I mentioned in passing my last posting that the Council approved minutes from last month’s meetings on Tuesday night. One set of minutes* approved was of the public hearing on Bill B8-2011, An Ordinance Amending the Zoning Ordinance To Regulate Gas Resources Development. That’s kind of an obscure title, and since there was only minimal public notice given that the bill was under consideration, you might not realize that this was the public hearing on O’Hara’s very own version of a Marcellus Shale drilling ordinance. There were three residents present for the hearing: myself, and two other regular attendees. Oh, and a troupe of Boy Scouts who came to satisfy the requirements for their communications badges. The hearing lasted less than 10 minutes. There was only one member of the public who spoke: me. All I wanted to know was what the reasoning was behind Council’s decision to permit drilling as a conditional use in residential zones. Yes, that’s right: the ordinance authorizes drilling as a conditional use in R1, R2 and the Suburban Manufacturing zones. I received no real response other than “It seems like we need to let people do what they want with their property.”
After the hearing closed, the Council went immediately into its regular meeting. During that meeting, and with no discussion, they approved B8-2011 unanimously, so it’s now part of our zoning ordinance. That was the second reading, by the way. The first reading took place in February. There were only two of us there to hear it. It passed unanimously (with no substantive discussion) at that meeting also. And of course no member of the public had access to the text of the proposed ordinance during that meeting: the Council does not release the text of proposed ordinances until AFTER the first reading. Yes, that’s right: our Council habitually approves ordinances that no member of the public has had a chance to review. There are no copies available at Council meetings.
Now let me make something clear: I’m not taking a position here on whether the gas development ordinance itself is “good” or “bad.” There are many reasons why we SHOULD have an ordinance regulating gas drilling in the Township. In the last 18 months, communities that did not have any such ordinance have found that gas development is causing serious problems over which they have no control. This past week alone the Post-Gazette reported that Ben Avon and Emsworth voted not to approve a lease signed by the Avonworth Municipal Authority to permit drilling under ACORD Municipal Park. The City of Pittsburgh has approved an ordinance prohibiting all gas development. Harmar, South Fayette, Cranberry and many other communities are considering or have considered ordinances. The difference between O’Hara and most of these communities is that in O’Hara, the lack of publicity about upcoming Council action led to no significant public participation. Almost every other community had a least a modicum of healthy discussion and sometimes debate about the issues before an ordinance was approved, and in some cases the public hearing raised public concerns that caused a final vote to be postponed so that the proposed ordinance could be reviewed and revised.
So here’s my suggestion. Read the ordinance. Read up on Marcellus Shale issues. Decide for yourself whether you think the ordinance is appropriate for our Township. And if you don’t think it is appropriate, come out to the regular Township Council meeting on May 3 at 7pm at the Township building. It won’t be on the agenda (we actually don’t have an available agenda yet so there’s no way to know what WILL be on the agenda), but the agenda always includes an opportunity for public comment on “non-agenda items.” Step up to the mic, give your name and address, and tell your Council what you think.
If you can’t make it to the regular Council meeting on May 3, there’s another one on May 10. Come anytime. Hear what’s going on. Encourage your Council to do a much better job publicizing their business. Encourage them to make all documents to be discussed in public at every meeting available to the public at LEAST at the meeting if not on the Township web site before the meeting. No more “first readings” of any ordinance with no intelligent discussion. No more “public hearings” that last only 5 minutes because no one knows they’re scheduled. No more of Council declining to explain their thinking on issues because their lawyers tell them “it’s not required.”
Every Council member needs to be accountable in public to every one of the residents in his or her district (or at large). The Council responds to people who show up, so if no one shows up, there is no pressure to be accountable. That’s why I’m writing this blog and running a Council campaign: I want to see us develop into a community that engages in intelligent discussion about major issues. If I can manage to make it to more than 80% of the Council meetings just to hear what’s going on, I’m hopeful that many of you can find time to make it to at least three or four meetings a year and become comfortable with the process of citizen participation.
Hope to see you on May 3 right at 7pm! Citizen comments are often first on the agenda…
* I can’t find minutes available on the Township’s web site since the re-design. If anyone knows where they are, please drop me a note and I’ll link them here.