Two new measures were introduced at Allentown City Council’s meeting Wednesday night, both designed to make meetings run more efficiently.
One was visual: an electronic digital timer, displayed on two large screens in the front of the room, so those who stand to address council can see exactly how much time they have left to speak.
The other was a verbal directive.
“We will take anything you say, including questions, under consideration,” said council president Julio Guridy at the beginning of the meeting. “We will get you an answer afterwards.
“Don’t come up and ask any of us questions directly and expect an answer right away. We will get back to you.”
Resident Tom Hahn quickly tested that directive, when he stood to ask if someone on council could explain a financial question to him.
Hahn’s question was met by 20 seconds of silence.
Francis Dougherty, the city’s managing director, finally broke the silence by saying he will have the city’s finance director follow up on Hahn’s inquiry.
Resident Glen Hunsicker, the next to stand to address council, also asked a question about finances.
He faced 10 seconds of silence before Guridy answered his question.
Lou Hershman, the next resident who stood to speak, scolded council,
saying: “You come to public meetings, you get no answers. That’s no way to treat the public. We pay taxes and we want to be heard.”
At one point, Guridy again said council will not be answering a lot of questions, “especially questions that have been asked of us many, many times already.”
When one resident asked if 20 digital billboards planned around the city will all be erected in city parks, Guridy said he does not know the answer but “we’ll certainly find out through the administration. If you can give your name to the city clerk, we’ll get back to you on that.”
Resident Rich Fegley literally turned his back on council while standing at the podium to speak.
“You told us you don’t have to respond to us this evening, the clerk will get back to us,” said Fegley.
He walked around to the other side of the podium and faced the audience instead of council.
“This is who I should be speaking to, the public and the press,” said Fegley. “These are the people I really want to hear me.”
“We’re losing control of our government here,” said Fegley, a frequent critic of City Council.
He told council that he meant no disrespect, “but I was told tonight that I won’t get an answer.”
Said Guridy later in the meeting: “We try to run our meeting like a courthouse. Anything you wouldn’t do in a courthouse you shouldn’t be doing here.”
Guridy often has asked members of the audience to conduct themselves as if they are in a courtroom when attending a City Council meeting.
He called for civility and decency. “The way people behave when they come forward reflects on how they behave in general.”
After the meeting, Guridy said he has to make a judgment call when people ask questions. He said some questions are just argumentative and already have been answered many times by council.
Guridy said some of the people who come to council meetings “are purposely trying to disrespect us. They just want to argue. I’m not going to stand for that.”
After the meeting, Fegley said council seems to be saying: “Certain citizens that we find are troublesome -- or you’ve been here and we heard it before --we’re going to just tell you to sit down. Other citizens, we may respond to you.”
Guridy said council will continue to answer questions that can be answered immediately.
He also said the members of the city’s administration, primarily represented by Dougherty at meetings, should not be “put on the chopping block” if they can’t immediately provide an answer.
Guridy said it is not true that 20 billboards are going into city parks, but that concern was not refuted during the meeting.
As president, Guridy often walks a tightrope -- trying to maintain order during a meeting without stifling the public’s ability to be heard.
Allentown’s council allows more opportunities to speak during meetings than many other local governing bodies.
Council vice president Ray O’Connell said he thought the new timers worked great.
“They saw the time, they respected the time,” he said.
Only one person kept talking after the tone sounded.
Fegley later said that Guridy twice interrupted people and told them their time was up.
“That never happened in the past," said Fegley. "I don’t think it should be strict enforcement.”
What did happen in the past was that council members and/or members of the administration often found themselves engaged in discussions or debates with people who stood to speak -- conversations that continued long after the buzzer had sounded on the old timer, which did not face the public.
Rather than a shrill buzz, the new timer emits a bubbly musical tone to let people know when their time is up.
Individual residents get three minutes to speak, those representing organizations get five.
In addition to the numbers counting down to zero, a gold circle gradually disappears to indicate how much of each minute is left.
There was one small glitch. Ken Heffentrager was only given three minutes to speak, although he represents the Allentown Tenant Association.
Also during its meeting, council:
• Issued a proclamation honoring Central Catholic High School’s basketball team as the first area boys team to win its first 29 games. The neatly-dressed team members attended the meeting and each of them got a copy of the proclamation as they shook hands with members of council.
• Approved the creation of a new Allentown Public Art Committee. Its
mission will include managing, maintaining and expanding the city’s collection of public art.
• Extended the life of the Allentown Parking Authority from 2034 to 2064. That will allow the authority to do long-term borrowing for future improvements such as parking decks and parking lots.
• Passed a resolution in support of two bills in the state legislature that would allow all municipal police to use speed-timing equipment. Currently only Pennsylvania State Police are allowed to use such equipment to apprehend speeders.