Borough punts on limiting assembly

By CHARLES PETERSHEIM
Posted 12/17/21

MILFORD, PA — With a room filled past capacity, maskless and vocal, the doors and windows open for ventilation, the Milford Borough Council retreated at its December 14 meeting from adopting a …

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Borough punts on limiting assembly

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MILFORD, PA — With a room filled past capacity, maskless and vocal, the doors and windows open for ventilation, the Milford Borough Council retreated at its December 14 meeting from adopting a proposed ordinance that would have created an onerous permitting requirement for assembly, rallies and gatherings of 25 people or more.

“This is about twice as many people as I’ve ever seen in this room,” John Kameen, a frequent meeting attendee, observed.

The question of whether the borough had a gathering ordinance was asked by councilmember Peter Cooney following the January 6 insurrection at the Capital, according to the minutes of the January 12 workshop meeting. The ordinance was presented at the November 16 borough meeting and moved by councilmembers Adriane Wendell and Maria Farrell to be scheduled for a public hearing and vote at the next council meeting.  Cooney voted against forwarding it to a public hearing.

The December 14 published and advertised agenda indicated that the council would vote to review and approve the ordinance. A groundswell of social media objections began after a Facebook post by Lisa McAteer on Monday afternoon, December 13,  and by the next afternoon, the item was removed from the agenda without notification to the public.

Because the topic had been removed, councilmember Joe Dooley proposed eliminating the discussion around the ordinance. Cooney challenged Dooley and board president Frank Tarquinio to allow comment. With rumblings from the audience growing louder, Tarquinio relented and approved public comment on the non-agenda item. The public commented for 45 minutes until cut off by Tarquinio’s gavel so the board could take care of the other business on the agenda.

There should be no need for bureaucratic red tape when one wants to simply enjoy their constitutional rights,” said McAteer to a supportive audience of over 50 opponents to the ordinance.

Robert Pickell, an attendee from Greentown, said the ‘government must protect the right to assemble, not find ways to prevent it.” Several other community people spoke passionately about protests and rallies they had attended in Milford and could cite no examples of disorderly conduct, arrests, citations or injuries. While Tarquinio positioned the application as straightforward and safety-focused, expressing concern about a November 6 rally that brought hundreds of people and vehicles to the borough, many in the audience expressed different sentiments and pressured the board to simply request notification rather than permission.

“We support our blue,” one speaker said. “We don’t have a problem notifying them.”

The ordinance would have put into place procedures that would preclude most spontaneous gatherings from forming legally. A detailed application due 10 days in advance, listing a sponsor (who would be liable for all eventualities), event locations and routes, proof of $1,000,000 insurance, and a $100 non-refundable application fee were among the requirements. The application approval would have been in the hands of the mayor, police chief, zoning officer, president of the council and chairman of the roads.

Tarquinio eventually conceded that this draft didn’t meet the goals of the community. 

McAteer requested advance public notice for any future discussions about the ordinance and asked that it be held in an auditorium. “If we got this many people here in 24 hours, we can fill an auditorium with proper notice,” she said. She echoed previous speakers when she concluded by saying “our rights will not be taken from us.” 

Hawley resident Robert Lennon spoke of how he felt compelled to come out and speak on behalf of “our fundamental rights.” The audience spoke articulately and at length about their concerns with the ordinance.

At the end of the evening, it was clear that any future versions of the ordinance to restrict peaceful assembly in the Borough of Milford would be met with organized, passionate resistance. 

“We don’t need your permission to assemble on our streets,” said a gentleman from Dingmans.

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