NORRISTOWN — People sitting inside a board room on the eighth floor of One Montgomery Plaza could hear a pin drop as the Montgomery County Commissioners and a candidate engaged in a staring contest.
On one side of the room was Interim Solicitor Raymond McGarry, Montgomery County Commissioners’ Vice Chairwoman Jamila Winder, Chairman Ken Lawrence Jr., Commissioner Joe Gale, and Chief Operating Officer Lee Soltysiak. On the other side was Tom DiBello, a Limerick Township resident and Republican running for county commissioner.
He began his remarks at the podium expressing his opinions about new guidelines associated with updated public comment procedures introduced during Thursday’s meeting.
“What I’m surprised at is for a while now, probably months or a year, people have come and requested of this board to extend the comment period, and they’ve given valid reasons on why to extend the comment period and as commissioners as I sit here, or watch online most of the time, you give this stare, like you really don’t care, and you’re not really listening to the residents when they come in and talk about extending public comment,” DiBello said.
Montgomery County residents seeking to make public comment previously could do so in two-minute increments. There was a period for agenda-related public comment and general public comment. On Thursday, the meeting began with an announcement that new guidelines took effect that stipulated participants would receive three minutes in a singular public comment period where “all public comments must be relevant, or ‘germane’ to County business.”
On the July 20 agenda, several lines down from public comment section was a resolution up for vote amending the public comment guidelines.
With about 1:24 left of his remaining time, DiBello posed a question to the county’s top elected officials.
“What gives you the authority to change the process before you actually take a vote to change your process?” DiBello said.
DiBello paused. His question was met with silence. Seconds ticked by and no one uttered a word. After more than 30 seconds, DiBello spoke again.
“It’s really, really amazing, really amazing that you sit there, and decide not to answer a basic question, and maybe I’m wrong as far as the process of when you are supposed to change it, and you can’t even respond to that,” he said. “That is really appalling.”
As DiBello was wrapping up his remarks, McGarry could be heard saying “your time is up.”
Lawrence responded to the situation in an interview following the meeting.
“I think changing the guidelines will streamline it so it will help people understand the difference and I think three minute is an adequate amount of time to discuss it,” Lawrence said. “We’ve looked at other governing entities, and that’s the standard.”
When asked about the timeline of implementing the aforementioned guidelines prior to a vote, Lawrence said, “There’s a question whether we needed to vote on that or not. So we just voted on it to be sure …just to be diligent, we voted on it.”
Lawrence acknowledged DiBello’s presence, along with his running mate, Liz Ferry, who also serves on the Upper Dublin Township Board of Commissioners. DiBello and Ferry will face off against Winder and fellow Democratic candidate Neil Makhija for spots on the board in the general election this November.
“I don’t want the meetings to become political theater, which is why I wasn’t going to engage with candidates,” Lawrence said. Lawrence is not running for re-election, and Gale was knocked out of the running in the primary election.
Ferry spoke during public comment of her governing experiences and said “unlimited time” is given to constituents to participate in public comment at the suburban township meetings.
“To restore faith in government, we really believe at the local level, we should allow citizens to speak for really as long as they want within reason, and … the issues (that) concern them in their community, whether or not it’s on the agenda,” she said.
A handful of other area residents also expressed their frustrations with the guidelines.
“I am stunned,” said Abington resident Lora Lehmann.
“With all due respect to the two kings and a queen, your subjects have had it with your superfluous rules,” said New Hanover Township resident Barb Furman.
Ambler resident David Morgan called the move a “reduction in our freedom of speech,” and said he wanted the proposal to be tabled until the fall to allow the opportunity for more public input.
Ultimately, the public comment guidelines were amended in a 2-1 vote. Lawrence and Winder voted in favor, while Gale opposed it.
“I’ve opposed all the public comment guidelines put forward by the board, and I have a very simple approach when I first took office there was no limit to public comment,” Gale said. “I think that we owe that to the public if someone takes the time to travel to Norristown to attend our board meetings, to log onto Zoom, to participate virtually, we should not limit their participation and cut off their time.”
However, Gale went on to say the chairman and solicitor should be able to use their discretion to ask residents to “wrap up their comments” in several scenarios pertaining to “times exceeding an unreasonable limit,” if the comments have “absolutely nothing to do with county government” or there’s some sort of disruption where “things go off the rails.”
The next Montgomery County Board of Commissioners meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Aug. 17 on the eighth floor of One Montgomery Plaza, 425 Swede St., Norristown. Those interested in attending can also do so virtually. Visit montgomerycountypa.gov for more information.