Two new measures were introduced at Allentown City Council’s meeting Wednesday night, both designed to make meetings run more efficiently.
One was visual: an electronic digital timer, displayed on two large screens in the front of the room, so those who stand to address council can see exactly how much time they have left to speak.
The other was a verbal directive.
“We will take anything you say, including questions, under consideration,” said council president Julio Guridy at the beginning of the meeting. “We will get you an answer afterwards.
“Don’t come up and ask any of us questions directly and expect an answer right away. We will get back to you.”
Resident Tom Hahn quickly tested that directive, when he stood to ask if someone on council could explain a financial question to him.
Hahn’s question was met by 20 seconds of silence.
Francis Dougherty, the city’s managing director, finally broke the silence by saying he will have the city’s finance director follow up on Hahn’s inquiry.
Resident Glen Hunsicker, the next to stand to address council, also asked a question about finances.
He faced 10 seconds of silence before Guridy answered his question.
Lou Hershman, the next resident who stood to speak, scolded council,
saying: “You come to public meetings, you get no answers. That’s no way to treat the public. We pay taxes and we want to be heard.”
At one point, Guridy again said council will not be answering a lot of questions, “especially questions that have been asked of us many, many times already.”
When one resident asked if 20 digital billboards planned around the city will all be erected in city parks, Guridy said he does not know the answer but “we’ll certainly find out through the administration. If you can give your name to the city clerk, we’ll get back to you on that.”
Resident Rich Fegley literally turned his back on council while standing at the podium to speak.
“You told us you don’t have to respond to us this evening, the clerk will get back to us,” said Fegley.
He walked around to the other side of the podium and faced the audience instead of council.
“This is who I should be speaking to, the public and the press,” said Fegley. “These are the people I really want to hear me.”
“We’re losing control of our government here,” said Fegley, a frequent critic of City Council.
He told council that he meant no disrespect, “but I was told tonight that I won’t get an answer.”
Said Guridy later in the meeting: “We try to run our meeting like a courthouse. Anything you wouldn’t do in a courthouse you shouldn’t be doing here.”
Guridy often has asked members of the audience to conduct themselves as if they are in a courtroom when attending a City Council meeting.
He called for civility and decency. “The way people behave when they come forward reflects on how they behave in general.”
After the meeting, Guridy said he has to make a judgment call when people ask questions. He said some questions are just argumentative and already have been answered many times by council.
Guridy said some of the people who come to council meetings “are purposely trying to disrespect us. They just want to argue. I’m not going to stand for that.”
After the meeting, Fegley said council seems to be saying: “Certain citizens that we find are troublesome -- or you’ve been here and we heard it before --we’re going to just tell you to sit down. Other citizens, we may respond to you.”