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Deliberations on crematory should have been public

The Middletown Zoning Hearing Board plans to meet Tuesday, July 26, and vote on whether a proposed crematory in the borough will be allowed to move forward.

But despite all the opposition to the proposal, don’t expect a long, drawn-out fight that night at 6:30 p.m. before the vote is taken. In fact, it could be a very short session.

As you can read about on the front page of today’s Press And Journal, deliberations are finished on the proposed crematory behind Fager-Finkenbinder Funeral Home on North Union Street. Chairman Jack Still and board member Don Graham met on the morning of July 13 and talked about the issue (the third member is Tom Germak, who recused himself from participating). The two couldn’t officially vote July 13. That must be done in public. But the deliberations were private, without public knowledge of them happening until they were over.

Still said in an emailed statement to the Press And Journal when asked about the issue: “A zoning hearing board in Pennsylvania is a quasi-judicial body. Some matters before a zoning hearing board may be charged with emotion that courts recognized deliberations of a ZHB in executive session is desirable.” He is right. Unfortunately for the public, this is all quite permissible under Pennsylvania law. The zoning hearing board is a quasi-judicial body, according to Melissa Melewsky, the media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. That status allows it to deliberate in private, closed session, much like judges do. But it’s certainly not a requirement that they do so.

In this case, we don’t believe the board’s private deliberations were in the public’s best interest. On an issue as divisive as this has been and promises to be, the public should have been privy to the discussions of the board. The borough is facing several big issues at the moment — what to do with the Elks Theatre, how parking and other codes should be enforced — but the only issue on which you can find dozens of signs in residents’ yards is on the crematory. Opposition to it is that strong.

So why not let residents continue to be a part of the process and make the discussion public?

We aren’t suggesting anything untoward happened during the deliberation. However, it would have benefited the community to hear the reasoning of the two members in the discussion.

As defenders of the First Amendment, the right to public records and open meetings, we believe that the public always should have the right to be involved and that all meetings should be open unless there is a good reason otherwise. That usually involves personnel or negotiations.

Unfortunately, this zoning board goes into closed session with regularity to discuss even mundane matters, because it can. It probably never crossed the members’ minds to handle the crematory discussion any other way. We doubt any public body, if given the opportunity, would reject the chance to deliberate and discuss tough issues in private, so that there is less of a chance to be pilloried by the public.

So let’s be clear: This is a failure of Pennsylvania law, not of the zoning board. The board isn’t doing anything wrong, because it does not need a reason to go into closed session. We live in a state that allows such private deliberations to happen. Few other states do.

The public will get to hear the board’s reasoning eventually. It has to issue a written statement within about a month of the meeting. But that’s not the same as hearing the discussions firsthand.

There is little chance the laws will change, and that’s a shame for us and all Pennsylvanians.

Just because a zoning board can deliberate in private doesn’t mean it should.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 July 2016 15:30

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Council reversal on square shows willingness to listen

Well, we didn’t see that coming.

On July 5, the Middletown Borough Council backtracked quickly from its June 21 decision to spend $18,600 to come up with a plan for improvements to the town square at Main and Union streets.

While as a rule we support efforts to improve the borough, we agree with those who question whether the timing is right, what with another chunk of Union Street already closed down just a few blocks to the south.

We are also impressed with the willingness of the council to change course. It wasn’t too long ago this type of action would never have happened, the result of which were boisterous and unruly meetings that usually ended in confusion and chaos.

Since the June 21 vote, “I’ve heard a lot of talk that people don’t want this done,” Council President Ben Kapenstein said at the July 5 meeting, referring to the proposed square improvements. “I feel like people have changed their minds a little bit.”

That’s all well and good. We appreciate the responsiveness.

One problem, however: There is no guarantee that the borough can avoid paying the entire $18,600 to HRG, the Harrisburg-based engineering firm that completed the study. HRG did not return a call to the Press And Journal seeking comment.

The borough has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of late with HRG, including the work going on along Union Street. We hope that HRG will take that into consideration when deciding whether to make the borough pay the $18,600. The borough should respectfully ask HRG to shelve the preliminary work on the square for another day.

If the borough is on the hook for that amount, however, there will be decisions to be made.

The lesson learned, of course, is that the temperature of the residents should be known before a vote is taken, not after. It’s not always easy to do, but it should be the goal. That requires effort not only on the part of the council, but we, the citizens and businesses, as well, to be engaged in the process. 

Now that the council shows that it is listening, there is more reason to be engaged.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 12 July 2016 16:11

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Police could use your support, and here's a way to start

Word on the street is that National Night Out in Middletown is running short of volunteers this year.

If there was ever a time when police need to know they have the support of the local community, this is it.

We awoke Friday morning to the news that five police officers had been shot dead and seven others wounded in Dallas by a man who was allegedly upset over recent police shootings of black men.

In these days of increased public scrutiny with everyone armed with a smartphone camera, it isn’t difficult to understand why fewer people would be interested in wearing a badge. 

That's the take of both Middletown Police Chief John Bey and Swatara Twp. Police Chief Jason Umberger, as expressed in a front page article in last week's Press And Journal about why just one qualified candidate applied for a new full-time position in the Middletown Police Department paying $55,000 a year. Hats off to that guy, by the way.

Some municipalities in our area have fared better, as the article pointed out. But in an atmosphere like what we have in our country today, you have to wonder why any reasonable person would want to be a police officer. Would you want your son or daughter to enter such a profession in a time like this?

So what do we do if this continues? What happens when nobody wants to be a police officer? Do we draft people and force them into the job? Do you really want to see how that plays out?

Mistakes have been made by police officers. Cops are only human, like the rest of us. 

But there are also officers who have been cleared of wrongdoing in deadly force incidents in multiple court venues, both criminal and civil.

If people choose not to accept the conclusions of our criminal justice system, what does that say about where we are heading as a society? 

There is a case to be made for changes and reforms to correct what is wrong. We need to give that process a chance. That's what living in a society governed by the rule of law is all about.

In the meantime, the people of Middletown need to step up and show support for our police officers. Think of all the things that police do in this town. Think of the drug dealers taken off the street who would otherwise be killing our kids - be they young or old.

If that's not good enough, remember the Middletown police officers who went running into the Pineford apartment complex a few short months ago to save residents from a fire. For that alone borough police deserve the gratitude of every man woman and child who calls Middletown home.

So get involved in National Night Out. If you live in Middletown, give volunteer coordinator Jenny Miller a call at 717-574-6716 or contact Officer Gary Rux at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to see how you can help. Get your kids involved. Make it a family affair. Make it fun.

If you don't live in Middletown, support National Night Out in your community. Most every town and township has some kind of event. 

Let your local police know you have their back. They have yours.

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 13 July 2016 11:25

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Consider how much public funding the Elks Theatre is worth

The words from Middletown Borough Council member Ian Reddinger regarding the Elks Theatre might have jarred you when you read them on the front page of the Press And Journal on June 29. And while we don’t support his entire philosophy about what to do with the landmark, we respectfully ask you not to dismiss his comments as being too far-fetched.

Yes, Reddinger is a newcomer to the council. Yes, he’s only 28 years old. But he also represents a segment of the population that does not watch movies in theaters, and that doesn’t romanticize the benefits of saving historic structures.

He was blunt, calling it “a horrible investment. You will never get your money back on a one-screen theater, period. You won’t. I wouldn’t put my money in it so I wouldn’t put taxpayers’ money into it.”

He continued: “What happens when the generation that grew up with that movie theater and has those memories - what happens when that generation is not with us anymore?” he asked. “Now you have a one-screen movie theater with maybe half a million invested in it that is just sitting there. It’s time for new generations to create new history and new memories down there. We can’t be stuck in the past.”

Reddinger makes some points worthy of thoughtful and respectable discussion. If the Elks Theatre’s future is tied only to showing movies, then it might not have much of a future. Many young people want bells and whistles when they go to see a movie, in a big megaplex with recliner chairs. They aren’t going to be drawn to the “good ol’ days” of a downtown theater.

A proposal by the Friends of the Elks, a nonprofit organization, calls for the borough to invest in improvements to allow the Elks to also be a venue for plays, dance recitals, fundraisers and concerts. That would seem to be a worthwhile proposition - preserving the past while embarking on new uses.

But is that enough?

Reddinger suggests something that we believe has merit for discussion: Selling the building to the Friends group for $1. It’s a plan that Gordon Einhorn, a member of the Friends of the Elks board of directors, said the group opposes.

We don’t want to make this an argument about big government vs. private enterprise, but at its core, the question is this: Do you want the borough spending your tax dollars to renovate a landmark that might or might not be capable of being saved? Or is that something private investors or nonprofit groups such as the Friends of the Elks should control?

While it goes without saying, it bears recognition that ownership of the theater by the Friends places sole responsibility on them to find funding for it in order to ensure its success. If the borough owns it, that is a gigantic safety net for the group.

The Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority, which owns the Elks Theatre, has had before it since August 2015 a proposal from the Friends group to lease the theater for 10 years. The authority has yet to take action on it. It should, one way or the other.

Fortunately, you have your chance to express your feelings on the topic. A special public meeting to find out what borough residents want to see done with the theater will be held in council’s chambers at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 21.

Consider these things: Is the Elks Theatre, with its 115-year history, which its website touted as the “second longest continuously operating cinema in the United States,” worth your tax dollars to save?

Also: Do you see yourself attending events at the theater, regardless of who owns it? We think the theater should have every chance at success. But Reddinger’s comments certainly stir the pot for both residents and officials to consider: “Let them (the Friends group) find their own financing, let them come up with their own money and let them do whatever they want with the building. If they fail, they fail. They don’t take the borough down with them. They don’t take the taxpayers down with them.”

Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 July 2016 16:44

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