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Middletown Borough Council votes to return to meeting in person, with 'normalcy' in mind

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Middletown Borough Council voted 5-2 during its May 19 meeting to resume holding public in-person meetings, starting with the June 3 meeting to be held in the large MCSO Building next to the Municipal Building on West Emaus Street.

Council Vice President Ian Reddinger made the motion, saying it is time to “get back to some sense of normalcy.”

Reddinger said the June 3 meeting in the MCSO meeting would be done according to guidelines being put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He envisions councilors, borough staff members and anyone with the public who would attend all sitting 6 feet apart to maintain social distancing.

If the guidelines call for everyone attending to wear a mask, Reddinger said he is OK with that too.

“Whatever it takes we have to do, to be safe,” Reddinger told the Press & Journal in a follow up phone interview Wednesday.

The MCSO is a gym with a basketball court, with bleachers on one side and a stage. Chairs can be set up on the court. The MCSO has a capacity of 250 but that is without any social distancing. Middletown borough uses the MCSO for public meetings whenever a large crowd is anticipated. MCSO stands for Middletown Community Service Organization.

Reddinger said he doesn’t know if the guidelines would require limiting how many people can be in the MCSO.

But if that is the case, the borough could have a staff member with a counter at the door making sure that the meeting does not exceed the limit, Reddinger said.

“I think it is definitely doable,” Reddinger said. “At Home Depot, Walmart and Giant people stand in line 6 feet apart and wear masks. I don’t see why the borough can’t achieve the same goal.”

Council has not met in person in council chambers with members of the public present since March 17, one day after council approved an emergency declaration closing the Municipal Building to the public. That declaration remains in effect until further notice.

Council did not meet at all until April 21, when council resumed holding public meetings on a virtual basis, with members and staff participating remotely from their own locations, including the May 19 meeting.

The public has been able to view the meetings through the live-stream posted on the borough website, and residents have been able to offer public comment remotely.

Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter said the borough is taking steps to prepare the MCSO gym so that the June 3 council meeting can be live-streamed.

Reddinger told the Press & Journal on Wednesday that he made the motion because council should “lead by example,” noting borough staff has resumed its normal duties and work schedules.

“I never ask one of my guys to get in a trench if I am not willing to,” said Reddinger, who is an electrical contractor. “How can I sit in the comfort of my home and conduct borough business” and tell Klinepeter and staff they have to go back to work. “If it is so dangerous that we should not be doing it then our staff should not be working either.”

Council President Angela Lloyd and Councilor Dawn Knull voted against the motion.

Klinepeter noted that with Dauphin County still being in the red phase, gatherings of 10 or more people are not permitted according to the restrictions imposed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf recently extended the stay-at-home order for counties in the red phase to June 4, which would be one day after the June 3 meeting.

Knull pointed out that 14 people were participating in the May 19 council meeting, even if they were all doing it remotely.

But Councilor Scott Sites, who supported Reddinger’s motion, said the borough is “exempt” from the restrictions being imposed by Wolf.

Solicitor James Diamond agreed, saying local government “gets to make its own determination.”

On Wednesday morning, Diamond told the Press & Journal that Middletown “as a local government has from the beginning” been able to continue operating as a “life-sustaining” entity.

“Like the state and county, we are the government. It’s a different set of rules,” he said.

However, Diamond declined to comment when asked if the borough going ahead with holding public meetings would violate any of the restrictions Dauphin County remains under being in the red phase, such as not having any gatherings exceeding 10 people.

“Has anyone been to a Home Depot, Walmart, Costco or a Giant lately?” asked Councilor Richard Kluskiewicz during the meeting, who also supported Reddinger’s motion. “That’s all I have to say.”

Mayor James H. Curry III agreed, saying how hundreds of people can go to the same big box home improvement store and all be touching the same piece of lumber.

“I think we can conduct a meeting and have chairs more than 6 feet apart for the five people who come to a council meeting,” Curry said.

Also voting for Reddinger’s motion were councilors Ellen Willenbecher and Jenny Miller.