Twice over a period of about six weeks, the Pequea Township Board of Supervisors held short meetings that began at 7 a.m. The meetings were in accordance with Pennsylvania’s open meetings law, the Sunshine Act, which requires they be advertised in a local newspaper one day beforehand. But the early-morning times — out of the ordinary for Pequea Township — were “much to the chagrin of the handful of residents who actually showed up,” LNP’s Gillian McGoldrick reported in the Sept. 12 edition.
We have concerns about these recent actions by the Pequea Township Board of Supervisors.
Our municipal governments are the heart of our communities. We elect people — often our literal neighbors — and hope they will do a good job as our stewards.
Part of that job includes being transparent and accountable to the public. Scheduled meetings that are open to the public are part of that transparency.
Pequea Township’s supervisors didn’t violate the Sunshine Act when they twice convened at 7 a.m. — on July 29 and Sept. 11. The i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed when it came to officially scheduling and advertising these meetings.
But nonetheless we believe they violated the spirit of good open government.
Minutes past dawn — 7 a.m. — is no time to discuss public business, especially when it’s not common for municipal government to do it at that time. At that hour, residents are just rolling out of bed. Or getting the kids ready for school. Or milking the cows. Asking concerned citizens to attend a meeting at 7 a.m. is unreasonable.
Only five residents made it to the Sept. 11 meeting. McGoldrick reported that they “encouraged the supervisors to pick a better time, one that would encourage more people to attend.”
Indeed, that should be the goal.
We understand that municipal officials have lives and jobs outside of government service. And that those lives can be busy and hectic, just as ours can. But they chose to run for office. They were elected by their fellow residents. And they are expected to perform their governmental duties in good faith, part of which means making reasonable efforts to give the public access to the process.
“You want to have an eye toward giving the public the ability [to be included],” David Sanko, the executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, told McGoldrick. “Each community is different. There’s not a rule book, if you will.”
Certainly, scheduling meetings is an art, not a science. But there’s nothing artful about handling public business at 7 a.m. on a weekday.
And then there’s this: Don Purdum, Pequea Township’s board chairman, said the 7 a.m. meeting on Sept. 11 was needed for special administrative reasons and that he “picked the early meeting time because it fit four of the five Republican supervisors’ schedules,” McGoldrick wrote.
But the one supervisor who couldn’t attend was Cynthia Evans-Herr, who claimed that “the recent early meetings were intentional to shut her out,” McGoldrick reported. Evans-Herr said she and Purdum often clash publicly and that her fellow supervisors know her job starts at 5 a.m., making her unavailable for a morning meeting. Additionally, Evans-Herr said she had surgery scheduled for Sept. 11.
“Nobody has meetings at 7 o’clock in the morning,” Evans-Herr told McGoldrick. “This is absolutely wrong. As the chair, (Purdum) needs to call meetings when we’re all together.”
For his part, Purdum said the 7 a.m. meetings were not meant to exclude Evans-Herr or interested residents. We should give him the benefit of the doubt. But he and the other supervisors should understand that it’s easier to avoid questions about meeting times when the optics of those times aren’t ridiculous.
So we hope the days of 7 a.m. meetings in Pequea Township are over.
It’s important for supervisors there — and across the county — to make meetings as accessible as possible moving forward, especially given the current debate surrounding the fate of Pequea Township’s police department.
At last week’s meeting, which was held on a weeknight, the supervisors “tabled an agenda item to recommend whether the Pequea Township Police Department, which has existed on its own for only two years, should be downsized to remain financially viable,” McGoldrick reported. One resident submitted a petition with about 100 signatures in support of maintaining the police department. It is, to be sure, a contentious debate. But it’s also a healthy one.
This is what public meetings should be: A room full of elected officials and impassioned residents airing their views, debating both sides of an important issue and working toward a solution. That’s how democracy works.
This is what public meetings should not be: A nearly empty room with a handful of folks who are still yawning because they just got out of bed. That’s not good democracy.