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BCCT Editorial: How To Do Public Meetings in a Time of COVID-19

BCCT Editorial: How To Do Public Meetings in a Time of COVID-19 | Good Government | Scoop.it

One of open government’s tallest pillars is the residents’ ability to be in the room when those they’ve elected to represent them decide how to spend their money or alter their town.

 

That pillar strained like never before this spring under the weight of the coronavirus and the stay-at-home orders, business closures and community and governmental cancellations that followed the outbreak.

 

And while COVID-19 is a continuing reality in most towns in Bucks and Montgomery counties, local governments are gradually resuming meetings that, by law, must be accessible to the public.

 

Towns have tried to strike that balance through the use of live-streaming technology with call-in, email or text-in forms of public participation. Some have even used web conferencing platforms like Zoom to gather remotely and allow the public to join in.

 

In townships with no controversial issues on the upcoming summer agendas, the change should be minimal. Attendees will generally be required to wear masks, socially distance in the audience (not difficult if only a few residents turn out for meetings) and agree to have their temperatures taken when they arrive.

 

But towns with hot-button topics and packed meetings will need to be thoughtful about how they’re giving the public its access when a COVID-era capacity crowd, in some towns, doesn’t exceed single digits.

 

Here are a few ideas we like. We support the use of overflow rooms where residents can gather in a second room and watch the proceedings.

 

Some developers arrive at municipal meetings accompanied by attorneys, engineers, landscape architects and other consultants. It makes sense to us that their teams should be required to wait outside until it’s their turn to present.

 

Municipalities should be quick to seek out other venues when meetings are expected to bring substantial crowds. Before the coronavirus, it wasn’t unusual to see important meetings moved to a local public school auditorium. We understand that school districts might be less willing to allow outside groups to use their facilities with COVID-19 still spreading. But we urge districts to do what they can to accommodate such requests in the name of good government.

 

Busier towns with a reliable contingent of meeting attendees should also consider using sign-up sheets and establishing a rotation of audience members.

 

Township staff, elected officials and residents all have a role to play in making these meetings work. If all parties approach the matter with understanding, flexibility and a willingness to adapt, they can turn their attention to the business of running the town.

johnmacknewtowns insight:

The more Zoom "public" meetings hosted by Newtown Township (e.g., Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission meetings,, etc.), the less actual public input we get.

 

Despite my best efforts, I cannot convince the BOS to allow the general public to directly participate in its "public" Zoom meetings.

 

I'm told that there would be too many people trying to speak at the same time and that would disrupt the meeting. Yes, one Zoom BOS meeting was “zoom bombed, but Zoom has increased security such as requiring the implementation of the “waiting room” feature. The meeting moderator can admit only recognized participants to join the meeting.

 

Currently, the only way for residents to participate in BOS Zoom meetings is to submit questions/comments via email to comments@newtownpa.gov before and during the meeting. All comments will be read, but so far many meetings do not include any resident comments at all! Luckily, important matters are being delayed until live meetings can be scheduled – probably in September.

 

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johnmacknewtown's curator insight, September 10, 10:10 AM

The more Zoom "public" meetings hosted by Newtown Township (e.g., Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission meetings,, etc.), the less actual public input we get.

 

Despite my best efforts, I cannot convince the BOS to allow the general public to directly participate in its "public" Zoom meetings.

 

I'm told that there would be too many people trying to speak at the same time and that would disrupt the meeting. Yes, one Zoom BOS meeting was “zoom bombed, but Zoom has increased security such as requiring the implementation of the “waiting room” feature. The meeting moderator can admit only recognized participants to join the meeting.

 

Currently, the only way for residents to participate in BOS Zoom meetings is to submit questions/comments via email to comments@newtownpa.gov before and during the meeting. All comments will be read, but so far many meetings do not include any resident comments at all! Luckily, important matters are being delayed until live meetings can be scheduled – probably in September.

 

Update (9/10/20): Newtown Twp is still using Zoom for "public" BOS meetings and at the Sept 9 meeting there were further limits placed on public comments submitted via email. 

 

Some comments submitted by email to be read during BOS meetings are very lengthy and although the public notice of BOS meetings promises that ALL comments will be read out loud at the meeting, it was decided - as a compromise - that if comments are very long then - with the permission of the commenter - only a summary will be read and the entire comment will be included in the meeting minutes. At least that is  my understanding of the procedure we may be following in the future (I am not sure if it is a step forward or backward).

 

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A good government is an open government where transparency reigns supreme. These Scoops are excerpts from articles published in local newspapers and other sources. Any opinions and "insights" appended to these article summaries are solely those of John Mack and do not represent the opinions of any other person or entity.
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Truth. Facts. Transparency. It's What Good Government is All About. Know Your Rights

Truth. Facts. Transparency. It's What Good Government is All About. Know Your Rights | Good Government | Scoop.it

Truth. Facts. Transparency. Simple words that shine even more brightly as we celebrate Sunshine Week. This appropriately named week, organized 13 years ago by The American Society of Newspaper Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, helps all of us realize the importance of what freedom of information truly means.

 

Information belongs in the hands of the people, and officials of government should never shield the public from this constitutional right. Making informed decisions and reporting real news starts with receiving the information that we are all entitled to, and this circle can only be completed when government entities comply.

 

The Sunshine Act and Right to Know Law are Pennsylvania’s primary public access laws. These laws guarantee the public’s right to access government information at public meetings and through public records. Public access to meetings and records is fundamental to the public’s ability to understand government actions and hold government officials accountable.

 

On behalf of newspapers across the state, The Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association is working with the Legislature to remove the unnecessary barriers that continue to block Pennsylvanians’ access to basic information from government. We are also advocating for public agencies to record executive sessions, for requiring agencies to provide agendas in advance of meetings — so the public can attend and participate in issues that matter to them, and for keeping Public Notices in newspapers so you know what’s going on in your community, and have a chance to participate in a decision before it happens. Newspapers’ watchdog role makes them ideally suited to ensure that public notices are kept in safe hands.

johnmacknewtown's curator insight, March 6, 2018 6:51 AM

Citizens from across the country are now gearing up for this year’s Sunshine Week (March 11-17) to once again spark a nationwide discussion about the critical importance of access to public information. To participate in this “event,” I decided to host a PA Right-to-Know Law Quiz. If you have not yet taken my quiz, you may be interested in taking it now. It takes less than 1 minute and no personal information is collected. Click here to take the quiz.

 

I also created the “Improve Communications for Better Government” Facebook Group. Anyone can join and participate in discussions and suggest ideas for how Newtown Township and other local municipalities can keep citizens better informed of the issues and decisions made by their elected officials.

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Newtown Supervisors May Open Up Zoom Meetings to Residents

Newtown Supervisors May Open Up Zoom Meetings to Residents | Good Government | Scoop.it

 

Wrightstown Township does it, Warrington does it, even tiny Newtown Borough does it, practically every township and borough surrounding Newtown Township does it – they all host Zoom Supervisor/Council meetings that are open to anyone in the public who wishes to attend.

 

Since April 22, 2020, when Newtown Township first started using Zoom for its public Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting, the township has been reluctant to follow suit for fear of being “zoom bombed,” which happened once when an open meeting was tried without following proper security features recommended by Zoom. Instead, the township adopted a policy whereby residents can submit comments via email and the comments will be read during the meeting.

 

More...

 

Newtown Supervisors Finally Agree It’s Time to Open Up Zoom Meetings to Residents

 

Newtown Seeks an Outside Zoom Consultant

 

At the August 5, 2020, Newtown BOS meeting, the Board of Supervisors gave Mr. Lewis the authority to seek quotes from outside consultants/individuals with Zoom experience to help the township provide secure Zoom hosting services. If you are interested, please contact Micah Lewis who will describe exactly what the township is looking for. His contact information is:

 

Micah Lewis, R.L.A.

Township Manager

215-968-2800

micahl@newtownpa.gov

johnmacknewtowns insight:

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johnmacknewtown's curator insight, August 7, 6:41 AM

Related content:

 

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John Mack's June 2020 Supervisor Activities: Getting Back to Normal

John Mack's June 2020 Supervisor Activities: Getting Back to Normal | Good Government | Scoop.it

In June 2020, as Bucks County moved into the COVID-19 "Green Phase" when some businesses re-opened, I spent 56.2 hours on official supervisor business. Although that's still below the average of 63 hours per month in January and February before COVID-19, it is well above the 33 hours for June 2019. There were more committee meetings to attend, which required more preparation time.

More details here...

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Will Open Government Be a Casualty of COVID-19?

Will Open Government Be a Casualty of COVID-19? | Good Government | Scoop.it

Pennsylvania is one 35 states to temporarily alter open government laws to curb the spread of coronavirus, according to a USA TODAY Network analysis of government press releases, newspaper articles and information collected by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the National Governors Association.

 

The agencies in these states — from the smallest municipal bodies to the biggest government entities — now can hold meetings remotely. They’re also delaying public records requests.

 

Some remote meetings have been marred by technical problems and pornographic hacks.

 

In other cases, officials have been accused of using social distancing measures to retaliate against journalists and block public access to meetings.

 

At a time when agencies are making life-or-death decisions in response to a fast-moving virus, open government advocates say transparency is paramount.

 

“The public needs to know what their governments are doing in response to the pandemic, and public records laws are in many cases the only legal right that the public has to information from the executive branch whether it be it local, state or federal,” said Adam Marshall, staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

 

While some advocates think this newfound reliance on technology could lead to more transparency, others worry they’re seeing a deterioration of the public’s access and ability to watchdog.

 

“Is open government going to be the first casualty of this coronavirus?” asked Amye Benshaver, who served for 25 years as an assistant attorney general in Kentucky and now works for an open government coalition there. “I knew immediately this was going to create challenges, and I’m hoping when this passes we can resume business as usual.”

 

Open government advocates say that, in some cases, the new emphasis on using technology to broadcast public meetings could improve transparency.

 

Governmental bodies might reevaluate and retool the technology they’re using to better serve the public. They could also make streaming meetings a regular course of business, said Daniel Bevarly, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

 

But open government advocates also worry that state legislatures might see the pandemic as an opportunity to permanently increase the discretion of governmental bodies on decisions of openness during an emergency.

 

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, worries that governmental bodies may abuse catastrophe notices. They are not required to prove a catastrophe has happened nor do they have to show how the event prevented a timely response. The Attorney General doesn’t have the authority to deny catastrophe claims.

 

But Shannon said that, right now, all she can do is watch the new law play out while continuing to preach to governmental bodies the benefits of proactively putting more information online, especially in times of crisis.

 

“More than ever,” she said, “government transparency is crucial.”

johnmacknewtowns insight:

The Newtown Township Board of Supervisors has not met in a meeting open to the public since March 11, 2020. However, the Board has voted via email on "emergency" measures that will have an impact on the public.

 

"It's one thing for a remote participation option to not capture everyone in the township; it's another thing for a muni to say ‘let's just vote by email.’ I think the latter could end up triggering problems for that muni," said Scott E. Coburn, General Counsel at the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.

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My Supervisor Activities: March Came in Like a Lion and COVID-19 Made It Go Out Like a Lamb!

My Supervisor Activities: March Came in Like a Lion and COVID-19 Made It Go Out Like a Lamb! | Good Government | Scoop.it

In March 2020, I spent only 36 hours on official Supervisor business as COVID-19 forced the Township to cancel all meetings. Little did I know how prescient were my remarks a few weeks ago when I noted that March was coming in like a lion for us Supervisors and hoped it would go out like a lamb!

 

Compare that to an average of 63.5 hours per month for January and February - a 43% decline!

 

In March 2020, I spent 4.6 hours attending required BOS meetings and 5.9 hours attending "optional" meetings for a total of 10.5 hours. I spent 4.8 hours (13% of my total logged hours) interacting with residents. What did I discuss with residents?

 

More details here…

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Pennsylvania isn’t releasing details on coronavirus cases because of a decades-old law

Pennsylvania isn’t releasing details on coronavirus cases because of a decades-old law | Good Government | Scoop.it

Pennsylvania officials are citing a 1955 law authored in the heyday of syphilis to withhold details about coronavirus cases, including how many people have been tested.

 

At frequent media briefings on COVID-19 over the last week, Health Secretary Rachel Levine has not provided the public with the total number of samples tested, the number of people quarantined after possible exposure, or the exact ages of infected people.

 

The department has released only the number of positive cases, as well as general information about the source of the infection, whether the infected individuals are adults, and which county they live in.

 

The intent of the law is actually something of a mystery.

 

The state Supreme Court wrote in a 1988 decision that the law had little legislative history, making it difficult to interpret. “Most of the historical record consists of little more than a public reading of the act,” the court said. “Apparently, the discussion of the act occurred almost entirely behind ‘closed doors’ or in committee, where there was little effort to produce committee reports or create a written record.”

 

In 2013, reports commissioned by the state Senate recommended a complete overhaul to the archaic law. But the legislature has failed to pass any updates in the years since.

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Debbie Wachspress’s Exit Says More About Us Than Her - Opinion of State Sen. Steve Santarsiero

Debbie Wachspress’s sudden withdrawal last week from the congressional race here in Pennsylvania’s first district is something that should have everyone worried.

Her decision came within days of the filing of a lawsuit in federal court against her, some of her colleagues on the Pennsbury School Board, district administrators and the school district itself, alleging bigoted and racist comments and a hostile work environment. Whatever your thoughts about the congressional race, those of us who have known Debbie for years know that she is no bigot or racist, in fact she has spent much of her adult life combating such views. But it is a measure of where our political system is today that, despite that fact, she made the decision to end her campaign for congress rather than subject her family and herself to what would surely have been weekly, if not daily, attacks on her character as the consequence of a baseless claim.

And that is what should bother all of us, Democrat, Republican or Independent.

We now live in a world in which the politics of personal destruction discourages good people from entering — or staying in — what Theodore Roosevelt called the arena. To be clear, these allegations were not made by and had nothing to do with any of Debbie’s opponents in the race for congress. We are fortunate that, like Debbie, they are all honorable and decent people. But there can be no question that by stepping forward to run in a high-profile race, Debbie made herself a target, increasing the likelihood that she would be included in such a lawsuit. The message to future candidates for local office, such as school board, let alone high office like congress is unmistakable: Proceed at your own risk.

At a time in our country’s history when we need people of good character who want to serve to step forward, that is exactly the wrong message that we want to send. That’s why speaking out in cases like this one is important. That’s why condemning rhetoric that demonizes the “other” is critical. That’s why a respect for the truth is something we all need to hold dear. These are things we all should be thinking about in the wake of Debbie Wachspress’s decision to end her bid for congress.

johnmacknewtowns insight:

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The Attack Mailer many residents received Saturday before the election is a dirty trick filled with lies, distortions & phony arguments.

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A Local Elected Official Voices Support for Publishing Legal Ads Online. It's Time to Allow Online Notices! 

A Local Elected Official Voices Support for Publishing Legal Ads Online. It's Time to Allow Online Notices!  | Good Government | Scoop.it

A local elected official recently said he supports changing a state law that defines how municipalities advertise upcoming municipal meetings, such as zoning board hearings.

 

Pennsylvania’s 1976 Newspaper Advertising Act requires that all forms of required legal advertising be published in local newspapers of general circulation, meaning newspapers that are “issued daily, or not less than once a week, intended for general distribution and circulation, and sold at fixed prices per copy per week, per month, or per annum, to subscribers and readers without regard to business, trade, profession or class.”

 

The law defines a notice as “a formal printed announcement, transmitting intelligence, information, or warning, to a particular person, or generally to all persons who may read such notice,” and makes no allowance for publishing notices in online news publications.

 

“Not everyone gets printed newspapers today,” said Hellertown mayor David Heintzelman at a borough council meeting earlier this month. “They go online.”

 

Heintzelman said he believes the state legislature should update the advertising requirement to include online news publications, which typically do not publish legal notices because they do not meet the definition of a newspaper contained in the statute:

 

A newspaper may be either a daily newspaper, weekly newspaper, newspaper of general circulation, official newspaper, or a legal newspaper, as defined in this section.

 

The Newspaper Advertising Act goes so far as to specify that “no advertisement shall be published by any court or other government unit, which is not duly authorized by law, nor in more papers than so authorized.”

 

Borough staff have interpreted the law to mean that legal notices may be published online in addition to being published in local print newspapers of general circulation, which is why Saucon Source last week published two Hellertown zoning hearing board appeal notices which pertain to a meeting that will be held this Wednesday, Feb. 19.

 

However, publishing notices online doesn’t lessen the financial burden to municipalities, which are required to pay for advertising in print newspapers under the current law.

 

The increasing cost of legal advertising combined with declining newspaper circulation figures is why the Pennsylvania Municipal League has called for “legal advertising relief.”

 

“As traditional print newspapers consolidate and publish less frequently, it has become increasingly difficult and costly to local governments to meet the current advertising requirements,” their website notes. “In most instances, there is only one newspaper of general circulation in each municipality, eliminating the ability to seek competitive pricing.”

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Meet Mack Monday: Join Me for Coffee & Discussion

Meet Mack Monday: Join Me for Coffee & Discussion | Good Government | Scoop.it

Are you concerned overdevelopment in Newtown or about traffic in the shopping center or about the quality of our drinking water or about preserving the open space in our parks or about any issue that has or will come before the Board of Supervisors and other township boards and commissions?

Feel free to attend one of my "Meet Mack Monday" events that I host each month. I will inform you of items coming up for discussion at public meetings you may not be able to attend and that are not televised. I will listen to your concerns and together with other residents and business owners I will try to come up with solutions to problems that make sense for Newtown as a whole.

Next Meeting

The next event is scheduled to take place on Monday, February 3, 2020, from 5-7 PM at the Corner Bakery Cafe in Newtown. You can show up at any time during that period. Here are some items I have on the agenda for that meeting:

 

  • Meet David Oxley, the newly-appointed Newtown Township Supervisor (read "David D. Oxley Sworn in as Newtown Township Supervisor!").
  • Newtown A.O.P. (Toll Bros.): a conditional use proposal to construct a cluster of 41 single-family homes on a 152-acre parcel at Rt. 413 and Twining Bridge Road (read "Newtown Residents Dissatisfied With Toll Brothers").
  • Challenge to Validity of the JMZO and variances in connection with proposed convenience store (WAWA) with fuel dispensing station on Newtown Bypass & U. Silver Lake Rd. (this is on the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) schedule for 2/6/20). The Board of Supervisors voted to send its solicitor to this hearing to oppose the challenge.
  • Variances in connection with a proposed 12,500 square foot Old Navy Retail Store (new bldg.) and additions to existing Chick Fil-A (4 West Road) - ZHB will also hear this case on 2/6/20. I will hand out a summary of the results of my "Old Navy/Chick-fil-A Proposal Survey."
  • I will also provide an update on the ZHB 1/30/20 hearing re Variances in connection with a proposed B-8 use for 27 townhomes on a 4.49 acre lot in the PS-2 district (413 Durham Rd. The Board of Supervisors also opposes this (read "Newtown Supervisors Oppose Plan To Build 27 Townhouses").
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Board of Elections Schedules Public Training Sessions for New Voting Machines

Board of Elections Schedules Public Training Sessions for New Voting Machines | Good Government | Scoop.it

The Bucks County Board of Elections this week announced an extensive series of public training sessions to help voters familiarize themselves with the county’s new voting machines.

The schedule consists of 12 trainings at locations throughout the county (see below), beginning in late February and ending in late April. The sessions are designed to allow voters to see in person how the county’s new Clear Ballot voting machines operate in advance of the 2020 elections.

The Clear Ballot system, which uses hand-marked paper ballots, was selected by the elections board on Nov. 27, and approved by the Board of County Commissioners on Dec. 4. 

The decision came after many months of research and deliberations, which included three well-attended public demonstrations of the various machines under consideration. Those sessions exposed hundreds of polling place workers and voters to the Clear Ballot machines, and the upcoming trainings will supplement that exposure.

Clear Ballot is a voter-verified paper ballot system that uses ballots lacking bar codes or QR codes. Voters complete paper ballots by hand and feed them into a scanner, which drops the ballot into a ballot bag for transportation to the Board of Elections office at the end of Election Day.

The Clear Ballot scanners also scan an image of the completed ballots and tabulate results from each precinct for efficient Election Night reporting. All tabulated and scanned images are kept in a secured database and do not touch the Internet.  

The Clear Ballot system also provides a ballot-marking device for each polling place for voters who require ADA provisions. The ballot-marking device prints a ballot identical to those provided to non-ADA voters at the polling place before it is fed into a scanner.

In April 2018, all Pennsylvania counties were informed by the Commonwealth that they must select new voting systems that provide a verifiable paper record, and that those new systems be in place no later than the 2020 primary.

Below is the public schedule. A separate schedule for a series of trainings for poll workers is being circulated directly to those workers by the Board of Elections. If you would like to sign up to work at the polls please contact Kelly Gale, assistant director of the Board of Elections, at 215-348-6887.

johnmacknewtowns insight:

Related Story:

  •  “Bucks County Residents Got a Chance to Test Drive Possible Voting Machines in Newtown”; http://sco.lt/7Hnn4y
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My Year (2019) as Newtown Supervisor

My Year (2019) as Newtown Supervisor | Good Government | Scoop.it

In 2019 I spent, on average, 39.4 hours per month on official Supervisor business. I spent a total of 56 hours attending required meetings and 63 hours in optional meetings for a total of 119 hours for the year.

 

More details here...

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My Supervisor Activity Log for November 2019: 2020 Budget, Durham Road Development, more...

My Supervisor Activity Log for November 2019: 2020 Budget, Durham Road Development, more... | Good Government | Scoop.it

The following is a summary of my Supervisor-related activities for November, 2019. I spent 40.2 hours in November on official Supervisor business. That's just about the average per month for 2019 to date.

 

Details here.

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Owner Of Local Newspapers Expected To Cut Thousands More Jobs

Owner Of Local Newspapers Expected To Cut Thousands More Jobs | Good Government | Scoop.it

Shareholders voted to approve a deal that will have the owner of the Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer overtake one of the most storied brands in the newspaper industry. 

 

“More than 10 percent of the chains’ combined workforce — about 25,000 in the United States — will likely get the dreaded call from HR that their services will no longer be needed,” Ken Doctor, a media industry analyst, wrote for Nieman Lab last month.

johnmacknewtowns insight:

This means even more "spotty" (an euphemism for what I really think: "sh*tty") coverage of important township meetings where important decisions are made affecting the daily lives of residents!

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My August 2020 Supervisor Activities: A Very Busy Month! Meetings, Meetings, Meetings!

My August 2020 Supervisor Activities: A Very Busy Month! Meetings, Meetings, Meetings! | Good Government | Scoop.it

BOS = Board of Supervisors, EDC = Economic Development Committee, JZC = Joint Zoning Council, EAC = Environmental Advisory Council, HRC = Human Relations Commission, NFA = Newtown Fire Association, TCC = Bucks County Tax Collection Committee

 

In August 2020, as Bucks County continued in the COVID-19 "Green Phase", I spent 56.3 hours on official supervisor business, which is high for the month of August, which usually sees less scheduled meetings. With meetings being held via Zoom, however, even if people are at the beach, they can attend.

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BCCT Editorial: How To Do Public Meetings in a Time of COVID-19

BCCT Editorial: How To Do Public Meetings in a Time of COVID-19 | Good Government | Scoop.it

One of open government’s tallest pillars is the residents’ ability to be in the room when those they’ve elected to represent them decide how to spend their money or alter their town.

 

That pillar strained like never before this spring under the weight of the coronavirus and the stay-at-home orders, business closures and community and governmental cancellations that followed the outbreak.

 

And while COVID-19 is a continuing reality in most towns in Bucks and Montgomery counties, local governments are gradually resuming meetings that, by law, must be accessible to the public.

 

Towns have tried to strike that balance through the use of live-streaming technology with call-in, email or text-in forms of public participation. Some have even used web conferencing platforms like Zoom to gather remotely and allow the public to join in.

 

In townships with no controversial issues on the upcoming summer agendas, the change should be minimal. Attendees will generally be required to wear masks, socially distance in the audience (not difficult if only a few residents turn out for meetings) and agree to have their temperatures taken when they arrive.

 

But towns with hot-button topics and packed meetings will need to be thoughtful about how they’re giving the public its access when a COVID-era capacity crowd, in some towns, doesn’t exceed single digits.

 

Here are a few ideas we like. We support the use of overflow rooms where residents can gather in a second room and watch the proceedings.

 

Some developers arrive at municipal meetings accompanied by attorneys, engineers, landscape architects and other consultants. It makes sense to us that their teams should be required to wait outside until it’s their turn to present.

 

Municipalities should be quick to seek out other venues when meetings are expected to bring substantial crowds. Before the coronavirus, it wasn’t unusual to see important meetings moved to a local public school auditorium. We understand that school districts might be less willing to allow outside groups to use their facilities with COVID-19 still spreading. But we urge districts to do what they can to accommodate such requests in the name of good government.

 

Busier towns with a reliable contingent of meeting attendees should also consider using sign-up sheets and establishing a rotation of audience members.

 

Township staff, elected officials and residents all have a role to play in making these meetings work. If all parties approach the matter with understanding, flexibility and a willingness to adapt, they can turn their attention to the business of running the town.

johnmacknewtowns insight:

The more Zoom "public" meetings hosted by Newtown Township (e.g., Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission meetings,, etc.), the less actual public input we get.

 

Despite my best efforts, I cannot convince the BOS to allow the general public to directly participate in its "public" Zoom meetings.

 

I'm told that there would be too many people trying to speak at the same time and that would disrupt the meeting. Yes, one Zoom BOS meeting was “zoom bombed, but Zoom has increased security such as requiring the implementation of the “waiting room” feature. The meeting moderator can admit only recognized participants to join the meeting.

 

Currently, the only way for residents to participate in BOS Zoom meetings is to submit questions/comments via email to comments@newtownpa.gov before and during the meeting. All comments will be read, but so far many meetings do not include any resident comments at all! Luckily, important matters are being delayed until live meetings can be scheduled – probably in September.

 

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johnmacknewtown's curator insight, September 10, 10:10 AM

The more Zoom "public" meetings hosted by Newtown Township (e.g., Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission meetings,, etc.), the less actual public input we get.

 

Despite my best efforts, I cannot convince the BOS to allow the general public to directly participate in its "public" Zoom meetings.

 

I'm told that there would be too many people trying to speak at the same time and that would disrupt the meeting. Yes, one Zoom BOS meeting was “zoom bombed, but Zoom has increased security such as requiring the implementation of the “waiting room” feature. The meeting moderator can admit only recognized participants to join the meeting.

 

Currently, the only way for residents to participate in BOS Zoom meetings is to submit questions/comments via email to comments@newtownpa.gov before and during the meeting. All comments will be read, but so far many meetings do not include any resident comments at all! Luckily, important matters are being delayed until live meetings can be scheduled – probably in September.

 

Update (9/10/20): Newtown Twp is still using Zoom for "public" BOS meetings and at the Sept 9 meeting there were further limits placed on public comments submitted via email. 

 

Some comments submitted by email to be read during BOS meetings are very lengthy and although the public notice of BOS meetings promises that ALL comments will be read out loud at the meeting, it was decided - as a compromise - that if comments are very long then - with the permission of the commenter - only a summary will be read and the entire comment will be included in the meeting minutes. At least that is  my understanding of the procedure we may be following in the future (I am not sure if it is a step forward or backward).

 

Related Content:

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My May 2020 Supervisor Activities: Preparing to Come Out of COVID-19 Lockdown!

My May 2020 Supervisor Activities: Preparing to Come Out of COVID-19 Lockdown! | Good Government | Scoop.it

In May 2020, as the COVID-19 shutdown continued, I spent only 35.1 hours on official supervisor business. That's well below the average of 63 hours per month in January and February before COVID-19. Fewer meetings, however, were canceled and the meetings that were held were via Zoom, which has its good and bad points (see insights below).

 

My log keeps track of the time spent on the following:

 

  • Attending “Required” Meetings
  • Preparation for BOS Meetings
  • Attending Optional Meetings/Activities
  • Interaction with Residents
  • Travel To & From Meetings

 

More...

johnmacknewtowns insight:

Open Up Zoom Meetings to the Public!

 

At the May 27, 2020, BOS meeting, I continued to press for Zoom public meetings where members of the public could participate. I said, "Since it appears that we will continue to hold 'public' meetings via Zoom, I would like that these zoom meetings be open to the public for participation instead of the current practice of only allowing comments via email. That was fine for the red phase, but we need to get more back to normal during the next phases.

 

"The more Zoom 'public' meetings are hosted by Newtown Township (BOS meeting, PC, etc.), the less actual public input we get. Zoom technology allows the meeting leader/moderator to add attendees with their microphones shut off as a default. If anyone wants to speak, they can click on 'raise your hand' and the meeting leader/moderator can turn on the mic. This was done successfully at a recent Wrightstown PC Zoom meeting attended by more that a dozen residents. It is extremely simple to run a Zoom meeting and have mics of certain participants muted until they use the "raise hand" feature of Zoom."

 

Unfortunately, my request was denied! (View the May 27,2020, BOS Zoom meeting here.)

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My Supervisor Activities: April 2020 Was The Cruelest Month!

My Supervisor Activities: April 2020 Was The Cruelest Month! | Good Government | Scoop.it

In April 2020, as the COVID-19 shutdown of business as usual in the Township was in full swing, I spent only 19.5 hours on official Supervisor business. That's well below the average of 63 hours per month in January and February before COVID-19.

 

I attended only one "Special" Board of Supervisors meeting via Zoom that lasted about one and a half hours and a Planning Commission meeting via Zoom that lasted just over one hour.

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Sunshine on the Agenda: Public Agencies Take Note

Sunshine on the Agenda: Public Agencies Take Note | Good Government | Scoop.it

Every year in mid-March, we in journalism celebrate Sunshine Week to extol the virtues of government transparency, primarily provided in Pennsylvania by the Sunshine Act and the Right-to-Know Law, but woven deeply into the fabric of our nation.

In Pennsylvania, journalists and private citizens alike use the Sunshine Act and the Right-to-Know Law to pry public information from governmental agencies. Information is power, and it belongs in the hands of the people. There, it can be used to hold government officials accountable for the decisions they make that impact all of our lives and help ensure they are spending our money responsibly.

For instance, some legislators in Harrisburg have been trying unsuccessfully since at least 2014 to require public bodies to post the agendas of their meetings at least 24 hours ahead of time. It has fallen short of the finish line in each legislative session since then, and that's truly disappointing.

The latest version is House Bill 1069 from state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-10, whose district includes parts of Beaver, Lawrence and Butler counties.

It would require that agendas include a listing of each item of business that could be subject to a vote or deliberation, and that they be available both at the meeting place and on the agency's public website, if it has one.

Importantly, the bill would preclude an agency from taking official action on any item that's not on the agenda.

In his co-sponsorship memorandum, Bernstine says that "if citizens and taxpayers can access information regarding a public meeting agenda prior to the meeting, then they will know whether issues of importance or concern are to be addressed at the meeting."

Thankfully, most of our local municipalities and school boards already do this, but that's not the case everywhere. It should be.

Bernstine's bill seems like a no-brainer to us. It was also a no-brainer when former state Rep. Jim Christiana, a Beaver County Republican, tried and failed four times to enact the change.

It passed the state House unanimously in January. The state Senate has not yet brought it to a vote.

Senators, 2020 seems like the perfect year to finally get this done.

johnmacknewtowns insight:

Every Newtown Township Board of Supervisors agenda includes an item "Changes to the Agenda." Usually, changes are minor and do not involve official action. In the future I will have to keep an eye out for changes to the agenda requiring action by the Board and register my complaint.

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February 2020: Another Busy Month! Marathon Toll Bros Hearing, LQBTQ+ Youth Get No Love, more...

February 2020: Another Busy Month! Marathon Toll Bros Hearing, LQBTQ+ Youth Get No Love, more... | Good Government | Scoop.it

February 2020 was another busy month for me as Supervisor. It didn't help that it was leap year with one extra day thrown in!

 

In February, I spent nearly 59 hours on official Supervisor business that included attending a 4.5 hour marathon BOS session. Most of that session was devoted to a Toll Bros plan to build 45 homes on 152 acres off of Route 413 and Twinning Bridge Road.

 

Just before that hearing, Supervisors were handed a thick stack of "Exhibits" (see photo above) that included site plans, results of s flood plain study, stormwater management report, transportation impact assessment, review letters from our Township Engineer, etc. (see photo). It should be no surprise, therefore, that I did not read every document from end to end in that pile of exhibits! It just is not humanly possible.

 

I have to question how Supervisors can ask intelligent questions and make the right decision under such circumstances. In fact, in the end, NO decision was made! Now we have 45 days to deliberate (in closed session, BTW) and make a decision.

 

This came after a disappointing vote on my "Love is Love Day" resolution, which was shot down 3-2 (read "The Day That Newtown Township Failed to Show Love for LGBTQ+ Youth"; http://sco.lt/4hz8Xw). As a consequence, Bucks Equality Coalition, NAMI Bucks County PA, Dave Bria (Yardley Borough Council Chairperson, The Rainbow Room, and Rise Up Doylestown have posted a "Speak Out for Lgbtq+ Youth in Newtown PA!"; https://www.facebook.com/events/196751101578609/ meeting notice on Facebook. They are urging the public to show up at the March 11, 2020, BOS meeting and "speak OUT, to let these elected officials [Phil Calabro, Kyle Davis, and David Oxley] and the community know that they cannot quietly vote against LOVE and support for our LGBTQ+ youth, and then expect to get away with it. Their vote against this simple resolution of support sends a dangerous message to our LGBTQ+ youth AND to all youth."

 

March is coming in like a lion for us Supervisors! Hopefully it will go out like a lamb with less contentious topics to discuss!

 

My log keeps track of the time spent on the following:

 

  • Attending “Required” Meetings
  • Preparation for BOS Meetings
  • Attending Optional Meetings/Activities
  • Interaction with Residents
  • Travel To & From Meetings

 

See details here...

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Editorial: PA Newsmedia Association Protecting Your Right to Know in Local Government

Editorial: PA Newsmedia Association Protecting Your Right to Know in Local Government | Good Government | Scoop.it

Open government is fundamental to our democracy. Transparency allows citizens to see government at work, understand officials' actions, and hold leaders accountable.

 

In Pennsylvania, our laws protect the public's right to know what its government is up to. The Sunshine Act mandates that all government meetings be open when policies are discussed and decisions are made. The Right to Know Law provides that records relating to government activity are accessible to the public. And, our Constitution mandates that "all courts shall be open."

 

Most citizens, however, don't have time to attend government meetings, comb through public records, or attend important court cases.

 

But, Pennsylvania's laws safeguarding citizens' access to government information are not perfect. Each has its limits. And, each can be exploited when officials want to hide something.

 

Sometimes records and proceedings are closed for good reason. Other times they are not.

 

When closures seem improper, the press serves another vital role - it pushes back. It fights for the public's right to know by filing suits to gain access to records, meetings, and court cases.

 

In this kind of litigation, the laws often stack the deck in favor of secrecy. They provide no real-time remedy, and the litigation can go on for years.

 

For example, the Right to Know Law provides an easy route to appeal when requests for records are denied. But, the agency that hears most appeals - the Office of Open Records - has no authority to enforce its decisions. And, public officials are free to appeal to court, where they can raise new issues and where the office's prior ruling has no significance. While these rounds of appeals run on, time passes, and the utility of the requested information fades.

 

Litigating these cases is also expensive. Government officials have the resources and lawyers to outlast most people. The law does nothing to deter them from litigating whenever they want to maintain secrecy. Many states level the playing field by forcing the government to pay a citizen's legal fees when access is wrongfully denied. But, Pennsylvania does not. Here, citizens pay their full litigation costs even if records or meetings should have been public.

 

Hopefully that situation will begin to change. RCFP [Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press] has launched a local legal initiative and is bringing its mission of open government to Pennsylvania. The RCFP is taking on this mission pro bono, to advance the public good.

 

Pennsylvania is blessed with a wealth of collaborative and innovative journalists. Starting today, their work will have another powerful advocate. That advocacy will benefit all Pennsylvanians. It will lead to greater transparency and facilitate more robust public-affairs journalism and investigative reporting. Consequently, all of us will have more information about our government - information that will allow all of us to hold our government more accountable.

johnmacknewtowns insight:

Related:

VIDEO: Summary of Results of PA Right-to-Know Law Quiz;

 

This short, 3-minute video summarizes the overall score and responses to selected questions of the PA Right-to-Know Law Quiz that ran from March 1, 2018 through March 5, 2018 as part of the 2018 National Right to Know Week (March 11-17).

 

BLOG POST:  “Open Records Requests Processed by Newtown Township in 2019”; https://www.johnmacknewtown.info/blog/?viewDetailed=202001061408

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Do You Think Local Government Should Be Held Accountable? I Do! Sign Up for Intelligencer's Bi-Weekly Watchdog Newsletter

Do You Think Local Government Should Be Held Accountable? I Do! Sign Up for Intelligencer's Bi-Weekly Watchdog Newsletter | Good Government | Scoop.it

Do you think local government should be held accountable? So do we. Signup for the The Intelligencer’s Watchdog BucksMont newsletter and receive the best of our accountability journalism in your inbox every other Tuesday.

johnmacknewtowns insight:

I'm looking forward to this. In ethics and governance, accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving. The key to achieving accountability is openness and communication, IMHO.

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A Very Busy January 2020: Tiny Houses, Old Navy, more...

A Very Busy January 2020: Tiny Houses, Old Navy, more... | Good Government | Scoop.it

January 2020 was my busiest month as a Newtown Supervisor since I began keeping a log of my activities in September, 2018. In January, I spent 68 hours on official Supervisor business despite missing one Board meeting due to the flu or whatever it was that knocked me out for several days.

 

My log keeps track of the time spent on the following:

 

Attending “Required” Meetings

Preparation for BOS Meetings

Attending Optional Meetings/Activities

Interaction with Residents

Travel To & From Meetings

 

See details here...

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Open Records Requests Processed by Newtown Township in 2019

Open Records Requests Processed by Newtown Township in 2019 | Good Government | Scoop.it

The Pennsylvania Right to Know (RTK) Law Definition, also known as the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law, is a series of laws designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of governmental bodies in Pennsylvania.

Thanks to Open Records Officer Micah Lewis, aka, Township Manager, I was able to analyze the open records requests processed by Newtown Township in 2019.


In 2019, Newtown Township processed 83 Open Records Requests in compliance with the State’s Sunshine Law. That compares to 92 requests in 2018.

A total of 32 requests (39%) were from businesses/unions/Nonprofits.

The nonprofit organization Open The Books, which describes itself as a transparency group devoted to posting online all the disclosed spending of every level of government across the United States, made two requests for employee salary records, which were provided by the Township.

There were 44 requests from individuals (53% of the total). There was 1 request for records from the media (i.e., Bucks County Courier Times) for "Review files for Provco Wawa (ZHB/Sketch Plan)" and 6 requests from law firms (7% of the total). 

 

****NOTE: These data do NOT include open record requests submitted to the Newtown Police Department.****

 

More here...

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Savvy Citizen Mobile Notification Survey Summary 

Savvy Citizen Mobile Notification Survey Summary  | Good Government | Scoop.it

Savvy Citizen pushes out notifications about (1) emergency/public safety/utility outage notices, (2) roadwork and traffic alerts, (3) public meetings and special event notices, and (4) municipal news (ordinances, resolutions, committee vacancies, etc.).

 

87% of all respondents say they would opt-in to a mobile notification service such as Savvy Citizen. Only 7% said "No" and 6% were not sure.

 

More, including comments from respondents, here: http://bit.ly/SavvyResults 

johnmacknewtown's curator insight, December 10, 2019 8:00 AM

At the November 13, 2019 Newtown Board of Supervisors Meeting, I inquired about adding Savvy Citizen to the budget as I believe it is a useful tool that would not require much maintenance. 

According to the minutes: "Mr. Lewis said there is no staff to maintain it. Mr. Mack believes there is not much maintenance required. A discussion ensued on the Savvy Citizen app including the cost, upkeep, staffing and benefits to the community.

"Mr. Mack moved for the Board to consider revising the budget to purchase the Savvy Citizen App. Mr. Fisher seconded. The motion failed 2‐3 with Mr. Calabro, Ms. Bobrin and Mr. Davis voting nay.

[Mack's Notes prepared prior to meeting: I request that the 2020 budget include $3,600 to implement the Savvy Citizen mobile-based notification system that was reviewed by the BOS at the September 16, 2019, Work Session. That would cover the monthly payments of $249 for 12 months plus the one-time marketing and setup fee of $600."

 

NOTE: Since then, Savvy Citizen has sweetened its offer to Newtown: The estimated cost is $2,241 annually, including a one-time marketing, setup fee of $600 for a total of $2,841 (offer good until December 31, 20190. To cover the cost, Savvy Citizen offers a sponsorship program. If there is a local business that is interested in paying for Newtown’s Savvy Citizen subscription, then that business, in return, would receive a small clickable ad on notifications sent to residents. It is anticipated that a sponsor will be found. If a sponsor cannot be found within 2-3 months, the service can be terminated and the township will be charged only for the initial setup and months that the system was in use.

 

As a Supervisor, I will continue to  advocate for more effective digital and mobile media communications that will inform and engage residents and businesses regarding issues before the Board of Supervisors.

 

UPDATE (Statement by John Mack at Feb 12, 2010 BOS Meeting]:

 

As you know I have advocated for Newtown Township to subscribe to the Savvy Citizen mobile-based notification application. I have received a lot of support from residents and local businesses for implementing such a technology to help keep citizens informed of public meetings, special events such as the HOA forum proposed by the EAC, etc.

 

Several businesses and individual have come forward to sponsor such as system to offset the costs.

 

However, after consulting with the Township Manager Mr. Lewis, and Police Chief Hearn, it is obvious that more than money is needed. [Speaking of the Police Dept, I want to give a shout out to Sgt Lupinetti who does a great job handling the Police Department’s various social media channels. But I’m pretty sure he has other jobs that keep him busy.]

 

What Newtown Township needs is a Public Relations Manager with technology experience to implement and manage this and other communications channels – such as a Facebook page – to keep residents informed.

 

Also, such a person, I believe, would be critical for getting the word out that Newtown Township is looking for new businesses with high-paying jobs to locate in the township. That may even be a suggestion recommended by the consultants we just agreed to hire.

 

Therefore, I am not a this time requesting that the 2020 budget include a line item expense for subscribing to Savvy Citizen.

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Bucks County Commissioners Expected To Vote To Approve New Electronic Voting Machines at December 4, 2019, Meeting

Bucks County Commissioners Expected To Vote To Approve New Electronic Voting Machines at December 4, 2019, Meeting | Good Government | Scoop.it

[Photo: Newtown Supervisor John Mack tested the new voting machines in August at the Bucks County Community College.]

 

Bucks County Commissioners are poised to decide on new voting machines at their Dec. 4 meeting as the state deadline to have a purchasing agreement in place approaches at the end of the year.

 

[Residents are encouraged to attend the meeting, which will be held at 10 a.m. at 55 E. Court St., Doylestown.]

 

There’s a short list of approved machines that create some form of paper ballot copy, but specifics on costs for each machine had not been publicly discussed as of Friday.

 

The county has hosted three voting machine demonstrations since last December with representatives from Unisyn Voting Solutions, Dominion Voting Systems, Electric Systems & Software (ES&S), Hart InterCivic and Clear Ballot Group present to talk to potential poll workers, voters and officials.

 

[johnmacknewtown's insight: I tested all 5 machines. I wouldn't say they were any easier to use than the current machines. A few required that you first use a touch screen to vote, get a paper readout of the results and then insert it into a scanner - a two-step process that many people will need help to complete at the polls. Expect delays! Especially when many people opt to use the paper ballots.]

 

As of August, more than half of the state’s 67 counties purchased new voting machines since the state set its mandate. Montgomery County rolled out its new machines made by Dominion for the May primary. Officials spent $5.8 million to upgrade to machines that produce paper ballots.

 

At least two Bucks County voting rights advocate groups have voiced frustration over a lack of public discussion on the new purchase as the 2019 deadline approaches.

 

Representatives of SAVE Bucks County Votes and the Bucks County League of Women Voters said in September they worried a last-minute vote would come with little public discussion.

 

SAVE Bucks County Votes President Janis Hobbs-Pellechio said her group has reviewed potential shortfalls and vulnerabilities of several voting machines, but meetings to discuss those findings with county commissioners has been repeatedly delayed.

 

The vendors usually offer one model that creates a paper ballot copy saved to a machine-readable bar code or one model that requires a “voter hand-marked ballot” to cast a vote.

 

Both groups consider the hand-marked systems the “gold standard” for machines over the bar code because a voter can easily confirm a correct ballot has been cast.

johnmacknewtowns insight:

Related Story:

  • “Bucks County Residents Got a Chance to Test Drive Possible Voting Machines in Newtown”; http://sco.lt/7Hnn4y
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John Mack Was Still Hard at Work as Supervisor in October Despite Campaigning

John Mack Was Still Hard at Work as Supervisor in October Despite Campaigning | Good Government | Scoop.it

I spent a lot of time campaigning for re-election in October 2019, which paid off in a bittersweet victory (read "Mack & Fisher Beat Butler & Boyle by Going Positive!"). Despite that, I spent nearly 35 hours in October 2019 on official Supervisor business to maintain an average of 40 hours per month in 2019 to date.

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