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Editor's Voice: It's the public's business

Posted 8/20/13

In Carlisle, they’re debating whether to keep or close the borough’s emergency dispatch center, and the debate should seem familiar to Middletown residents.

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Editor's Voice: It's the public's business

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Middletown closed its own emergency communications center last year to save money, a move by Borough Council that was heralded by some, abhorred by others. Supporters point out the tremendous savings to the borough – about $350,000 a year, the borough said – and the fact that telephone customers already are paying for Dauphin County’s 9-1-1 emergency dispatch center through taxes on cellphones and land lines.

Borough police rallied to keep the communications center, saying local dispatchers knew the borough best and were helpful in cutting down response times. Dispatchers also answered a bevy of questions and concerns from residents, ranging from the day trash would be picked up in their neighborhood to power outages to pothole complaints.

The arguments are the same in Carlisle. Closing the center, a move supported by the borough manager, would save about $224,000 a year. Cumberland County’s 9-1-1 system could handle all police calls. The borough’s police chief opposes the move, saying a borough-owned dispatch center could cut down on response time. The center’s dispatchers field a variety of questions from callers – and it also issues open burning permits and summons the dog control officer when needed.

But there is a difference in the debate in Carlisle and the debate in Middletown: In Carlisle, the debate is public. Public meetings have been held to gauge public response – the public, after all, owns the dispatch center, and who knows when someone might offer an idea that a council member or administrator hasn’t considered? “We also need the public to weigh in, too,’’ Don Grell, a member of a split Carlisle Borough Council, told Pennlive.com.

In Middletown, the fate of the borough communications center was determined without public meetings. A previous majority held a public hearing on the subject in 2011, with a blue-ribbon commission of councilors recommending keeping the center – with changes in its operation that would save money. Two members who voted to close the center in November sat on that commission – and said absolutely nothing during that hearing. We wonder: Why? Like other important issues, such as the de-funding of the Middletown Public Library, the closing of the center was moved from the floor at a council meeting last fall and brought to a vote. Seems a majority of determined councilors felt they didn’t need to hear suggestions from the public, or concerns – and they didn’t seem compelled to even give residents a chance to voice their opinion. They didn’t seem compelled to tell the public how they felt on the issue, either. Public office is not a place where you can hide – you’re going to have to reveal your opinion on issues that are important to the public.

It’s not that closing the communications center was a bad idea – whether you like it or not, the decision to go with the county’s dispatch center has merit, a way to save taxpayer money without significantly cutting services. So why cut the public out of the debate? It seems to be the way this council has chosen to operate. We don’t think that’s good governance.

Government in our democracy is supposed to be by the people and for the people. We doubt council – any council – will make a decision that is universally loved by the public. Still, we believe the public should not be shut out – it should be involved, particularly in the debate over the closing of such an asset as an emergency dispatch center. Middletown residents deserve the same chance on weighty borough matters that Carlisle’s council is giving its residents.{jcomments on}
 

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