Where The Sun Don’t Shine.
Philadelphia is a place where the constitution and the bill of rights are not just a part of a history lesson, but it is where they were born and where they still live. Every year millions of people from all over the world come to witness the place that gave birth to the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. They flock to the City to learn of the stories of the great documents that created a place where one has the right to speak their mind without fear of repercussions.
Yet Ironically just blocks away in the Council Chambers of Philadelphia City Hall the taxpayers and citizens of this city do not have the same right to the freedom of speech as many others do in the state of Pennsylvania or in the rest of the country. That’s right, free speech has been quelled only blocks away from where it was born, and it’s intentions have been silenced just as the citizens and taxpayers of Philadelphia are.
Let’s say you had a problem with your neighbor, as Margaret Motheral did, whose neighbor was actually a developer who Margaret says was breaking all kinds of rules and laws, which in turn was literally making her ill, but nobody was helping her. She say’s each city official she turned to for help just turned a blind eye in her direction and did nothing to help her. So what then is she to do? What power does a regular citizen have to hold stagnant, and or nefarious, government officials accountable for their actions, and or inactions?
In most cities she could make the public aware of her problems through the open public comment portions of city meetings, but that’s not so in Philadelphia. When asked how an open public comment would have helped her she replied “it may have saved my life” she added that it also ”may have saved lives at Market St. (and) tragedy for many”, referring to the building collapse in 2013.
The current rules on public comment in Philadelphia are as follows::
“Speakers may comment on any of the bills or resolutions that are on Council’s Calendar (also known as the Agenda) for possible action at that day’s Council session, even if those items are not actually called up for a vote. This consists of any items on the “Final Passage” and “Second Reading and Final Passage” sections of the Calendar.”
So what they are actually saying, since they make it as confusing as hell, is that you can only make comments on matters that are on the agenda for that day, or what they call the council calendar, and you can’t speak about anything else. They even make you pick one of the items before you sign up to speak and if you don’t pick one and don’t put your name on a list they won’t let you speak, which is also a violation of the Sunshine Act.
The Sunshine Act, also known as the Open Meetings Act, is meant to provide transparency in the government bodies that we elect and the ability to redress those representatives publicly. Most councils will have two comment sections, one for open comment and the other for the agenda items, which provides people the ability to comment on matters of concern and non agenda items.
When I asked Melissa Melewski of the PA News Media Association what the Sunshine Law allows the public to comment on, she stated “ The Sunshine Act requires local agencies to allow public comment on “matters of concern, official action or deliberation which are or may be before the board or council prior to taking official action.” This is quite broad, and agencies should not limit public comment to agenda items only”.
She went on to say “limiting public comment to agenda items only creates potential Sunshine Act liability, and anyone who believes the law has been violated can pursue the legal remedies available under the Act.”
So I believe a field trip is in order for the Philadelphia City Council to visit the Constitution Center to see just what the Bill of Rights says. Luckily, for them, they won’t have to travel far nor read very far to find out what the first amendment says.