WILKES-BARRE — Against limited but vocal opposition, City Council on Thursday night imposed new limits on how people can address the body of elected officials during public meetings.
By a 4-0 vote, council amended ordinances on its rules and procedures, moving public speakers farther away and behind the rail separating council from the audience and requiring them to sign in before the start of the meeting.
Before the vote, several speakers who regularly attend the meetings urged council to reconsider. They suggested pushing back the start time so more people could attend and warned council about the consequences of approving the changes.
The new rules go into effect in 10 days. But had they been in place Betsy Sumers said she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to speak. She arrived after the 6 p.m. start and beyond the new signup deadline because her sales job required that she be in the Allentown/Bethlehem area.
“I can’t imagine not having the right to speak because I have to work,” Sumers said.
The new rules and the existing ones such as limiting speakers to five minutes are too much on people who already feel powerless, she told council.
“Don’t you see what overregulation does? It takes the power away from the people, which is where government should be,” Sumers said.
Frank Sorick held up his cellphone to take photos of councilmember Bill Barrett, George Brown, Mike Merritt and Maureen Lavelle. Councilman Tony George was excused from the meeting and did not attend. Sorick said their names and photos would be placed on billboards bought by the Wilkes-Barre City Taxpayers Association for the next election cycle. The billboards would be imprinted with the caption, “I voted to silence you. Please return the favor this November,” he said.
Accepting that it was a done deal, Bob Kadluboski offered a few suggestions.
“But if you’re going to pass it let’s move the meetings to 7 p.m. so more people could come or let’s take a Thursday and move it to Saturday so more people could come. There’s a lot of people that want to come to these meetings,” Kadluboski said.
Council Chairman Bill Barrett noted who opposed the changes.
“The irony is that the people that were speaking now, that you just heard, are the very same people who say they do not have an opportunity to speak,” Barrett said.
The amendments aim to minimize disruptions during the meeting and people could sign up a week or two weeks in advance, he added.
City Clerk Jim Ryan said he researched the free-speech issue from various sources and provided his findings to council.
“Just because something is called a public forum doesn’t guarantee a person unfettered freedom to utter whatever is on his or her mind,” Ryan said.
A council meeting is considered a “limited designated public forum” and reasonable restrictions can be applied, such as time limits and limiting public comment to a specific part of the meeting, he said.
A “traditional public forum” such as public park or street corner doesn’t have those limits, he said.