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Councilman says rules aim to muzzle him

| Thursday, March 18, 2004

West Mifflin Council has passed a code of conduct for public meetings aimed at curbing the behavior of Councilman Richard Olasz.

"It's an attempt to gag me, make no mistake about it," said Olasz, 74, a former state legislator and Allegheny County councilman.

Council President William Welsh did little to hide that. Welsh ordered Solicitor Donald Fetzko to write the rules, which council approved 5-1 Tuesday. Borough Manager Howard Bednar said he developed many of the rules.

"I've never met anybody who just blatantly disrespects the rules and regulations where we actually have to put it down and vote on it," Welsh said. "Grown men shouldn't have to follow these rules. They should just do it out of respect."

Olasz did not take part in the vote approving the code of conduct. He already had been ejected.

Welsh had Olasz removed after ruling him out of order three times during a public discussion about the conduct rules. Olasz, who was sitting in the audience as part of his protest of council seating arrangements, had to be lifted from his chair by police Chief Frank Diener and two other officers.

Olasz has been at the center of controversy in West Mifflin since leaving Allegheny County Council in 2001 to run for Borough Council. Welsh and other borough officials have attributed the council's circus-like atmosphere to Olasz, saying he filibusters and rants largely over issues of personal politics.

The rules do not name Olasz but are aimed mostly at the conduct of council members.

They include a requirement to stay in assigned seats. Over the past two months, Olasz and council ally Rege Stephenson chose to sit in the crowd in protest of their seat assignments.

Committee reports cannot be used to give a speech or to take questions from other council members, the rules say. And all questions during a meeting are to be referred to the council president, who will determine whether the topic is appropriate. No council member or the mayor can speak twice on the same question and no longer than five minutes each time. The discussion can continue further if the seven-member council has at least five votes in favor.

Olasz contends the rules aim to muffle a public official and, therefore, the public. He believes he will never be allowed to talk because questions must be directed to the council president, with whom he has a history of tangling. Olasz filed assault charges against Welsh's father, William Welsh Sr., after a confrontation in December.

"For the majority to essentially muzzle the minority is a crime," Olasz said.

Welsh said the rules have always been in place. Now they are formalized.

"It's not muzzling anybody," Welsh said. "It's to prevent the filibuster that he does almost daily."

Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the Greater Pittsburgh chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said council essentially passed rules of decorum, which are necessary and have been upheld in court.

"If you have chaos, nothing is going to get done," Walczak said. "If they never recognize (Olasz) when he asks for permission, then he may have an argument."

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