Written by Dan Miller
In his invocation before a Middletown Borough Council meeting on Monday, April 6, Pastor Jerry Cowan of the Valley Baptist Church asked for “the wisdom of Solomon” to be granted to council in making its decisions.
However, what unfolded over the next hour was closer to the chaos of the Tower of Babel.
Council had six items on its agenda for the meeting, including a resolution so the borough could apply for a state grant to fix up Kids Kastle in Hoffer Park. But that wasn’t acted upon or even considered, nor were any of the other items.
Instead, council President Chris McNamara adjourned the meeting during a public comment period that was especially contentious, even by Middletown standards.
Afterward, McNamara said council could take up the items during its next meeting on Monday, April 20. The meeting began cordially enough, with Councilor Mike Bowman presenting a proclamation to a woman representing the Odd Fellows to recognize the work the group has done to renovate its building across from Borough Hall.
The public comment period began with Cathy Winter raising concerns about the borough’s Web site. McNamara told her that public comment was to be restricted to items on the agenda. “The borough manager [Tim Konek]doesn’t give out information, so this is the only place in which I can ask questions,” Winter responded.
Mayor James H. Curry III noted that the code of conduct recently passed by council did not require residents limit their comments to agenda items, only that they be “encouraged” to do so. That led to a motion from Councilor Ben Kapenstein to open the public comment period to topics “for the good of the community.”
That motion passed, with McNamara among those voting yes. That’s what put in motion the actions that led McNamara to adjourn the meeting, he said afterward.
Following Winters, a succession of speakers addressed council on a wide range of matters, most of which were not specifically related to the items on council’s agenda.
Four of the speakers were council candidates on the spring primary ballot – Dawn Knull, Greg Wilsbach, Sean Vaccarino and Rachelle Reid.
Knull criticized the borough for not using Nixle to inform residents of the power outages that occurred over the past weekend. Wilsbach spoke of his frustration over how long it was taking the borough to act on his request to combine two of his properties into one. Vaccarino talked about the election.
Reid brought up what she referred to as personal attacks made against her by fellow Republican committee members.
After making her comments, Reid appeared to get into an argument with someone else in the audience. McNamara requested that Police Chief John Bey, who was in the audience, speak to Reid.
At the time, Wilsbach was making additional public comments. He turned around to see what was going on with Reid and Bey, and then said in an apparent joke, “I was just making sure she wasn’t getting beat up back there.”
Bowman didn’t take it that way, and lashed out at Wilsbach.
At that point the meeting seemed to be teetering on the edge of being out of control. McNamara called for a motion to adjourn the meeting, which was seconded. “Enjoy yourselves,” McNamara was heard to say to the residents in the audience, many of whom were stunned at the outcome.
“The cowards canceled the meeting because they can’t take the heat,” said Councilor Scott Sites, who in recent months has called for several votes seeking McNamara’s removal as president. “This is the first time that this has ever happened. They adjourned the meeting because they are intimidated by the citizens of the town. This is not how you operate in a democracy. A democracy does not not cancel a meeting and prohibit citizens from speaking.”
McNamara said he could not invoke council’s newly-ratified code of conduct for meetings because of council’s decision to open up the public comment period to essentially anything under the sun. Asked later where things go from here, McNamara told reporters he could not even guarantee that council will be able to take up the items at its next meeting.
“They’ll amend the agenda and they’ll put another public comment session in there, and we’ll have another go around of the same thing that you witnessed tonight,’’ he said. “It will continue because that is the only thing they can do. What they don’t realize is they are ruining the town. They are not ruining me, it’s not affecting me. They are ruining the town.”
But in the parking lot just outside Borough Hall, Curry and Kapenstein stood among a group of residents who said that the fiasco was another example of a borough government leadership – starting with McNamara – that refuses to provide information to residents and those in the council minority such as Kapenstein.
Kapenstein, who chairs council’s finance committee, said that for more than a year he has been trying to get the borough to provide him and other council members with expense reports of bills paid over the previous month. The borough has provided these reports on just two occasions and never on a regular basis, he said.
A March 16 vote by council to approve $43,000 in work to the Oak Hills baseball field was another glaring example of the borough’s refusal to clue council members in on what is going on, Kapenstein said. He was among those who voted against the measure, saying that council had been given no information on the project other than a brief summary Konek provided at the beginning of the meeting. “What you are seeing is a product of utter frustration on the part of the residents,” Curry said of what transpired during the meeting.
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