Several community members attended the Centre County Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday to complain about how last week’s Centre Crest vote was handled and alleged Sunshine Act violations.
Brenda Black said she raised her hand to offer comment several times during the meeting but was not recognized by any of the commissioners before the board voted 2-1 to begin the process of transitioning the nursing home to a public nonprofit.
“It is my firm belief that I and the other citizens present were deprived of the citizen’s right to access their government,” Black said.
The state Sunshine Act authorizes members of the public to speak at meetings before any action is taken, and it requires government entities to allow the comments.
The residents are calling for an investigation into the possible violations and contend the vote should be voided.
County Administrator Tim Boyde said he is aware of the public comment stipulation and was looking for hands of people who might want to comment. He doesn’t remember seeing Black raise her hand.
“I was kind of looking for people to raise their hands, and I saw none,” he said,
Boyde added that he is confident that there was no Sunshine Act violations by the county at the meeting.
The hand was also not seen by Chairman Steve Dershem, who asked for any further discussion before the vote was taken. Dershem said he looked up and didn’t see anyone who wanted to speak.
He asks for discussion before every vote, a procedure that has been in place for at least the 10 years he has been in office, he said.
And if Dershem didn’t see the hand, the incident is not a violation of the Sunshine Act, Melissa Melewsky, Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association media law counsel, said.
“I think it’s unfortunate that they didn’t see her,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a violation of the Sunshine Act.”
Melewsky added that if her hand was not recognized she could have objected, stood up or made her presence known in another way.
Though Commissioner Michael Pipe agreed there are no blatant violations, he said he would like to see the public comment procedure be more clearly explained in future meetings to avoid “gray areas.” Pipe cast the lone dissenting vote.
The county also held five public hearings on the Centre Crest issue over the course of more than a month to hear the community’s feedback. Boyde said those hearings are not required, but the board wanted to hear from the people.
Those meetings could be another factor in favor of the county in any investigation, Melewsky said.