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Tri-State leaders react to shooting at government meeting in Pennsylvania

Waynesboro borough manager: 'We have a society in many ways that has lost the ability to have reasonable discourse'

August 06, 2013|By JENNIFER FITCH | waynesboro@herald-mail.com

WAYNESBORO, Pa. — Franklin County’s borough councils, boards of township supervisors, school boards and county commissioners all regularly host meetings that can have a sense of being routine or ordinary.

But the news that three people died during a shooting at a similar meeting in northeastern Pennsylvania on Monday evening left many locals reeling.

“In the end, these tragic events are very sad for all citizens, not only government professionals,” Chambersburg (Pa.) Borough Manager Jeffrey Stonehill said.

All of Franklin County’s boards meet monthly or more frequently.

“It could’ve (as easily) happened last night at our meeting,” Washington Township Manager Mike Christopher said Monday.

Christopher’s comment is hardly hyperbole. In 2007, a 33-year-old man shot himself in the head outside the building where the Washington Township Supervisors meet. That building is attached to the municipal police department headquarters.

The suicide occurred as township supervisors arrived for a regularly scheduled meeting.

Police escorted an agitated man out of a Waynesboro Borough Council meeting several years ago. He arrived as the meeting was in session, and it was unclear why he was there.

Waynesboro Area School Board and other governing bodies have had police presence at meetings expected to be contentious.

Some municipal agencies like Waynesboro Borough Council and Chambersburg Town Council typically have their police chief in attendance at meetings to provide routine reports and address business matters.

“Our council chambers has a closed-circuit camera and panic buttons for police response,” Stonehill said.

Waynesboro Area School Board President Chris Lind said his board’s meetings are all taped with multiple cameras. He said he’s found residents attending meetings are fairly even-tempered.

“I don’t have any concerns about safety,” Lind said.

Violence of any kind is bad, especially that carried out during a core function of democracy, Waynesboro Borough Manager Lloyd Hamberger said.

“We have a society in many ways that has lost the ability to have reasonable discourse,” he said.

Christopher plans to advocate for harsher penalties for people convicted of threatening or attacking local government officials. He said threats and incidents like the shooting are scaring away good people who want to serve as elected officials.

“We’ve had these scenarios here. They are real threats,” he said.

Township officials registered on an online message board all said Tuesday they have experience with hostile individuals, Christopher said.

“Some of these meetings get carried away,” he said. “I haven’t felt too threatened by these things, but it could happen here.”

Stonehill said Chambersburg mourns for the victims and offers solidarity to Ross Township.

“A town’s municipal hall belongs to all the people of the community. An attack on the municipal building is an attack on the democratic process, an attack on the community and our values of local governance,” he said.

Similar sentiments were expressed in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle.

“We’ve never had a problem at any of our meetings, but you read about this all the time,” said Charles Town (W.Va.) Mayor Peggy Smith.

She said Police Chief Chris Kutcher sits at the council table during meetings.

“It gives us a sense of security,” she said.

“There was an instance once when a utility customer became irate over a utility bill, but that didn’t happen at a council meeting,” she said. “People get upset over parking tickets sometimes, too.”

The Jefferson County Commission has had a sheriff’s deputy sit in at their meetings ever since the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.

Giffords, badly wounded, survived the attack, but six people were killed among the 18 who were shot that day.

“We felt it was important after that to have a bailiff at our meetings,” Commissioner Lyn Widmyer said. “Sometimes passions can run high and we meet in a public room where anyone can walk in.”

Staff Writer Richard F. Belisle contributed to this story.

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