Sunday, June 2, 2013

Censorship In Lower Providence


(updated 6/22/13)

For me, one of the most fascinating parts of attending township or school board meetings is the ‘public comment’ section at the end.  It’s totally unscripted and often contains more drama than your average soap opera. In the past we have had everything from an obviously off-medication resident accusing the Board of being Communists and shouting slurs about township officials or employees, to residents angry with the Board over unpaved roads or unplowed snow, to individuals using the bully pulpit and the apparently irresistible draw of cameras, videotape and a microphone to push a personal political vendetta against someone.  You just never know who’s going to show up and what will happen.
The May 16, 2013 Board of Supervisors meeting was just such an occasion. Unfortunately, if you are viewing the tape of the meeting at home, you will not hear the same things that those attending in person did, because inconsistent with past practice, in the only instance this has ever occurred since taping of township meetings in LP was initiated, some comments were censored – deleted right off of the tape.  A digital version of the meeting can be found (here); the public comment section begins at marker 32:25.  The ones of particular interest to me begin at 52:30.
These comments also appear to indicate that an unelected resident may have inappropriately participated in private Board executive sessions.
What was said that was so offensive or incriminating, and who issued instructions to have those comments removed?
The individual whose comments were censored is resident Harold “Ted” Baird, whom I’ve written about previously, beginning at approximately marker 52:30. The deleted comments are at approximately markers 53:28, 60:34 to 60:46; 60:52, and 61:30.
As background, in March of this year, Baird lost the last of his court appeals of the 2010 Zoning Hearing Board decision regarding a commercial property adjacent to his. The ZHB decision regarding that property has been upheld multiple times by appellate courts. He is now out of options, by his own admission $125,000 poorer (58:24), and my understanding is that the Township, in parallel litigation against the same defendant, perhaps realizing it has thrown a lot of taxpayer money away on a lost cause (I’m still researching that tally) in their misguided attempt to fight their own ZHB’s decision over the past three years (a decision I was part of rendering, and a legal battle I believe was purely political as it was of no benefit to anyone other than Baird), Baird is understandably frustrated.  
Baird spends much of his on-camera time complaining about the amount of money he spent in pursuit of his appeals, and that the BOS isn’t doing anything to enforce alleged violations. I won’t get into the weeds as to the details and merits of the case at this time, as it’s not directly relevant for purposes of this post.

Sheridan mentions concern that Baird should be ‘careful of the choice of words’ and his use of ‘terminology’ he felt was inappropriate. However, no matter what is said, even if a resident goes so far as use curse words, I would argue that as a citizen, he has a right have his exact words become a part of the public record.
 
Who is Mike Sheridan, or the Board, for that matter, to decide whether something that’s said by a resident is ‘appropriate’ or not?

One point references township solicitor Mike Sheridan allegedly telling Baird that the lawsuits are over and they aren't going to do any more for him, which Sheridan then says is a 'mischaracterization' of what he said. Baird maintains that's essentially verbatim what he was told. I've maintained for some time that the Township was inappropriately helping this resident fight his legal battle for him, at taxpayer expense, but I guess the gravy train is over.
At another point Baird says “Rick, I know he’s your friend, but Mike Sheridan is incompetent”, accuses officials (who? The supervisors? The appellate judges? The LP Zoning Hearing Board? All of the above?) of being ‘in collusion’, that the ‘collusion is real’ (67:40) and then proceeds to provide a definition of the word. Despite all the court losses, in Baird’s world view, everyone else is wrong except him.
What I do know is that Sheridan and the Board can’t legitimately be worried about liability. At the beginning of every broadcast, a very clear disclaimer appears, holding the Township harmless for anything that any member of the public may say, so it’s really not up to LP to censor a citizen’s words from a public meeting. If you had been in attendance in person, you would have heard the comments as delivered by the citizen 
In any event, in censoring Baird's comments, the Board is being inconsistent. I’ve heard disparaging things about people uttered in public comment many times before, with no chastising of residents and certainly no post-meeting deletion from tape. For example, Tom Borai loves to take every chance he gets, whether in public comment at a BOS meeting or from the ZHB dias, to put me down and magnify whatever he dislikes about me, but nobody’s deleting any of those comments, are they?  So only residents deemed ‘friends of the Board” are protected?
My gut feeling is that Baird said things which were true and damaging to both Sheridan and Rick Brown, and creatively editing the tape is to protect themselves. In my opinion, that’s really the only reason to censor it.  I’m told an unedited version of this meeting exists and I am working to obtain a copy. Will they deny the request? I guess we’ll find out. (update: my request was denied by the Township, and I have filed an appeal with the PA Office of Open Records. I subsequently won the appeal and the tape).
Baird had previously been installed as the president of the nonprofit activist group that supervisor Rick Brown created in the 1980's, the Lower Providence Concerned Citizens Association (LPCCA), which worked hard behind the scenes to defeat my bid for supervisor in 2011. Having dispensed with me, perhaps Baird is no longer needed.
It must be tough to realize you may have been played for a fool, apparently misled about the chances of success in litigation, and potentially used by one or more of the supervisors to gain political advantage, and come away with nothing to show for it.  
Another potentially big revelation: Baird also references being in 'executive board meetings'. (marker 52:54 and 53:37)....has Baird been present in private, supervisor-only executive sessions?? If he’s not an elected official or employee of the Township, he cannot legally be involved in such discussions which are where legal and personnel issues are addressed privately between the supervisors and the subject matter is generally that which cannot be made public. But, it’s a real possibility, given that at the same time Baird was pursuing his zoning appeals, the Township was also (in my opinion, frivolously) trying to litigate against the same party on substantially the same issues.
After the uncomfortable comments by Baird, the tape ends abruptly after this and the Board immediately heads into executive session. Without Baird this time, presumably.
I’ve heard rumors for some time now that Baird was functioning as an unelected “sixth supervisor”. Based on Baird’s comments in this meeting, maybe there was something to those rumors after all.

In the meantime, perhaps future Board meetings will be equally enlightening. Public comment is important to the principles of freedom and is perhaps the most important part of a public meeting; a public Board ought to realize that. 

 
 
 
 

1 comment:

Michael Siegel said...

I was right all along with my decision. Sorry the twsp had to spend all that money against my decision- thats why they hired my expertise and I guess they could not believe in me- your loss Janice