Editor's Note: The story has been updated to reflect the correct time for the July 29 special meeting as 9 a.m.
The Washington County commissioners are delaying their special meeting planned for Friday to consider approval of a ballot referendum that could create an 11-member panel to study the county’s form of government.
The meeting to approve the ordinance that would allow voters to decide this fall on whether to implement the governmental study commission will now be held at 9 a.m. Thursday, July 29, in the commissioners’ first-floor conference room in Courthouse Square.
The delay comes after concerns were raised that the special meeting originally planned for Friday morning would be held in a virtual setting that would not allow the public to adequately address the commissioners before they vote on the ordinance.
“We’re getting a lot of calls and emails in the office, one side or the other,” commission Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan said Wednesday after announcing the date change. “We just want to make sure people have the opportunity to address us because this is a topic – since it was announced (last week) – people have strong opinions of.”
The meeting was originally supposed to be held in a virtual setting and streamed on social media because Irey Vaughan and Commissioner Larry Maggi planned to be out of town Friday. County officials had asked the public to email or mail their comments to Chief Clerk Cindy Griffin ahead of the meeting.
But Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said that format could be on shaky ground with the state’s Sunshine Act regarding open government because it would not give the public the ability to physically attend the meeting and address elected officials.
“I think that misses a lot with the dynamic with the public and (to hear from) their constituents at a public meeting in real time,” Melewsky said. “Virtual meetings are not the same as sharing the same space with their constituents.”
Melewsky said there could be “significant issues” with voting on such a substantial issue in a virtual setting, noting that any member of the public is permitted to file a Sunshine Law violation with the state. She added that Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency declaration order that allowed government agencies to hold meetings through video conferencing has expired, making it more difficult to justify not having in-person meetings.
“Strong public policy issues should not be handled in a virtual-only session,” Melewsky said.
Irey Vaughan acknowledged that it was important to allow the public to comment on the topic, necessitating the meeting to be pushed back to next week.
She said that a government study committee isn’t assured even if the commissioners approve the ordinance next week. The ordinance merely places the question on the ballot for the off-year general election on Nov. 2, giving voters the opportunity to approve it and select 11 members to sit on the board, or block its formation.
If approved, the committee would meet for about nine months and then make recommendations that would be placed on the ballot during a future election for voters to either approve or reject. The committee could also recommend no changes to the county’s government structure.
Irey Vaughan said some people they’ve heard from erroneously think the ordinance will automatically create the committee.
“From emails and messages we’ve received, I believe misinformation has been spread,” Irey Vaughan said about the committee’s powers. “People are saying that don’t want us passing an ordinance to form the study commission. There’s some confusion.”
The commissioners must approve the ordinance before Aug. 3 so it can be sent to the county elections office to be placed on the ballot, elections director Melanie Ostrander said Wednesday.
Irey Vaughan said the commissioners would likely hold “informational meetings” over the next few months to educate the public on the role of the study committee. But she added that the decision ultimately will be up to the voters.
“I just believe allowing voters an opportunity to decide to look at this is the right decision,” she said.
Irey Vaughan previously said she supported the commission because of concerns about the operation of several row offices in the Washington County Courthouse. Maggi also indicated he agreed with the formation of a commission, while Commissioner Nick Sherman said he was “apprehensive” about the process.