Myers steps down as president of Kennett Square Borough Council
By Steven Hoffman
When Kennett Square Borough Council meets again on Tuesday, Feb. 19, the most pressing item on the agenda will likely be selecting a new council president.
And nobody seems happy about it.
LaToya Myers was sailing through her second year in the role as council president when she unexpectedly announced that she was relinquishing the leadership position, but not her seat on council, during a tense and sometimes extremely awkward council meeting on Feb. 4.
Myers, who joined council in 2016 and was elected to a four-year term that started in 2018, decided to step down as the council president immediately following a vote on a resolution establishing new rules of council governing public comment at meetings. Myers and council member Ethan Cramer, the borough council vice president, both voted against the resolution, which was approved by a vote of 5-2.
When council member Wayne Braffman outlined the resolution that was under consideration, he explained that since the current members joined borough council, they have expanded public comment so that people in the audience can voice their opinions toward the beginning and at the end of each meeting. Borough council also added public comment before votes are taken on many action items during the course of each meeting.
The new resolution, Braffman said, would expand public comment in several ways. Public comment would be allowed before borough council votes to make appointments to the various boards and commissions. Braffman explained that the resolution would also expand who has standing with regard to public comment. Previously, only residents and property owners were guaranteed to be able to take part in public comment. The new resolution would allow “any authorized representative of an organization or entity whose primary place of business is in the Borough of Kennett Square.” As examples of people who would have standing under the new regulations, Braffman offered a pastor of a church or a business owner who rents the property.
The resolution proposed a two-minute limit for a person who was making public comment, and each person would be timed with a digital countdown timer that would be displayed so that everyone would know how much time remained for that person's comments. Any member of council could ask that the limit be increased for two additional minutes, if necessary, to allow people to share all their thoughts about a particular subject.
“A vast majority of comments are delivered in under two minutes,” Braffman said.
During the discussion about the resolution, it quickly became apparent that several council members weren't in favor of a two-minute limit, and a three-minute limit was suggested instead.
When it became clear that not everyone was in favor of resolution as it was written, the discussion went in about a dozen different directions.
Council member Ethan Cramer was the first to object to the resolution, saying that a two-minute limit would be a wall to discourage people from sharing their views.
Council member Jamie Mallon said that the idea behind the two-minute limit was to keep the commenters focused on the topic.
“The idea is be concise, to be clear, to state your issues,” Mallon said. “I don't look at this as an infringement of anyone's freedom of speech.”
Council member Peter Waterkotte made the point that the Borough of Kennett Square is a small town with a small government.
“We should all have the opportunity to communicate with one another,” Waterkotte said, explaining that time limits on public comment allow for more people to share their views, instead of having a few people in the audience dominate public comment at each meeting. “We have rules and regulations, and we're all in this together. We're not big government. We're a small community who cares about each other.”
Myers waited for the other council members to speak before she leveled some pretty harsh criticism about the resolution.
“This rule of council resolution is silencing a black woman in the community,” Myers said. Although she did not mention her by name, it was clear that Myers was referring to Charla Watson, who frequently speaks during public comment sessions. What isn't as clear is why Myers focused in on Watson being a target of the resolution, when the new rules regarding public comment would affect John Thomas just as much. Thomas, like Watson, is a longtime Kennett Square Borough resident who rarely sees anything to like about the borough council's activities. Both Watson and Thomas are sharply critical of council.
“The intent (of the resolution) matters,” Myers said. “To say it doesn't matter is offensive. This, to me, we're using policy to continue institutional racism. I will not support this. Not at all.”
A few minutes later, Myers asked council to amend the agenda so that she could resign as council president, citing her unwillingness to enforce rules aimed at, in her view, silencing residents.
To their credit, the other members of council, the ones that Myers accused of taking an action that continues institutional racism, did not respond with hurt feelings or anger. Instead, they heaped praise on Myers for doing an excellent job as president.
“I think you are doing a good job,” said Mallon.
Watercotte said that Myers had done an amazing job as president. He said that it would be sad for everyone involved if Myers stepped down as president.
Council member Dr. Brenda Mercomes used the word “excellent” to describe Myers' work as council president, and said that she herself could not handle the duties of president as well as Myers does.
On at least three different occasions, Mallon implored Myers to wait until the next meeting, then two weeks and one day away, before making a decision about handing off the gavel to a new council president.
“I think emotions got high,” Mallon said. “A cooling-off period might be good for everyone involved.”
Myers insisted that the passage of time would do nothing to change her mind. It was the principle of the issues at hand.
Reluctantly, borough council did amend the agenda and formally accepted Myers' resignation. A decision was made to select a new president at the next meeting, rather than doing that right away.
Very briefly, there was some discussion about reconsidering the resolution that started the problems—perhaps there was a way to change the language in it to satisfy Myers' concerns.
She insisted that she didn't want to be council president and have to enforce rules regarding public comment that she felt were too restrictive.
“This is principle for me,” Myers said. “I thought this through. This is about how people in power use that power.”
And just like that, borough council was left without a permanent president. Council could elect a new president at its meetig on Tuesday, Feb. 19.
In other business at the Feb. 4 meeting, Kennett Square Borough Council held a public hearing regarding amendments to Chapter 23 of the borough's zoning regulations. The public hearing pertained to making personal services as a by-right use in the C-1 and C-2 District. Barbershops and nail salons are the kinds of personal services that the amendments would address, with the goal being to have regulations that would allow for these activities in the borough's commercial district.
Andrew Froning was appointment to fill a vacancy on the borough’s planning commission.
In his Finance Committee report, Braffman said that they are looking at new ways to generate revenue. Some of the possibilities being considered include selling advertising in public places or in the borough’s newsletter or boosting the money that the town earns when festivals take place. They are also brainstorming about ways to save money, Braffman said, adding that if anyone has any ideas they should share them with borough manager Joseph Scalise or any member of the Finance Committee.