New Harford County council president Richard Slutzky on Tuesday defended his proposal that would create a roadblock between constituents and elected representatives within council chambers.
During a regular meeting of the council in Bel Air, Slutzky explained his stance, citing security as the primary reason why he would prefer that residents and media be barred from approaching the dais after meetings adjourn.
"At this time it is our intent that unless invited by the council we recommend that neither the press nor the citizens approach the dais at the end of a council meeting and councilmembrs are free to leave the dais" if they want, Slutzky said.
The availability issue, revealed along with the introduction of a council spokesperson, created a stir in the community.
On Tuesday, though, Slutzky's colleagues — left out of the communication loop on the announcements — found themselves apologizing for the proposal, and backing away from the council president's stance to limit public access to council.
Slutzky suggested Tuesday that the announcements of an enhanced security protocol, as well as a new communications staffer, could have been handled better.
"Perhaps it would have been a wiser strategy to have done these two things separately, but they actually came up together in a variety of conversations," Slutzky said.
Councilman Chad Shrodes said he had a "nice conversation" with Slutzky Tuesday in which Slutzky "promised not to surprise me anymore."
"Just like many of you I didn't know about the policy until it was already out there," Shrodes said. "That's not good."
Shrodes and Councilman Jim McMahan agreed they would make themselves available to constituents and media by stepping down from the dais at the end of meetings.
"I am just as available today as I was yesterday," McMahan said.
Councilman Patrick Vincenti, elected in November to his first term, is ammenable to keeping communications open.
"Bottom line is, we're an extension of our constitutents. It's as simple as that. If you need us you know how to get ahold of us," he said.
Fellow newcomer Curtis Beulah said he hopes residents in his district feel comfortable in approaching him.
"I have no boss here. I answer to the citizens," he said.
As for the safety zone around the dais, Beulah added, "at this time I just don't see a need for it. Maybe I can be convinced otherwise."
As for how the word got to the council members, Beulah said: "This is not a dictatorship. This is a team effort."
New councilman Mike Perrone said, "I think we need to look at that whole topic a little more critically." He added that, despite inherent risks serving as public officials, "We all chose to do this of our own free will."
Perrone said he was fine with the use of metal detectors and security, which is deployed in the form of uniformed Harford County Sheriff's deputies at the Bel Air chambers.
Councilman Joe Woods said he has no problem with constituents calling him but agreed with the notion that the bench should be off limits during meetings.
"I do understand we don't want people approaching the dais during the meeting because of concerns and I think if we continue with that, we're fine," he said.
After the meeting, all council members ventured out into the audience and were easy to approach.
Sherrie Johnson, the newly-appointed council spokeswoman who transferred from the county executive's office, offered herself as a resource for talking to specific council members. She also said she was bombarded by calls from residents Tuesday on the issue.
Slutzky defended Johnson's new position, saying that he and other council members are often contacted during vacation and holidays and residents and media are "distressed" about why they don't get prompt responses.
"The intent was to become more efficient and effective in managing the requests for information," he said.
He added that council members work independently and can do what they want regarding how they approach citizens and the press in the chambers.