New Castle News Opinion

Members of the Volant Borough Council likely violated the state Open Meetings Law, prior to enacting unreasonable restrictions on popular local festivals.

At the very least, they disregarded their duty as elected representatives to conduct the people’s business in an open and accountable way.

On a 4-1 vote last week, council members approved three ordinances that Volant Borough merchants fear would put them and their nine community festivals out of business.

The festivals, including Witches Night Out, a pumpkin festival, and Christmas on Main Street, draw roughly 20,000 people annually, and have a significant economic impact.

In approving the ordinances without public discussion or debate, council members failed to represent their constituents. In limiting public comments to five minutes, they shortchanged the merchants and their constituents, who need to consider both sides of this debate. And in not including in council minutes from an earlier meeting the names of the speakers and their topics, council members probably broke the law.

Volant merchants, many of them with boutique retail shops, rely on festival-generated income to stay afloat. If the businesses close, they said Wednesday, Volant’s tax base would shrink and water rates probably rise.

“This will affect the entire community,” Cheryl Geidner, manager of the Volant Mills, told a New Castle News editor. “Without the festivals, many of the shops probably will close.”

Newly enacted restrictions include a ban on porta potties and an onerous permitting process that, among other things, requires a $1-million insurance policy and the city’s permission for any event drawing more than 25 people. The new laws appear to target Volant merchants and the annual festivals they sponsor.

Council members favoring the restrictions could be motivated by legitimate safety and environmental concerns, but the public can only guess.

On Wednesday, Council President Bob McGary told a New Castle News editor he could not comment on the council’s actions. He said Solicitor John DeCaro advised council members not to talk publicly about the matter, due to a pending lawsuit.

That’s hogwash, especially coming from a solicitor who is paid by taxpayer dollars. Given the impact of the ordinances, council members owe the people an explanation.

Citing a lawsuit to dodge all media questions, even the most general, is a convenient way to duck the issue.

Not all council members support the ordinances, or the way they were approved. Council President McGary and members Deb Lakin, Wayne Edwards, and John Shaw voted to approve the new ordinances, but council member Howard Moss opposed them.

Council members Tony Bevilacqua and Donald Little were absent from last week’s meeting. In a Dec. 23 letter to the editor published by the New Castle News, Little said he abhorred the way the council rushed to approve the ordinances.

The best outcome would be for the mayor to veto the ordinances and start over from scratch. If that happens, Solicitor DeCaro, instead of advising council members not to talk, should urge them to stay within state sunshine laws and tighten up the sloppy and opaque way they conduct public business.

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