Council chooses to change process for approving amendments to ordinances

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At its meeting this evening, O’Hara Township Council adopted an ordinance to remove the Guyasuta Volunteer Fire Department as an emergency service provider to the Township of O’Hara.

As many of you who read this blog are aware, this is the culmination of a discussion that has been going on since June 7, when John Denny introduced a resolution to suspend the Guyasuta VFD for 90 days.  That suspension period expired September 7, and at the Sept 7 meeting, the Council had a first reading of B-50-2011, and ordinance to remove Guyasuta as an emergency provider. As usual text of the ordinance was not available to the public at the meeting.  That text was not posted on the Township web site until Friday, September 10, the same time as the agenda for tonight’s meeting was posted.  And that agenda included a surprising item:  a second reading and adoption vote on the same ordinance.

I say “surprising” because there were three things out of the ordinary about the process.  First, it is our custom in the Township that the second reading of an ordinance occurs at least three weeks after the first reading.  In the two and a half years that I have been attending Council meetings regularly, I cannot recall a situation where a “first reading” occurred at the first meeting of the month and a “second reading and adoption” the following week.  Second, it is our custom in the Township to hold a public hearing on ordinances.  No public meeting was announced or held for B-50-2011.  I noticed this and came to the mic this evening to ask why there was no public hearing. The Township’s lawyer replied that there was no requirement for a public hearing on this ordinance because it was “an amendment to an existing ordinance.”  That may be true, but this was definitely not noted on the agenda nor anywhere else that I’m aware of except in the text of B-50-2011 which (as usual) was not available to residents at the meeting.

In fact the statement that we don’t do public hearings for amendments to ordinances is demonstrably untrue. At the August 9 Council Meeting, there was a public hearing for B-42-2011 “to receive public comments regarding Amendments to Township Grading, Excavating and Fill Ordinance No. 674 of 1978.”  This was clearly a public hearing about amending an existing ordinance, and as it turned out, the ordinance was significantly flawed:  as written it would have required residents to obtain permits if they wished to dig a hole for a bush in their own backyards. It passed anyway, and I was told that the wording was changed, but since it is not available on the Township web site — the link to it comes up “Page not found” as of this writing — I can’t verify that.  But it is clear from this one recent incident that we DO hold public hearings for ordinance amendments even when they’re about digging holes in our backyards, so I cannot understand why we did not hold one for an ordinance that affects the safety of Township residents.

Finally, the text of B-50-2011 was not posted on the web site until Friday, September 10. It is generally the custom of the Township to post proposed ordinances the morning after they are introduced for the first reading.

My conclusion is that the adoption of B-50-2011 was highly irregular at best, and secretive with an intent to avoid public attention at worst.  It is an unfortunate example of the kind of behavior that I’ve been noticing for many years, and writing about here over the last six months.  The Council seems to feel that public input is a messy inconvenience, that the voices of residents are unimportant, and that the Council should be able to execute its agenda without such annoying interference.

You’ll note that I’m not saying here whether I think that Guyasuta VFD should or should not have been removed.  The fact of the matter is that there have been management issues in the VFD that were causing Council and the other VFD’s great concern. The Guyasuta VFD also did a poor job of responding to the Council’s surprising passage of the resolution to suspend them for 90 days.  It wasn’t until last night that the individuals involved took substantive action in the face of the upcoming vote.  Council and Township management also took actions and maintained attitudes that certainly did not help the GVFD move quickly in a direction that could address the problems with the relationship between the Township and the Department.  And tonight Council voted in a way that (despite their words to the contrary) pretty much ensures that the Guyasuta Volunteer Fire Department has responded to its last emergency call.  The argument that this crisis had been fourteen years in the making really holds no water with me:  if problems had already been going on for fourteen years, now that the main source of the problems has been removed (as Council was assured they had been), I can see no reason not to postpone the vote a month and hold a proper public hearing that would discuss the issues out where residents could understand them clearly.

In any case, no matter what the “rightness” of the Council’s position on this particular issue, there is no excuse for changing the process of review and public hearing simply because it seems expedient. Every ordinance needs to be treated exactly the same way, even if the law permits otherwise.  This enters into the realm of “ethical decision making” in my book:  to paraphrase Emerson, “a foolish consistency” may be “the hobgoblin of little minds,” but a lack of consistency may be the first visible evidence of an organization that is ethically challenged.

My suggestion would be that anyone who agrees should be showing up regularly at Council sessions to listen to the discussion, become familiar with the issues, and ultimately have a positive impact on our community.  The calendar’s over there to the right of this posting, so feel free to subscribe to it and show up at least once a month.

There was more at this meeting, but I’ll cover it in a second posting tomorrow.

About Cindy

Internet consultant, musician, wife, mother, candidate for Township Council. Encouraging residents to pay attention to what's happening in their backyards.