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Thursday, March 11, 2010

In Scranton Council Chambers "Decorum" Is What They Do To Apples

Among local residents, few shows outside of "The Office" have the same following as the televised proceedings of Scranton's City Council meetings. How popular has this become? One (in)famous regular council speaker has several YouTube videos posted that collectively have amassed in total well over a quarter of a million hits. Not bad for a "boring government meeting". By the way, I've actually watched similar meetings from other cities (such as Dubuque, Iowa), and I've never seen any that had Scranton's level of drama.

Anyway, I'm no journalist but I do think there is story to be told about what happens in the audience during council meetings. After all something creates this atmosphere, and it's not necessarily something being said from the dais. What to do?

Well as fate would have it, in my travels I actually met someone who has attended Scranton City Council meetings for many, many years. This individual has been kind enough to respond to my written questions about what it's like it sit in the audience during these sessions. Before proceeding to the actual interview, a few disclaimers are in order:
  • At their request, I will call this person Lucille.
  • I can testify to the fact that they actually have attended council meetings for many, many years.
  • The answers listed below are exactly as written by the interviewee, with one exception - I have edited out the names of individuals Lucille referenced. Why? Two reasons...I don't want to giver these individuals any more publicity than they already seek & referencing them by name would almost oblige me to allow a response on their part. Anyone can comment on this posting, but I'm under no obligation to provide "equal time".
As a result...
  • The point of view expressed in the answers is that of Lucille, not me. I'll add my editorial comments at the end of this blog entry.
With the above noted, on to the interview.



Q: How long have you been attending council meetings?
I don't attend meetings any more. Unless I have a specific issue that needs to be addressed. I used to attend meetings City Council and School Board on a regular basis.

Q: Why have you attended council meetings?
I had and still have a great interest in city government. I have spoken on occasion, when the issue was important enough for me to speak out on.

Q: Did you attend council meetings before they were televised?
Yes, that is when I attended on a regular basis. After the cameras came in I rarely attend.

Q: How has the "citizen's participation" portion of council meetings changed over the years?
Well years ago you may have seen one or two people who were disrespectful, namely Joe [edited by SGA] and Jack, can't remember his name, he wore an oxygen mask. Those two were out for a fight on a weekly basis and would say some truly awful things.

And now today we can see that there may be one or two people with legitimate problems, that come to the podium and are polite. That is how it has changed over the years.

Q: How does the audience typically react when someone speaks positively about Mayor Doherty or a member of his administration?
In my limited experience at attending council meeting while Mr. Doherty has been our Mayor I find that if you speak positive about Mayor Doherty you are heckled while you speak, when you are finished and you are walking away from the podium you hear the comments: "Who does she think she is coming into our meeting". They turn and glare at you throughout the remainder of the time that they are there. It is quite an uncomfortable feeling.

Q: How does the audience typically react when someone speaks positively about Council President Janet Evans or one of her supporters?
They clap, they ohhh and ahhh, it's very strange the way they seem to almost worship her. You would really have to be there to understand that one.

Q: Have you ever felt intimidated during a council meeting? If yes, why?
Intimidated no, I am not a person who is easily intimidate, however I was made to feel quite uncomfortable and quite unwelcome.

Q: Have you ever over-heard audience members talk about heckling or intimidating speakers?
Oh yes, In early November of 2005 I went to a council meeting, it was right before Mr. Doherty was elected to his second term as Mayor of Scranton. We had a house fire, lost just about everything, The SFD was so comforting and just so efficient, the city officials were all very helpful. I wanted the city to know about it and I went to a meeting to speak to thank those who helped ease our pain that day. When I walked in people turned and looked, then the comments began, "who is she?" , "why is she here?" , "just another Doherty Crony", they had no idea why I was there, and I took the remarks that they were making as a tactic to try and get me to leave. Mrs. [edited by SGA] was at the meeting that night and I will tell you that they really go after her. She walks in and they go crazy, if she goes into the hallway, they follow her. I think what they do to her borders on that fine line of being criminal behavior.

Q: Do audience members typically stay for the entire length of council meetings?
No they do not. They speak their mind and then they leave. You have a few that are truly interested but for the most part they come in speak, and leave immediately after.

Q: If you had the authority, what three changes would you make to council meetings to improve decorum?
1. I would require any and all questions that you wished to be addressed at the meeting to be submitted in writing a week prior to the meeting. I would also require agenda items be submitted 2 weeks prior, and given out a week prior then the public would be able to formulate any questions. This would be helpful in providing answers to the questions that the public poses to council.

2. I would stop the political posturing, the bashing of the Scranton Times and any thing that was a School District issue from being talked about at the podium Another words if it is not City business it is not necessary to say it at the Podium. There is nothing council can do about the Scranton Times nor do they have any authority with the School District. So it would be best to keep the meetings strictly to city business. The personal bashing should not be tolerated and has nothing to do with city business so it should also be stopped immediately.

3. I would remove the cameras. People like [edited by SGA] and [edited by SGA] are using the podium to become local celebrities.[edited by SGA] uses the Podium to talk about Miss Rosie and the fact that she has grounded him from the Tauras club. What does that have to do with City business? When the cameras came in the door decorum went out the door!


CLOSING -- My Thoughts
I have attended about two or three council meetings in my life, and what limited exposure I had to the experience validates much of what Lucille references above. Simply put, citizen's participation in these meetings has taken on an almost "club-like" atmosphere, where only those with membership cards are welcome.

What's worse is the fact that absolutely nothing will be done about decorum at council meetings. Why? Because the circus-like atmosphere that has been created and is allowed to flourish serves the purposes of some elected officials, most notably Council President Evans. That's a shame, because the meetings don't "belong" to any person or group (including the Taxpayer's Association I might add), no matter how much they claim their dominion. It also ultimately diminishes the credibility and effectiveness of Mrs Evans, as it paints her as being someone who is more interested in grandstanding and crowd incitement than good governance. She may not like it, but as a public official, Mrs Evans has an obligation to hear all of the voices of city residents, not just whose who will giver her verbal "high fives". As a professional educator of (young) adults, I know that Mrs Evans is more than capable of maintaining order and civility within a group; she just needs to exercise those skills in council chambers.

Now what would I do? At a minimum, I'd make one change: Going forward, council chamber cameras should only point towards members of council, not towards speakers. That would serve two purposes:

1) Those individuals who were are intimidated by the prospect of seeing themselves on TV would be more likely to speak.
2) There would be less incentive for some to cultivate their budding "celebrity" status.

Once that was accomplished, I would also strongly encourage Mrs Evans to keep speakers focused on city business and I would have anyone making inappropriate comments removed from the podium. While residents do have a right to speak before council, no resident has a right to intimidate anyone else.

One final suggestion: Many of the "club members" belong to the Taxpayer's Association. The officers of that organization have a vested interest in maintaining meeting civility because a lack of it truly paints a negative picture of their organization. If they want to be taken seriously, then they need to have members that act seriously at council meetings, both when they themselves speak and just as importantly, when others (even others who they disagree with) speak as well.

As noted in the title, "decorum" is not something you will currently find during Scranton Council meetings, unless of course you have some apples. Let's hope that eventually changes.

With apologies for the bad pun, but hell, I think it's rather cute.

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