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Bickering Butler County commissioners vote to muzzle themselves

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 5:39 p.m.

Butler County commissioners on Wednesday approved two rules to limit how long they can speak at meetings.

Board Chairman Bill McCarrier proposed the change and Commissioner Dale Pinkerton supported it. Both say the change is an attempt to curb grandstanding by Jim Eckstein, the third commissioner.

“The purpose of this is not to limit talking with our constituents,” McCarrrier said.

McCarrrier said the change is an effort to control the length of meetings, which he says doubled since Eckstein was elected in 2011.

The rules limit each commissioner's public report to 10 minutes and give each commissioner two minutes to speak in response to members of the public. There is no limit on the time commissioners may spend discussing agenda items.

Eckstein, a Democrat who often disagrees with the other commissioners, both Republicans, characterized the change as an effort to make government less transparent.

“You are trying to hide things going on in government. The public comes here to ask us questions. This is disrespectful of the public,” he said.

Eckstein vowed to ignore the rule if there is pressing business before council. He accused the other two commissioners of wanting to sell Sunnyview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, which is owned by the county and is losing money.

“When they sell Sunnyview, I will run over my 10 minutes. That's my constitutional right. Like Rosa Parks, I will have a test case,” Eckstein said.

Mike English, the county's solicitor, said that he does not think there will be a legal challenge to the changed rules.

“The restrictions don't apply to the general public. The body can make reasonable rules about how to run its meetings,” English said.

Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, agreed.

“Council can impose reasonable time restrictions, as long as everyone is treated fairly and equally and everything is content neutral. Congress does this. Members are given a certain amount of time to talk at hearings and on the floor,” Walczak said.

The commissioners have sparred repeatedly since Eckstein joined. Pinkerton is suing Eckstein for defamation. In November, Thomas Doerr, the county's president judge, ordered a sheriff's deputy to be stationed outside the commissioners' offices.

Eckstein said he wants to have webcam of commissioners' meetings broadcast on the Internet. McCarrier said he would oppose putting the meetings on the county's website.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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