You are my sunshine: Why open government matters to West Mayfield

As the Beaver County Times continues to challenge county government and other public officials and agencies for greater access to public information, we are reminded of Patrick Henry’s words: “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”

While BCT editor Shane Fitzgerald praises the Commonwealth’s overall commitment to open government, he points out (with legal action sometimes) that many local public officials seem to have not gotten the memo.  Perhaps they just don’t care or know about their legal obligation towards ensuring the public’s right to know.  Who is to say?  The results are the same.

We, the people, recognize—and rightfully fume—at unwarranted government secrecy; it’s simmering and serious tyranny against us.

Every citizen should understand the limits of government secrecy and the laws that protect them from being shut out of political and legal decision making processes.  Thankfully, there are abundant educational resources available to citizens regarding our open government statutes.  The PA Freedom of Information Coalition is a good source of information, and so are the Office of Open Records and the PA Open Government Guide from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.  The Beaver County Times is a good source of information, too.  Just pick up the phone and call Shane Fitzgerald (724-775-3200).

But what are the greatest threats to open government facing West Mayfield residents?  (These might be the kind of issues that prompt a phone call from the Beaver County Times).  Here are the top three:

  • Secret Meetings.  Borough officials must make their meetings (including planning and decision-making sessions) open to the public.   The law states that official action and deliberations (discussions) by a quorum of the members of an agency (at least 4 members of council) shall take place at a meeting open to the public.  In all meetings of agencies, the vote of each member who actually votes on any resolution, rule, order, regulation, ordinance or the setting of official policy must be publicly cast and, in the case of roll call votes, recorded.
  • Abuse of Executive Session.  Borough officials must have a legitimate, legally-acceptable reason to conduct business in executive session. While the session proceedings may remain confidential, the reason (or subject), of course, must be made known to the public and documented in the official meeting minutes.  PA Courts have ruled that “an agency must give the reason for adjourning into executive session prior to holding the closed door meering so that the public knows why the meeting is closed.  “Personnel issue” or other such vague reasons for executive session are not sufficient; more details must be provided and stated in the minutes.
  • Lack of Records.  Borough officials are responsible for providing a written account of public meetings—called meeting minutes.  Such information must be sufficiently, accurately, and truthfully recorded, kept on file, and made available to the public upon request.

Of course, the greatest threat to government openness—known even to the founders of democracy–is an apathetic citizenry.  As Plato said, “The price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”   Good and honest government in West Mayfield will exist to the degree its citizens are not indifferent to–and insistent upon–open government.

Post Script:

Thomas Jefferson would agree; in a democracy the Press has a duty to reveal and question the workings of government.  Sometimes, a little force is necessary, as when the Beaver County Times recently filed a criminal complaint against county commissioners–a warning to all elected officials that open government will not be denied.

 

Why Act 13 Matters to West Mayfield

Fracking Wastewater Pit

It was a close call for local democracy and the rights of West Mayfield residents, but the game ain’t over . . .

As the search for natural gas and fracking activity increases throughout the region, Beaver County, and surrounding municipalities, the residents of West Mayfield have already been adversely affected.  It has been well documented that fracking wastewater has already contaminated our drinking water supply sourced from the Beaver River.

Environmental advocates say that we’ve only begun to see the negative impacts of local gas drilling, thanks to less than adequate federal and state regulations.  In her article, In Split Estate: How Fracking Takes Land Away From Its Owners, Rachael Cernansky explains that oil and gas companies enjoy significant exemptions from the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Conservation and Recovery Act, and “because of loopholes in the Clean Air Act, oil and gas wells are not subject to restrictions on hazardous air pollutants.”

How adequately Pennsylvania regulates the gas industry and its pollution is highly controversial as well.  Environmental advocates have long complained that the Republican governor and Republican-controlled state legislature have too willingly protected the interests of drillers over the well-being and rights of citizens, communities, and local municipalities.

ACT 13

Perhaps no better example of this is Act 13, a controversial 2012 state law that restricted local governments’ ability to control zoning in relation to the oil and gas drilling industry.  Act 13 established an impact fee for each well drilled, and it set state standards for the minimum distance between wells and streams, schools, buildings and water sources.

Act 13’s most controversial component stripped local governments of their authority to have a say in where companies may place rigs, waste pits, pipelines, compressor, and processing stations.

The Republican sponsored legislation allowed the gas industry to supersede the will of the people in communities all across the Commonwealth.  Act 13 gave drilling corporations the right to disregard any and all local zoning, including safeguards for residential neighborhoods.

If a local government passes ordinances and regulations that go beyond the new state standards, the Public Utility Commission would bar the municipality from receiving any impact fee money.

PA SUPREME COURT STEPS IN

But on December 19, 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down portions of Act 13 that stripped local governments of their authority to decide where the natural gas industry can operate in disregard of local governments and communities.

Political leaders pleased with the decision made their voices known.  State Sen. Matt Smith (D) said, “The state should not restrict local governments’ ability to distinguish residential neighborhoods from heavy industrial activity. In fact, it is one of the main purposes of local government in the first place.”

State Rep. Jesse White (D):

Today’s ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is a historic victory at a critical moment for the people of Pennsylvania.  By affirming every Pennsylvanian’s constitutional right to clean air and clean water and upholding the right of local communities to govern themselves when it comes to certain aspects of natural gas development, a clear message has been sent to Governor Corbett and his friends in the energy industry: our fundamental constitutional principles cannot be auctioned off to wealthy special interests in exchange for campaign dollars . . . Eliminating local ordinances and replacing them with a ridiculously low standard of protections, like allowing drilling in residential neighborhoods and next to schools and churches, is not constitutional, not an environmental best practice, nor is it the proper way to do business in Pennsylvania.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo (D):

I have vehemently opposed Act 13 since its inception; in particular, taking away the sovereignty of local municipalities to choose the best options for their own homes and neighbors near gas drilling sites.  Every day it seems that we hear a new report about something gone wrong at a drilling site or on the roads traveled by trucks related to the industry, and at the same time we must tolerate an ineffectual Department of Environmental Protection that coddles the fracking companies rather than providing the needed oversight to protect our citizens and environment . . . Local governments are on the front lines and are now our best hope of providing this necessary oversight by using local zoning codes to properly locate drilling activity away from populated areas or drinking water.

There are eleven gas wells in Beaver County.  Although no drilling rigs are directly within or near the borough, such mining activity is all around us—and expanding and potentially closing in on West Mayfield.  In fact, the borough has  already been approached by mining companies to discuss possible drilling activity.

As local mining activity increases and spreads out above and below the surface, mining companies will require greater operating space, including expanded locations for the storage of contaminated equipment, toxic chemicals, polluted water and other waste. Additionally, mining related transportation activity will increase, negatively impacting the condition of roads and bridges.

Act 13 was designed by the gas industry and leading state Republicans to usurp the long held power of local governments to establish zoning laws, as the state constitution allows.  Under Act 13’s (un-constitutional) authority, West Mayfield Borough and surrounding municipalities would not have had the authority to regulate or block such activity within their borders.

Those days are over and local authority is restored.

FRACKING NEAR YOU

Now that the oil and gas industry can no longer set up shop where ever it wants, it is free to to operate where ever it can.  With acres of abandoned industrial space where the old Babcock & Wilcox steel mill used to stand, West Mayfield Borough is prime real estate for mining companies looking to expand their ancillary operations in north-central Beaver County.  The borough is close to the I-376 and I-76 transportation routes, a rail line, and the Beaver River–all attractive assets once used by the steel industry.  Furthermore, West Mayfield is situated in the relatively rural upper part of the valley–probably a nice, quiet place to be for a controversial activity.

If industry growth projections are accurate, it may be a matter of time before the oil and gas industry recognizes the value of West Mayfield and comes knocking on our door, looking to set up shop.

Now that the PA Supreme Court has restored gas industry zoning authority to municipalities, West Mayfield residents are empowered through their government to decide if they want the fracking industry in their back yard.

A Citizen’s Guide to Addressing West Mayfield Council

Take the Right Action

Citizens often come to borough council meetings with a variety of complaints, such as potholes, the condition of their neighbor’s yard, barking dogs, or speeding traffic.  Frankly, it doesn’t matter what the issues are, citizens have the right to address council and to have their voices heard.  But what happens after that is another story.

The most commonly heard complaint from citizens is that “council won’t do anything” to solve their problems.  Of course, there are legitimate reasons why council does not remedy every complaint, solve every issue, or quiet every crisis.  Civic issues can be very complicated, fraught with legal, economic, environmental, social, and political challenges.  Budget restraints and personnel shortages are frequent reasons for government inaction.  Lack of authority is another reason.

Nevertheless, citizens should not be deterred from calling upon their government to do its duty and manage the people’s business effectively and fairly.

But how is this done at the grassroots level of local government?

Here’s How

Let’s get this straight.  Backfence complaining and closed-door grumbling are not going to solve any problem, so the first step is to formally bring an issue before council.

The following is an informative and helpful guide for West Mayfield residents or other citizens who want to engage our local government:

  • Council meetings are open to the public, meaning that anyone can attend.
  • The president of council–not the mayor–runs the legally required monthly meetings, which are held on the 2nd Thursday of each month and promptly start at 6:30pm.
  • The president opens the floor to citizens early in the proceeding, so it is important that citizens be on time.  When called upon by the president, citizens may address council on a first come basis.  Currently, citizens may address council at the direction of the president, that is, there is no official time limit or other rules in place regulating the citizens’ forum.  Citizens are free to come and go as they please.
  • The borough secretary (currently Pat Lansberry) is legally bound to record and maintain official meeting minutes.  Although written minutes are available upon request, citizens have the right to record the public meeting via audio or video device.
  • Citizens addressing council are expected to state their name and address for the record.   Citizens are expected to follow typical norms of public speaking, including refraining from using profanity or obscene language, and making libelous and defamatory remarks about others.
  • Citizens have the right to address council about any issue; however, council’s authority to address or act upon an issue is limited by borough ordinances, the Pennsylvania Borough Code, and state statues.   Council cannot mediate issues between private parties, nor can it control or regulate private property except as permitted by ordinance or law.   However, council does have the authority to create ordinances, as well as amend, repeal or revise existing ordinances as prescribed by law.
  • Council members cannot act as police officers.  When laws are broken, including infractions upon ordinances, the Beaver Falls Police Department should be notified.
  • As in any representative democracy, it is incumbent upon citizens to convince the majority of their representatives (see below) to support their cause.  In West Mayfield Borough, it takes four or more members of council to prevail on the side of any issue—that’s the process.
  • Citizens who can effectively demonstrate popular support for their issue by way of phone calls, letters, petitions, and mass attendance at meetings are more likely to prevail.

A realistic understanding of how local government works can go a long way in preventing despair and frustration among citizens.   To learn more about how our local government functions, we encourage every resident to read the borough website and to regularly attend council meetings.