Penn Hills mayor defends decision to silence resident
The Penn Hills mayor said she was sorry a woman felt upset after being silenced at a public meeting in March but doubled down on her decision to cut the woman off.
“As mayor of Penn Hills, I am truly sorry the speaker was so upset with the decision of council. However, I do not think it was the wrong decision to make,” said Sara Kuhn in a prepared statement she read before a council meeting April 15.
Kuhn silenced resident Sarah Snatchko, 41, during a March council meeting when Snatchko attempted to read from a prepared statement. The move sparked uproar and led to the creation of a petition condemning the mayor’s actions.
Snatchko had gained permission from Penn Hills administration to speak at the March meeting. Her statement referenced an Allegheny County grand jury report released in early February that found Craig Alexander, who serves as both the municipality’s and the Penn Hills School District’s solicitor, provided free and discounted legal services to four Penn Hills school board members and some of their family members.
Snatchko called Alexander’s alleged actions “corruption” and urged council to send a message showing it doesn’t align with such behavior by cutting ties with the firm – Bruce Dice & Associates. She also called for the mayor and council members to disclose any legal services they might personally receive from the firm.
Council members have not publicly disclosed if they have received legal services from Bruce Dice & Associates.
Deputy Mayor Catherine Sapp and Councilman John Petrucci both apologized to Snatchko during the April 15 meeting for the way events unfolded in March.
“No one wants to not ever hear what the concerns of a resident are. That is why we are here, that is why we exist. That is why I am here,” Sapp said. “I apologize for you feeling the way you felt the last time.”
Petrucci called the last meeting an “unfortunate situation.”
“I’m truly sorry for that. We are sensitive to your beliefs and your ideas – don’t think that we’re not,” he said, addressing Snatchko.
Councilman Mark Brodnicki was absent at the meeting and Councilman Gary Underwood did not speak about the issue.
Before the meeting started, Sapp read an updated version to council’s public comment policy. The policy implements a five-minute time limit on those addressing council. It also moves the designated time for those who sign up to speak to the end of the meeting instead of allowing for it at the beginning.
According to the municipality’s home rule charter, people need to deliver a written notice of the subject matter at least a week before the scheduled meeting.
The policy also gives whoever presides over the meeting — typically the mayor — the discretion to prohibit comments if they are “for the sole purpose to embarrass, present character assassination or personal attacks to one’s reputation.”
Furthermore, “speakers’ comments are to solely be (related) to municipal government, not personal attacks on anyone. If speaker continues to go against council chambers policy, speaker will be dismissed from the podium.”
Manager Scott Andrejchak, who collaborated with the mayor and council members on drafting the policy, said deciding if comments are meant to embarrass or be a character assassination or personal attack is up to whoever presides over the meeting.
“It will be a case-by-case thing. We’ll know it when we hear it,” he said.
Andrejchak said the policy includes comments made by elected and appointed officials and municipal staff.
Toward the end of the meeting, Snatchko read from a prepared statement regarding the state’s Sunshine Law.
“Based on what happened to me at the last meeting, there seems to be a belief among mayor and council that this isn’t the place to criticize the government. That belief is wrong,” Snatchko said. She said the spirit of the law is to ensure the public plays a role in the government process.
“When government bodies deny residents the right to speak during public meetings, it violates the spirit of the law and prevents us from playing a role in the process,” she said.
Snatchko also asked council if it would be willing to rescind the March meeting’s minutes so she could read her original prepared statement. Sapp, who ran the April 15 meeting because Kuhn was feeling ill, declined.
Four residents spoke at the meeting in support of Snatchko.
“If you approved what (Snatchko) submitted … if you didn’t want her to speak, I think that should have taken place before she came last month, was standing here – I can believe she felt very threatened and humiliated. And you all allowed that,” said Jane Loney, a Penn Hills resident.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter .