ACLU passes on getting involved in Monroeville man's dispute with council
The American Civil Liberties Union has declined to represent a Monroeville man who claimed his freedom of speech was violated at a recent council meeting.
Monroeville resident Lou Smith filed a complaint after a majority of council voted to adjourn a May 14 meeting while he was speaking.
The organization responded last week with a letter. “While the meeting was adjourned as you were addressing council, it seems to have been a one-time occurrence,” an intake coordinator with the ACLU's Pittsburgh office wrote.
The letter said the ACLU relies heavily on volunteer attorneys and gives priority to cases that could benefit large groups or improve laws.
Council voted 4-2 to adjourn while Smith was speaking during the public comments section of the May 14 meeting. Council members Bernhard Erb, Diane Allison, Lois Drumheller and Clarence Ramsey voted in favor, while Nick Gresock and Steve Duncan dissented. Jim Johns was absent.
Erb made the motion to adjourn, and said later that state law requires that residents be allowed to address council only on agenda items.
Smith had questioned the ethics of a lunch between municipal Manager Lynette McKinney and an attorney who was representing Monroeville Tax Collector Pat Fulkerson. Solicitor Bruce Dice said that based on what he knew, the meeting was not unethical.
Smith said this week that while he understands the ACLU has limited resources, council's action could affect other Monroeville residents' freedoms.
“It really wasn't fair for myself or for the residents who were going to speak after me,” Smith said.
Melissa Melewsky, counsel for the nonprofit Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, has said that contrary to Erb's interpretation of the law, residents may address a council on any matter in a meeting.
ACLU spokeswoman Sara Rose said if council were to approve limits on residents' speech during meetings, “There may be an argument that the rule violates the First Amendment” and the case could wind up in federal court.
Gresock argued at last week's council meeting that minutes from the May 14 session should include Smith's objections to the adjournment.
Attorney Bob Zunich, who represents the municipality, disagreed, saying Smith's objections came after the adjournment.
Drumheller said she stands by her vote to end the meeting, based in part on an ordinance that says the mayor is responsible for ensuring council meetings are carried out in a safe and respectful manner.
Drumheller said Mayor Greg Erosenko has failed to intervene while his political supporters verbally attacked his political enemies at multiple meetings.
But Erosenko said although a person who is screaming, cursing or making a derogatory remark unrelated to municipal business should be removed from council chambers, Smith's comments were none of those things.
“I'm pretty liberal on First Amendment rights,” Erosenko said.
However, Erosenko said, Smith did cross the line at the July 9 meeting when he criticized the physical stature of Monroeville resident John Yakim.
Smith went on to accuse Yakim of costing the municipality an unnecessary amount of time and money in recent years with dozens of right-to-know requests filed with the administrative offices.
Yakim, who has run for local office, has said the right-to-know requests are necessary to ensure government officials are acting ethically and following laws.
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.