Monroeville resident claims freedom of speech was violated
A debate over the First Amendment has fueled the fires in Monroeville Council chambers.
Resident Lou Smith said his freedom of speech was violated at a May 14 meeting by council members Lois Drumheller, Bernhard Erb, Clarence Ramsey and Diane Allison, who voted to adjourn the meeting during the public comment portion.
They said Smith's comments were inappropriate.
Smith, a frequent critic of the four-member majority, told council on June 11 that he filed complaints with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission against Drumheller, Erb, Ramsey and Allison for cutting off his comments during the public meeting.
Public comment is permitted at two points during council meetings — for topics related to agenda items, and for any topic related to the municipality.
The mayor holds the gavel and is the designated peacekeeper.
Before being cut off at the microphone on May 14, Smith had questioned the ethics of a lunch between municipal manager Lynette McKinney and the attorney of a former municipal employee. Solicitor Bruce Dice said that based on what he knew, the meeting was not inappropriate.
The ACLU will not disclose information regarding complaints, said Sara Rose, staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“I can tell you, however, that we frequently receive complaints from people about not being permitted to speak at municipal council meetings or rules that limit their speech at such meetings,” Rose said.
Officials at the ethics commission, which investigates complaints against public officials, did not return a call seeking comment.
Erb motioned for adjournment of the May 14 meeting. Erb said that state law only dictates that residents be allowed to speak on agenda items.
Attorney Melissa Melewsky disagreed.
“That's not right,” said Melewsky, counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, a nonprofit group based in Harrisburg.
“That's an interpretation I hear on a pretty regular basis from members on the board who don't feel like listening to someone.”
Erb could not be reached for comment this week.
Drumheller said Smith's comments at recent meetings crossed the line.
She said council meetings should be conducted in a courteous manner, according to the Monroeville Home Rule Charter.
Melewsky said the First Amendment protects public speakers.
“There's no requirement that you be sedated when you give public comment in a public forum,” Melewsky said.
Smith said the following at the June 11 meeting: “Mr. Erb, by the time I'm done, before the Nov. 5 (election), I doubt your wife would even want to vote for you.”
Erb, who won the Republican nomination for mayor, recently withdrew from the race. Mayor Greg Erosenko, a Democrat, is seeking another term.
Erosenko said that Smith is allowed to speak his mind. Drumheller said the meetings are poorly run.
“They're way out of hand,” Drumheller said. “There's an abuse of power. I don't think it will be run any differently with a new council.”
Erosenko said he didn't gavel Smith because it's every resident's right to speak freely at a meeting. Drumheller said Smith has been known to carry a concealed handgun.
“I'm going to ask for police protection if I see him at the next meeting,” Drumheller said.
Smith, 70, said the gun is licensed and is for protection.
As a former Monroeville detective, Smith said he has put away hundreds of people who still could hold a grudge.
“For me to be accused of carrying a concealed weapon to make an implied threat against her or any member of council is ludicrous,” Smith said.
Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or firstname.lastname@example.org.