The outcome of an executive session at Chambersburg Borough Council meeting Monday night could mean we all have to watch what we say

May 11 — The Chambersburg Borough Council meeting 10 May 2021 passed a chicken ordinance, gave officials the ability to purchase more electric power and mentioned a Turkey Hill coming to Chambersburg where the World Harvest Outreach is located, but the real juice followed an executive session.

The executive session lasted nearly an hour and a half and when council reconvened, Council Member Heath Talhelm made a motion, seconded by Council Member Kathy Leedy, that the action concerning Dr. Rachel Day against Council Member Allen Coffman has merit.

It was a 5-4 vote. Council Member Dennis Schmaltz did not participate in the vote. 

What this means is really anybody’s guess and it all stems from a letter Dr. Day sent to borough council members about her feelings living in Chambersburg and the need for anti-discrimination ordinances.

That lead to an impromptu public comment section at a borough council meeting last month where members of the LGBTQ+ community pushed for local ordinances for non-discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity issues, as well as a potential Human Relations Commission to be set up in Chambersburg.

Talhelm and Leedy are two of the three borough council members on an exploratory committee set up to look into the ordinances and commission. 

Council Member Allen Coffman, Attorney Clint Barkdoll, Pat Ryan and Michele Jansen discussed the issue this morning on First News.

Because of the executive session, there were confidentiality issues that meant Coffman couldn’t say much about the meeting, however he did state, “to the best of my knowledge, everyone on council received all the information that I provided and all the information that Dr. Day provided. The emails were public. Hers and mine. If council members did not read it, it was their own fault because the information was provided. Whether they read it or not, whether they read it all or not, I have no way of knowing that.”

Ryan read parts of Allen’s letter to Dr. Day out loud. It says: 

“Welcome to the area that I have proudly represented for 27 years and I’m sure you have discovered Chambersburg is not New York City. I’m curious as to why you would want to move to such a conservative area, such as Chambersburg. This is a great community.”

Ryan said, “There’s nothing here!”

Jansen pointed out, “He’s responding to her accusation that people in this community are exclusionary, are marginalizing people based on historic evidence. She attacked conservatives here saying that they are bad people, more needs to be done. He was responding to that. The problem is people do and they will have Facebook posts like this and if we have laws set up in this town that allow people to go after someone for being snarky because they’re a certain group of people. Some people might say it (Allen’s letter) was snarky. I’ve heard that said. If that’s the case you’re going to see dozens, hundreds of people in our community get attacked the same way and if you have a law and a subjective little tribunal to make decisions like two of the three who are on the exploratory committee decided to further this thing last night, boy, there’s fairness and objectivity there.”

Barkdoll noted, “All of this stuff just seems so symbolic. Council has no authority to police a council member for their comments. They could censure him, but I don’t know what it means they take a vote to say this has merit. So now what? What’s the next step? They can’t remove him. They can’t fine him. I think it’s going to backfire on them actually and I think Allen is likely going to use this to his political advantage.”

Barkdoll took it a step further, “And when I hear they’re meeting in executive session for over an hour? Get to work, people! Get real. This isn’t the kind of stuff you should be spending your time on. It’s amazing to me how council seems like they’ve gotten bogged down with this. If I were Allen and they do this again, I’d just get up and walk out. I’ve got work to do. I’ve need to go out here and address real issues that the public wants to hear about but the fact they voted to say it has merit, I imagine it will now be on another council agenda and they’ll spend more time getting all twisted up with this and it’s going to backfire on them. I don’t know when Allen is up for reelection but I think if anything, you’ll see his support grow over this just if nothing else, the public wants to see these people get to work. They don’t want to see them bogged down and spending a bunch of time on these issues.”

Jansen added, “The public recognizes this is fundamentally unfair. Anybody could make comments like he did. They’re completely reasonable. The idea that you’re going to get treated the same way if this Human Relations Commission gets put into place. That’s a perfect picture example of what’s going to happen. Time wasted and the money wasted on this will continue if we allow this subjective idea of people’s hurt feelings having to be assuaged by censuring and virtue signaling and telling them it’s okay, look we’re going to slap him on the wrist just so now you can feel better. That’s not going to solve the real issues in our community.”

Barkdoll said, “This whole action, whatever this means ‘it has merit.’ It’s very amateurish is the best word I can come up with. These are elected officials. They have a right to make statements. People can disagree with it. If they don’t like it, they can run someone against them. If i’m a business owner thinking of opening shop somewhere, i think you could see real hesitation someone wanting to open a new business in the borough if the council is going to operate like this that you’ve gotta be on pins and needles all the time. This is just not the way local government is supposed to work, but this is what they’ve turned it into.”

Jansen agreed, “Dr. Day has presented the perfect example for why we do not need a local Human Relations Commission, and I’ll call it a tribunal because that’s what it’s going to be, of people set up because this is exactly the problem. People are going to look at the way somebody expresses themselves in a letter, in an email, on their Facebook page, at work, making a joke. They’re going to pick apart words and sentences. They’re going to read meanings into things. That is exactly what’s going to happen if you get this non-discrimination ordinance passed and you get a Human Relations Commission to adjudicate, investigate and mete out consequences. This will start happening to people in businesses, this will start happening to people in churches and in schools and maybe somebody visiting town and going into one of these businesses. We’re going to pick on every little thing and start making it some kind of federal case out of some kind of violation of somebody’s rights. This is very very dangerous. It’s very disruptive for our community and they’re going to say you need to have some more sensitivity training. You need to have some equality and inclusion training and people have consulting businesses that give that kind of training. They’re going to make a lot of money. Businesses are going to have to fork out money to try to protect themselves from accusations of being unequitable.

A question for the need of an Ad Hoc committee from borough council for this issue was brought to Coffman.

He said, “I only recall one instance where there was a small committee that was set up and this was probably four to five years ago. To me I find this committee highly unusual. The emails are sent to a special email address. They are answered by Dawn Scheller who works for Salzmann Hughes, who is I’ll call it the legal gatekeeper of this new Ad Hoc committee. That’s the person who will be responding to anything that’s sent in to that specific email address. The responses will come through Dawn Scheller. To set up a special email address for this is quite unusual. Two of those three people that are on that committee — Leedy and Talhelm — they made the motion and the second on this action after the executive session, so tell me about transparency with this right now. And tell me that this isn’t a political trip. In my personal opinion, this is all about politics.”

Ryan pointed out, “The reason that we’re making such a stink about this is first off you don’t want this on a borough level. It’s a far bigger responsibility. None of the people on the borough will be held responsible for if they start trashing you or you start being called into question. I’d like some teeth in it to go back to whoever is on the council to hold them responsible. And number two this is redundant. This is too much extra work and too much responsibility on such a small community. This stuff is already in place, ladies and gentlemen.”

Jansen added, “This level of government should never be handling this. I can see lawsuit after lawsuit going back and forth. People are going to want to be protected from this and they’re going to hire lawyers and then the borough is going to have to hire lawyers or use extra legal funds to try to justify all this. This is going to cost us a fortune. This is wrong, wrong, wrong.”