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Pa. high court outlaws ban on public comment at City Council meetings

Let the people speak! So ruled the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Thursday, outlawing City Council's ban on public comments at regular Council meetings.

Let the people speak!

So ruled the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Thursday, outlawing City Council's ban on public comments at regular Council meetings.

The court ruled, 4-3, that Council was in violation of the state's 1993 Sunshine Act, which requires "a reasonable opportunity" for residents and taxpayers at meetings "to comment on matters of concern, official action or deliberation which are or may be before the board or council prior to taking official action."

Council President Anna C. Verna, who argued that Council provided "ample opportunity" for comment at public hearings, said Council was disappointed in the ruling.

"Of course, Council will comply with all final decisions of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and with all statutory requirements," Verna said in a news release, "and if that means changing our procedures to provide a public comment period during Council sessions, we will do so."

Property owner Stan Alekseev and the organization representing the city's small residential landlords, the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia, or HAPCO, sued the city in 2007, complaining that they had been prevented from speaking at a Council meeting on April 26, 2007.

Alekseev and HAPCO lost in the Court of Common Pleas and in Commonwealth Court, but Supreme Court Justices Thomas G. Saylor, J. Michael Eakin, Max Baer, and Joan Orie Melvin reversed, declaring that public comment could not be delegated to a "special meeting" such as a hearing.

"There is simply no authorization in the act . . . for delegation of the obligation to entertain public comment to some body other than a board of council," Saylor wrote in a seven-page opinion.

Entertaining it may well be.

"It would certainly be a different kind of democracy than we have now," said Amy Dougherty, executive director of the Friends of the Free Library, whose nonprofit has had many occasions to address Council at budget time. "It would be fairly chaotic, but it would be cool."

Former Councilman Angel Ortiz said he had tried to get Council to hold more hearings in the community or after hours to increase participation. The ruling will increase participation, Ortiz said, but not necessarily from the public at large.

"It will be much better theater, but I think it will make the process lengthier, and I don't think more substantive," Ortiz said. "You're going to have a line there, and you're going to have any aspiring politician come in and think they're the next city councilperson."

Ortiz added, "It's going to cause a lot of commotion."

Notably, the court's two justices from Philadelphia - Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Seamus P. McCaffery - dissented.

Along with Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, they argued that Philadelphia's practice, in place since the City Charter took effect in 1951, provided "an open forum for meaningful and orderly public participation in the legislative process while promoting the efficient operation of the legislative body of the Commonwealth's largest city."

Darrell M. Zaslow, HAPCO's attorney, said just about every other municipality in Pennsylvania had fallen in line with the 1993 Sunshine Act. Municipalities can establish regulations to limit the time speakers have and the repetition of testimony to maintain order.

"You can't have people coming in talking for six hours about nothing," Zaslow said, though residents should be able to address Council on any issue of concern, not just what is on the agenda.

The ruling could have an immediate impact not just on Council sessions but also on the dozens of budget hearings that take place in the spring.

"It takes time and patience to hear from the public, but it's important, and that's why the law says what it says," Zaslow said.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Pennsylvania, scratched his head at the ruling.

"I'm just astounded that it took 17 years," Kauffman said, "for someone to take action."