Munhall, Steel Valley officials held accountable by residents
No less than four times each month, Munhall resident Donna Dreshman tries to change the world — her world, at least.
During the past two decades, she's become something of a citizen watchdog trying to keep local elected officials accountable for their actions. For Dreshman, that means attending and often speaking at the two public meetings conducted monthly by Munhall Council and the Steel Valley School District board of directors.
“I started going to meetings back in the ‘90s because I had a little bit of an interest in what goes on there,” she said. “But now I try to make it to every single meeting. I feel a sort of duty to keep (officials) on their toes.”
It's a role seemingly filled unofficially by at least one or two residents who are regulars at meetings wherever they live and one that Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said is vital to the democratic process.
“It's a good way for citizens to bring new issues to the attention of their elected officials,” said Melewsky. “Sometimes those comments result in future agenda items and that's the way it's supposed to work.”
But although every government agency must follow a standard protocol when it comes to making motions, passing ordinances and conducting official business, each board or council is allowed to establish its own rules and regulations pertaining to public participation in meetings — the only time residents are able to ask questions or share their thoughts on the record.
In some meetings, residents who sign up in advance are only allowed to speak their mind on agenda items as the board silently takes their comments under consideration. In others, there's more of an informal and open dialogue. And while a time limit between two and five minutes is often imposed upon all public comments, each agency can choose to enforce or not enforce that limit at the board's discretion.
It's this lack of uniformity that often leads to confusion and confrontations about the role of public officials and their responsibility to constituents. In Munhall, for example, where recent troubles have led to accusations of misconduct and conspiracies, meetings are often derailed by angry residents demanding answers with little regard for conventions or the digital timer ticking down.
But Munhall council president Dan Lloyd said the time limit — which was implemented in Munhall about two years ago — isn't to hinder an open discourse but only to keep the proceedings on track.
“It's not that we don't want to hear from the public,” said Lloyd. “We want as many people as possible to come to our meetings and talk to us. But we have to keep a certain decorum. It is the people's meeting, but it's not a meeting for people who just want to come and go off. We have to have a system so that it's not a mob scene.”
Recently appointed Steel Valley School District board president Donna Kiefer, who took classes at the ARIN Intermediate Unit to learn the proper procedures for being a board president, said she learned that time limits on public comments exist almost everywhere — including Steel Valley, where she said a three-minute limit has been in place as long as she can remember.
“If we as (elected officials) don't follow the rules, the (resident speakers) are the first to bring up one of our policies and call us out on it,” said Kiefer. “But doesn't that mean they should have to follow the rules, too?”
In most cases, a time limit is only in place to ensure that meetings — which often begin around 7 p.m. and can last anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours — end within a reasonable amount of time. Kiefer said that's especially the case with unpaid school board members.
“People forget a lot of us have to go to work in the morning,” she said. “We do want you to come to the meetings and let us hear you, but we can't get stuck on certain matters. I'll even stay after the meeting to speak with you, but the meeting itself has to keep moving.”
Melewsky said although time limits on public comments are common, there's nothing in the state's Sunshine Act about it.
“As far as I'm aware, there's never been a court case where time limits have been challenged,” she said. “Certainly if people are not being given an opportunity to say their piece, that's a problem. But having a public meeting that goes until 4 a.m. is probably not reasonable either.”
Melewsky said there's nothing in the Sunshine Act regarding whether or not council members are mandated to answer direct questions from the public — another policy that changes from agency to agency. Some boards will not respond in any way to citizen comments while others actively engage with them.
To citizens like Dreshman, not getting answers from elected officials prompts cause for suspicion.
“I think (officials) should be educated enough to provide answers when we ask questions,” she said. “So if they don't answer you, it either means they aren't educated enough for the position or they do know the answer and they're hiding something from you.”
But Susan Hockenberry, executive director of the West End-based Local Government Academy that provides training and assistance to elected and appointed officials, said that's not necessarily the case.
“(The role of public comments in meetings) is to allow individual members of the public to express views on government business,” said Hockenberry. “Elected officials are not required to respond to questions from the floor.”
While that may be true, Melewsky said officials who don't interact with residents during public meetings may eventually pay in other ways.
“For what it's worth, I think most elected officials understand it behooves them to answer to their constituents,” she said. “And if they don't do it at a public meeting, they're going to do it at the polls come November.”
To people like Dreshman, that reassurance may be the best they can hope for when it comes to making a difference in their communities. That is, of course, unless she were to eventually run for office herself.
“It's something I think about all the time,” said Dreshman. “Because maybe then I'd be able to really change things.”
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1970, or firstname.lastname@example.org.