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Vote on Electronic Access of Lansdale Meeting Packets Gets Nasty

Lansdale council held a fiery debate over making council meeting packets available online prior to the meeting. One resident was called "a joke" by one councilman

If a scab is healed, don't repick it.

If the Administration and Finance Committee decided it doesn't want the meeting information packets given to council to be published online in advance of a meeting, don't bring it up again.

Councilman Steve Malagari learned that the hard way Wednesday night.

And Councilman Paul Clemente let one resident - Joe Cionzynski of Perkiomen Avenue - know exactly what he thought of him: he's a joke.

Last month,

Council voted for such an effort. , mainly because they would not be official documents until voted upon at a meeting.

On Wednesday night, Malagari brought up the old topic of electronic access to meeting packets and asked for a motion to provide the full meeting packets online in advance of a meeting.

"As residents of the Borough of Lansdale, we have the right to know where our money's going to through Right to Know laws that we all know about. As a resident and formerly a member of the audience, I know how difficult it is to follow along with these meetings with just an agenda and having no background information to reference," Malagari said. 

DiGregorio seconded the motion. A roll call vote was taken and the motion was defeated 6-3, with Malagari, Jack Hansen and DiGregorio voting for posting the materials online.

Prior to the vote, Dunigan spoke out on the issue.

He said the dilemma is none of the information would be public record; there's the threat of variability with public information and could differ from what the public sees online. Futhermore, it would take away borough staff time to rescan and upload all the information to the website.

"When you factor in additional time, the variability, the potential for tremendous amounts of downside, it encapsulates pretty much how we arrived at (our decision)," Dunigan said. "I don't think it's quite a great idea that everyone thinks it would be. There's no Panacea in it."

Panacea is an answer or solution for all problems or difficulties.

"All of these things are available via traditional Right to Know," Dunigan said.

Council President Matt West, who also sits on the administration and finance committee, said council members are elected to represent residents, look at information, ask questions and reveal those things as part of their actions.

" How many requests were made after we went through all of that? Zero," he said, adding that Hansen, who does request such minutes, isn't part of that tally. 

"All of those things went into that decision. We didn’t feel it was the right thing," West said.

Councilman Mike Sobel said nearly every meeting has had a late addition of information to the packets or there was a need for a review of an agenda item.

"You never know what can come up as an emergency situation that we need to deal with," he said. "There are a lot of reasons why it's not as feasible as people think it is."

Hansen said the borough could post the packet and add a disclaimer that it is not official until approved by council.  

"Yes," Hansen said, "there are countless hours in putting this together, but to post it on our site, I believe that wouldn’t be much more than a few keystrokes."

"I'm sorry," said borough manager Timi Kirchner. "That's not true."

Kirchner said every single piece of paper would need to be scanned and uploaded to the site, and would take up to five hours to do so. She reminded coucnil that administrative staff is very much focused on getting things ready for the business meeting, often up to the last minute.

"In my opinon, you don’t need to be distracted by having to then scan all of this and then upload it to the site," Kirchner said. "I am a strong believer of most things going on the site once they are official because they are indeed just that."

Resident Bob Willi asked how much it would cost borough staff to put it on the site. Kirchner said an estimate would need to be done, and that it would take away from other important duties.

"Steve, I'm sorry, I would say leave it as it is," Willi said. "We have the Right to Know. I've done it on occasion and I've never had a problem with it." 

Sobel reiterated that once a document is approved, it is public record and available under a Right to Know request.

"At a cost," Cionzynski said.

"That's the way it works," Sobel said.

Kirchner added that it costs money for the staff to scan all the documents and the taxpayers pay for that. 

Solicitor Mark Hosterman made it more clear: the only cost is in requests for copies. Any American citizen can view documents at no charge. 

Councilman Denton Burnell asked if there was anything legally prohibiting the borough from posting information prior to a meeting. Burnell assumed there would be exceptions, and he was right, according to Hosterman. 

"With some of it, there would be no prohibition of posting it prior to a meeting. Not every municipality does it. Some don't," he said. "It depends on the content."

Hosterman said that Lansdale's public meetings are big.

"A lot happens here. A lot more than other municipalities I am familiar with," he said.

Burnell said that defense was critical: there may be components of the packets that may not be for public consumption.

"There is time and effort, and consultation with our solicitor that would add cost, add time, add risk to that process, which is not worth it," Burnell said.

Clemente said the public is encouraged to participate in not just council meetings, but also committee meetings every month. It is those committee meetings where items are brought forward for recommendation to council and end up on the agenda. 

"It's much ado about nothing. Not in that sense, because it's not nothing, but we already have it in place," Clemente said.

Hosterman said there is a "bright line" after an action is taken whether it is appropriate or not for documents to be made public. 

DiGregorio said residents are talking about what the borough is spending in taxpayer money.

"We have bills over $1,000 (that we approve). There could be a million dollar bill that we see, but they have no idea," he said. "We have to be more uniform." 

West said it is the responsibility of a council member to explain an expenditure to a resident, should he or she have a question about it. 

Dunigan called the whole issue "a straw man argument."

"It’s a straw man argument to say that they don’t know what we are spending our money on," he said. "There's a financial report audited at the end of the year and a six-month budget process. People say, 'It’s the checks, the checks, the checks.' It's not the checks."

Dunigan emphasize the borough finance department's recent award for financial accouting and best practices as well.

"This to me is picking the same scab again. We picked the scab about verbatim minutes ad nauseum. The guy sitting in the audience whose biggest gripe is about verbatim minutes has asked for none," said Dunigan, referencing Cionzynski. "If 8,000 people are standing at the door saying 'Post that!' I'd have a different feeling."

Dunigan said people are trying to make something that doesn't exist.

"Quit! Stop rowing the canoe in the wrong direction just to row the canoe in the wrong direction. They have a term for that, it's called political hackery," Dunigan said. "Quit it. There's no reason for it." 

Mayor Andy Szekely said it comes down to diversity of opinion.

"That's what we're here for, to discuss those things," Szekely said. 

"I think the diversity of opinion is contrived," Dunigan said. "How's that?"

Malagari said it is good that the borough remains transparent. He said if anybody asked him for a public document after a vote, he would send it to them via email.

Cionzynski then threw more fuel into the fire. 

"I have repeatedly asked for the open transparent government that you campaigned on before you got elected and discontinued verbatim record of minutes. I have repeatedly asked for open transparency as to the bills that our taxpayer money is being spent on. We should not put hurdles in front of people to make them jump through hoops in order to get the information we are requesting," Cionzynski said.

He said former Councilman Mike Riccio voted against the approval of bills over $1,000 nearly every month prior to 2010. When he became a member of the group, Cionzynski said, he suddenly voted in favor of it. 

Cionzynski continued with his opinion that the version of meeting minutes now is

He said last month he spoke out on citizens' rights to appeal to elected officials. Cionzynski even handed out copies of the First Amendment to council members. He said his five-minute speech was condensed to one sentence in the minutes.

"Everyone will remember that except Mr. Clemente, who walked out on me while I was speaking and did not come back in until he saw I went back to my seat," Cionzynski said. 

Clemente fired back at Cionzynski, pointing at him and at one point standing up from his seat.

"Mr. Cionzynski, just because you have a right under our Constitution to speak freely, doesn’t mean I have to sit and listen to your vitriolic discourse," Clemente said. "I will get up and leave if I feel like you are being who you are in every single meeting."

"And by the way," Clemente continued, "I don’t recall you calling out your friend Mr. Hansen or Mr. DiGregorio for voting no on every bill over $1,000 for months since I got elected. Yet, they vote 'yes' and contradict themselves on major spending items, not the least of which was the hiring of additional police officers who keep us safe and who participated in the large drug bust."

"You sir are a joke," Clemente said to Cionzynski. "Go ahead and speak freely. I don’t have to listen to that."

Hansen said he was ashamed that Clemente would chastise a citizen who came out to speak. 

"Your behavior is unconscionable," Cionzynski said.

"Likewise," responded Clemente.

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ullneverfindme May 17, 2012 at 11:58 AM
In not sure why if someone is there taking these minutes word for word there would be a problem posting them. I scan documents all the times it takes seconds per page. Clemente...I'm embarrassed that I ha a hand in voting for you. That is NO way to treat a member of this community that is looking for any type of clarification. How would you you feel if every time you spoke everyone in the room got up and turned third backs or walked out. It seems quite childish. You are there to serve this community. I you no longer can handle the pressure of rightful questioning (no matter how annoyed you are by it) maybe you should step down or find another way to deal with it rather then throw a tantrum. I understand that its discouraging to ask a simple question to this borough and want a simple honest answer and not get it.
A lansdale resident May 17, 2012 at 01:58 PM
Paul I gave you my vote and I stand proud to say so. As you stand proud for what you know is right, know that I stand behind you!
Steven Long May 17, 2012 at 03:54 PM
Paul Clemente should be terminated for derogatory comments ... and just acting like an idiot! Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his position on the matter, there is NO REASON for him to be so ignorant towards a citizen! To castigate a citizen for merely asking a question, only to flex your muscle and THUMP them is arrogance at its finest. You, sir, are not fine!
Chauncy Gardiner May 17, 2012 at 06:47 PM
If I spent tax dollars like these nitwits I'd force boro residents to claw the gory details from Right to Know requests too.
Jeannette McGinley May 17, 2012 at 07:11 PM
Having information prior to a meeting allows a resident to research and be prepared for the topics at hand. If something else is added later I doubt this would overwhelm someone. It is better than receiving everything at once. Did I understand that minutes are not recorded? And questions are ignored?
Tony Di Domizio (Editor) May 17, 2012 at 09:00 PM
Jeannette - Minutes are recorded. Questions are not answered directly at the meetings.
Jeannette McGinley May 17, 2012 at 10:00 PM
Thank you Tony, Maybe the best alternative would be to take an electronic public consensus to see if there is a need to access packets prior to the meetings.
Robert Willi May 18, 2012 at 12:17 AM
My question to the people who are dissatisfied with Councilman Clemente, have any of you ever attended a Borough Meeting? You would see at times that members of the audience at times make comments and speak out of turn when Council is conducting business. While every resident has a right to speak, there is a time for that when it is the public comment segment of the meeting. When residents make personal attacks on certain Council Members during the public comment segment it certainly crosses the line where it fringes on defamation of character issues that leaves, I feel, the right of the Council Member to sue that resident. Do I agree what Council Member Clemente did? No. But at the same time I understand his frustration at the fact of being attacked by the same resident at every meeting. After all he is human despite the fact that we sometimes think otherwise.
Robert Willi May 18, 2012 at 12:22 AM
Let me rephrase the last part of my comment. What I meant to say is that our elected officials are human despite the fact that we sometimes forget that and hold them up to such a standard that when they make a mistake we are quick to past judgement. My apologies to Council Member Clemente for my comment .
Jeannette McGinley May 18, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Yes, there are issues that need to be addressed. Resolution if possible is more productive then thwarted meetings. Some Councilman want packets available on line. They were voted down. I personally never attended a meeting because it is not an open discussion. What would I contribute? Packets prior to the meeting may allow the meeting to flow easier. Lansdale is a great community. I am sorry for all the anxiety people are having.
ullneverfindme May 18, 2012 at 03:11 PM
I have attended many meetings and have felt attacked, put down, and less then worthy of any of some of their time. This was before the current council from what I see and hear its the same now for the residents. I have asked at meeting and via other more private avenues questions I have the right to know and new to know. Questions that can be simply answered and I get the run around. It's extremely frustrating to constantly feel like your being pushed aside or lied to. As I feel about actor and sports figures...all this comes with the job that you choose. Think wisely before you put yourself out there. There are better ways the Clemente could of handled this man. Be the better person not "stoop to his level" if he felt he was being disrespectful. He made himself look a bigger fool them any resident berating him.
Lee June 07, 2012 at 04:45 PM
Do not give up going to every meeting and bring your neighbors and friends. All town councils have been accustomed to working on their own, they do not like having dissent from their "plans". You showing up interferes with their "consensus". Just be honest, polite and persistant, even if they evade your questions. It takes a long time to get a response on the freedom of info act by the way and they know that. I'm sure most members are good, it is just that power can get clicky even at our local level. Good for the citizens!
Dean Martian August 20, 2012 at 11:46 PM
yes will maybe you should "conduct your business" in a manner that allows input from residents you are supposed to serve. if an agenda were provided to residents they could come prepared and council should have time alloted for 'resident concerns' before they turn their backs on the residents. you act like you are conducting business in a communistic way. i dont remember any commies on the ticket when i voted a year ago..?
John Galt October 16, 2012 at 11:58 PM
I completely agree Chassity. AND Paul Clemente doesn't even live in the borough anymore. He lives in Blue Bell. He is in debt up to his eyeballs. I find it disgusting at how he treats people in these meetings like they are all his plebs. What has he ever done to demand being treated like the king. UGH!

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