Free speech an issue in meeting arrest
Peggy Albright, left, and her friend, Ingeburg Miller, were the only two members of the public at Blawnox council on Oct. 13, 2008.
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A Blawnox woman who was thrown out and arrested after she tried to speak at a borough public meeting in October 2008 was well within her legal rights and protection of the Pennsylvania open records and meetings law -- commonly known as the Sunshine Act -- according to a September ruling of county Common Pleas Judge Gerald Bigley.
But the Allegheny County District Attorney is appealing that decision to the state Superior Court on grounds that Peggy Albright, 60, committed a crime on Oct. 13, 2008, when she tried to ask her borough council a question about an accident at a gas station on Freeport Road.
According to Pittsburgh attorney Jon Pushinsky, who is representing Ms. Albright, she was charged with disorderly conduct and disrupting a meeting because she tried to speak at a public council meeting. She was shouted down by borough officials who called for her removal from council chambers and was arrested even as she insisted they were violating her civil rights.
Ms. Albright, who is one of a group of four women who are often the only attendants at Blawnox meetings, said she asked one question before council President Samuel McNaughton started pounding the gavel and consequently got her thrown out.
"I never stood up to shout or anything. All I did was ask one question: 'Did you take care of the accident on Freeport Road?' " said Ms. Albright. She was concerned, she said, because the Citgo gas station on Freeport Road had been the scene of three recent car accidents at the time.
Ingeburg Miller, the only other borough resident at that meeting, agreed with Ms. Albright's description of what transpired.
Both Ms. Albright and Ms. Miller said they have a tape recording of the meeting. They started tape recording their interaction with Blawnox officials at meetings because over the years, "they have tried to shut us up and stop us from speaking," said Ms. Albright.
Ms. Miller said her friend "just asked one question and then they started screaming at her. [Mr. McNaughton] immediately started pounding the table and yelling at her to stop talking."
"She told them, 'I'm sorry, I'm allowed to speak because I have a right.' But they didn't listen. Instead, they called the police and took her out. And after they kicked her out, they started screaming at me to 'be quiet,' " recalled Ms. Miller.
But longtime Blawnox Solicitor Jack Cambest countered that the case against Ms. Albright has much to do with the intricate balance between an individual's right to speak at a public meeting, and the right of public officials to hold their meetings without disruptions from the audience.
"This group [of four women] has been disrupting our meetings for about two years. A person is allowed to talk at a 'business' meeting where there is public comment. They can talk for the allowed time. But if they go beyond that, then they become disruptive," said Mr. Cambest, who has been the solicitor in Blawnox since 1978.
Blawnox generally holds two public council meetings each month. One is an agenda-setting meeting where, for more than 30 years, Mr. Cambest said, officials have established a rule that no public comment is allowed.
The other is a "business" meeting where the public is allowed to speak at specific times.
In this case, when Ms. Albright tried -- for about a minute-- to speak during an agenda meeting, she was deemed to have disrupted the meeting and Mr. McNaughton, the council president, called Blawnox police to forcibly remove her, said Mr. Pushinsky.
If convicted, the maximum sentence on a summary offense like disorderly conduct is 90 days in jail and a $300 fine. Disrupting a meeting is considered a misdemeanor. More serious than a summary offense, yet less than a felony, there is not standard sentence for misdemeanors because they are generally divided into three degrees. Penalties for each degree vary according to the nature and severity of the crime.
In a three-page ruling, Judge Bigley threw out both charges against Ms. Albright, noting she was well within her rights to insist on addressing the borough council.
"The Sunshine Act permits public comment: 'at each advertised regular meeting and advertised special meeting ... on matters of concern, official action or deliberation which are or may be before the board or council prior to taking official action,'" Judge Bigley stated in his opinion.
"There is no distinction between agenda meetings and business meetings contained in the statute. Ms. Albright had the right under the Sunshine Act to comment at the agenda meeting of Oct. 13, 2008," he continued.
However, Mike Manko, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said they see it differently.
"We respectfully disagree with Judge Bigley. Our position is that this defendant committed a crime. She was charged with disrupting a public meeting. We believe her behavior rose to violating a public statute," said Mr. Manko.
Sara Rose, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said she was surprised by the district attorney's decision to appeal what is seemingly a clear-cut interpretation of the Sunshine Act.
"I think that is totally outrageous and unconstitutional. People have a right to speak at regularly scheduled public meetings, which include both agenda and business meetings," Ms. Rose said.
But Mr. Cambest contends that the practice in Blawnox has long been established and even though borough officials tolerated Ms. Albright at 'business' public meetings, they would not countenance her attempt to speak at an agenda-only public meeting.
"We believe she had no right to speak [at the agenda meeting]," said Mr. Cambest.
Soon after the October 2008 incident, Mr. Cambest sent letters to Ms. Albright, Ms. Miller and two other Blawnox residents -- Georgia Petrus and Laura Reif -- warning them that if they continued "the type of conduct that was exhibited by Ms. Albright," the borough will "have no other recourse but to ban you from attendance at any Borough Agenda or Regular Council Meeting."
But by both the ACLU and Judge Bigley's interpretation of the Sunshine Act, it seems that Blawnox and municipalities with similar public comment requirements may be regularly violating provisions of the Sunshine Act.
In Ross, for example, the nine-member panel of commissioners regularly holds workshop or committee-of-the-whole meetings on the first and third Monday of each month where they discuss municipality agenda items but the public is not permitted to speak.
At board meetings of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, public comment is not permitted at the agenda-review or legislative meetings.
However, the board holds at least one public hearing a month, and city residents are free to speak on any matter they wish. There, they can talk about the board's agenda items, personal reflections or national policy matters.
Pittsburgh schools Solicitor Ira Weiss said the school district's arrangement pre-dates the Sunshine Act and as such, it was allowed to continue. And what is more, Mr. Weiss said, the Sunshine Act was never meant to give the public a chance to speak at every public meeting.
"In all my many years of doing this, I understand the Sunshine Act to give people a reasonable opportunity to comment on affairs before any action is taken. It means the public has a right to comment at public meetings where a vote is taken, " Mr. Weiss said. "Not every public meeting."
First Published December 18, 2009 12:00 am