Words Fly Fast And Furious Over 'Gag-rule' Proposal

Posted: May 12, 1986

It was wheezing toward midnight, almost four hours into the Abington commissioners' meeting - not a terribly late hour for this contentious crew but late enough that Commissioner Bruce Toll put his head down on the table and closed his eyes.

Routine business was lulling the crowd to sleep, too. Yawns spawned other yawns all around the room.

The board accepted a resignation of a crossing guard, appointed a replacement, approved new rugs for the library and money for a bus. And then, socko!

Commissioner Jeffrey Albert dropped a procedural bomb.

Albert, a first-term commissioner and one of only two Democrats on the 15- member board, proposed that the board be forbidden from voting on anything unless it had been discussed at a committee meeting earlier in the month. The only exceptions: When commissioners vote to refer something to committee for study or when two-thirds of the board wants to vote on an issue brought up that night.

His idea provoked outrage from some commissioners, who called it ''Marxist" and worried about its possible "chilling effect" on free speech, and support from others, who said they thought that it was long overdue.

The board has six major committees - public works, code enforcement, public safety, public affairs, personnel and audit. They meet once a month to preview business slated to come before the full board later, and their meetings are usually sparsely attended by commissioners, the public and the press.

In stormier days, committee meetings were the forums for some of the most vocal and impassioned activists in the township. The meetings are rarely so anymore, although committee politics generated a brief controversy in January.

As one of his first official acts of the new year, board president William D.C. Dennis assigned commissioners new and old to committees. Usually a humdrum task, this year it caused hard feelings.

In what some claimed was a move to stifle the opposition and gain support for his presidency, Dennis loaded up his allies and supporters of township manager Albert Herrmann with committee chairmanships and vice chairmanships. He snubbed several of the commissioners who traditionally opposed him or the majority.

One of those several, Bud Hannings, charged on Thursday that, in the past, some commissioners had been prevented from speaking at committee meetings. ''This might sound silly. This might sound startling, but it (Albert's proposal) sounds a little bit Marxist to me."

Hannings said it was a gag rule intended to stifle commissioners. "It's unfair to them. It's unfair to their constituents," he said.

"This is not designed to keep people from talking, but to prevent us from being in the situation of voting on something that has not been raised before," countered Albert, a lawyer who has shown himself in five months on the board to be a conscientious attendant at committee meetings and a stickler for parliamentary procedure at full board meetings.

"Mr. Albert obviously thinks he's in a courtroom all the time. I oppose this whole stupid thing," said Commissioner Randall Aiken.

Also opposed to the proposal was Commissioner Albert Cunningham, another lawyer, who frequently celebrates the "robust exchange of ideas" on the board. More than any other commissioner, Cunningham seems to enjoy the variety of opinions and styles offered by his peers.

On Thursday, he cited the possible "chilling effect" of Albert's proposal and called it "a general overlay to try to control people who have contributed to meetings that have been less than orderly." If the board needs this kind of rule to maintain order, he said, "maybe someone else ought to be up here to control things."

"My purpose," Albert insisted, "is to encourage this board to act with as much deliberation as possible."

His proposal produced a tie vote, which meant it was defeated. Deliberation soon turned to deliberate speed, as Joseph Dougherty, another new commissioner and the board's third lawyer, took up the charge.

Dougherty, who often complains that commissioners' meetings are ridiculously long and rowdy, proposed that the public-comment section be moved

from the end of the meeting to the beginning and that speakers sign up ahead of time and have a time limit.

It is not unusual for Abington residents to wait four, five or six hours to address the board. On Thursday, about 25 stayed until the meeting ended at 1 a.m.

Dougherty proposed that unless two-thirds of the board says otherwise, the public-comment section be limited to 30 minutes, meaning that if there are three people, they get 10 minutes each, and if there is only one person, that person gets the whole 30 minutes.

This was, Dougherty said, "an attempt to alleviate a lot of aggravation."

Hannings didn't like it. He wanted the public to be able to speak at the beginning and the end. Commissioner Richard Fluge thought that the public should speak before each item on the agenda and at the end. Pretty soon, Hannings was yelling to speak again, and three people on the dais were complaining and clamoring among themselves.

Letting residents speak only at the beginning and not at the end, Hannings said, "is unfair to the citizenry who might become irate as they sit there." But, he added, staring straight at Dennis, "I say you don't have the courage to shut them up anyway. . . . If you're not happy, you go home."

Cunningham was against Dougherty's proposal, too, insisting that "if they (Abington residents) want to come in as an organized mob, they have an absolute right to do that and raise holy hell if they want to."

But Dougherty said: "This isn't the place where we should have discussion on these items. We should come prepared and ready to vote. These are things that should have been hashed out long ago in committees."

He was supported by Commissioners James Hotchkiss, who called for an end of ''sour grapes," and Matthew Somers, who complained that certain commissioners skipped committee meetings because "they want to bring out their little soapbox" at full board meetings.

"It stinks," Somers said.

Hannings suggested that the time had come to set up "a provisional government," one that would stay late to listen to the people. "I consider you people a giant clique. You're going to do what you damn well please anyway," he said.

The board approved Dougherty's proposal for a four-month trial period and referred to committee his idea to enlist the help of a parliamentarian to keep order at commissioners' meetings.

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