melewsky noted.
"Many agencies will answer questions to the extent possible and offer to follow up if an answer is not readily available; this is a reasonable and responsive method of responding to constituents' questions posed during (a) public meeting."
This wasn't done, however, when another speaker, Jack Hulslander, spoke at the last meeting. He was concerned about what he said was a lack of maintenance of a ditch by his house.
Bristol said that he could have been given a vague answer, such as "I'll see if we can fit it in the schedule."
However, council did not respond to him during the meeting.
"I don't think people want a vague answer in the meeting," Bristol added. Hulslander couldn't be reached for comment as to whether a vague answer would have been acceptable to him or not.
Bristol said giving him an actual date for any work is something that would have to be looked into before an answer could be given, however.
Since the meeting, she said, the borough has gotten back to residents by email and phone calls.
Here was Close's response in its entirety regarding the borough's response to residents speaking during the public comment period at meetings.
"It's not true that citizens' questions are not being answered," said Close. "Answers to questions being asked in the meeting that are day-to-day operations of the borough are being answered out of the manager's office."
"If the questions or comments are policy-oriented, then the appropriate committee will be convened and a recommendation brought back to the next meeting for full council review. If the questioning citizen is not present at that next meeting, the manager will notify them of council's decision. It is not appropriate to give knee-jerk answers during public meetings nor is it fair to the individuals asking the questions."
"As I am sure you have witnessed, recent meetings have been out of control, and in all honesty it is not a conducive way to run the business of the borough. This community has a lot of good and positive attributes and they outweigh much of the negativity that is being unfairly and, many times, falsely circulated. This council is committed to carrying out the business of the borough in a manner that is best for all concerned. Productive meetings are a large part of that commitment. When council is faced with trying to deal with questions regarding day-to-day operations, it takes away from their responsibility to deal with long-range goals and planning that become the most beneficial to the community. I record specific questions at the meetings and from the sign-in sheet, I respond to residents in as timely a manner as possible given the issue priority within our operations."
Eric Hrin can be reached at (570) 297-5251; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.