HOLLIDAYSBURG - When Blair County's elected officials met recently, it was suggested that an electronic bulletin board should be available so employees could post messages, according to Mary Ann Bennis, county register of wills and recorder of deeds.
The need for an electronic bulletin board was demonstrated in the last week when a major brouhaha erupted because employees on May 23 used the courthouse email system to circulate a Memorial Day tribute - including editorial cartoons honoring those who gave their lives in the service of the nation - and were summarily scolded by the county's human resources director.
Katherine Swigart, who heads the Human Resources Department, sent an email to county workers stating: "From Friday through today [Tuesday] most of us received either a joke grouping specific to Memorial Day or its subsequent comments and expressions of gratitude from employees who are veterans or from others who appreciated the sentiments conveyed in the earlier posts.
"Please remember the county computers and its email are not to be used for this sort of communication. Individual jokes or joke groupings, however appropriate they may seem to the sender, express personal views to a wide audience and are, therefore, prohibited the same as their information without the accompanying cartoon would be prohibited."
Reaction slowly built within the courthouse over the next couple of days, not only among the employees - many of whom were told not to talk publicly about their feelings - but also by the elected officials.
In fact, Bennis was among those who forwarded the patriotic email and who commented on the Memorial Day tribute by saying: "Love, love, love."
Commissioner Ted Beam replied to a veteran who emailed him a copy of the tribute, "Very appropriate. Thanks to all."
The employee who sent the tribute to Beam, a Marine combat veteran, was among the employees told not to speak about the subject.
Commissioners Chairman Terry Tomassetti stated he looked at all the materials "and they are clearly a Memorial Day salute to our veterans. I have no problem with them, particularly since it was Memorial Day weekend when the county is closed, and our flags are at half-mast in honor of our veterans."
County Controller Richard Peo was more animated in his response, expressing anger at the use of the word "joke" in Swigart's reprimand.
He said of the cartoons: "None of [the tribute] was funny or a joke. They were meant to be serious, not a joke. We are a government agency. We've got a department called Veterans Affairs. Why do you want to insult these people? I've gotten nothing but positive feedback [about the tribute]."
"Whoever [created the tribute], it was a nice thing, very appropriate for Memorial Day," Peo stated.
He said the "subtext" of the email to workers was, "You might offend someone. If you were offended, you need to check your compass."
What added to Peo's anger was that the commissioners office on May 22 sent out a notice that there was a hoagie sale for Relay For Life.
Nobody scolded the commissioners office, Peo said.
Peo, whose father was a World War II combat veteran, said he was upset on Tuesday morning when he saw the email to employees, but he decided to sleep on the question of responding.
When he left the courthouse Tuesday, he was even more upset with himself for not responding, and on Wednesday morning, he sent out an email to Swigart stating:
"Trying to understand.
"'Inappropriate?' A tasteful salute to our veterans, some of who actually work for the County [didn't see anything funny or a joke in what was communicated].
"'Appropriate?' All the fundraising activity that comes of the Commissioners Office.
The email trail indicates that the tribute to veterans titled, "Preparing for Memorial Day," was emailed to the courthouse. and then distributed by employees.
It consisted of eight newspaper cartoons, two photographs and a poem.
The cartoons are serious in nature.
For instance, an aged veteran stands with his grandson at a tombstone with an American flag, and the old man says to the youngster, "I'd like to introduce you to a real 'American idol.'"
Another cartoon showed a child in prayer stating: "Thanksgiving is a day when we pause to give thanks for the things were have."
Below is a depiction of dog tags and a statement: "Memorial Day is a day we pause to give thanks to the people who fought for the things we have."
A third cartoon shows a packet of hot dogs and states: "The price of hot dogs $1.19." Next is the sketch of a gasoline pump. The price of the gasoline $1.64. Then comes the kicker, stating the price of freedom: a tombstone engraved with "R.I.P."
One of the photographs shows a veteran using his arms to push himself up, out of his wheelchair as the American flag passes. Everyone else in the photo is sitting. The cutline states: "It is the veteran who serves under the flag."
Blair County Veterans Affairs Office Director Daniel "Dan" McIntyre, a relatively new county employee, said he had no comment on the Memorial Day tribute, but he did respond to the email by writing: "Like I said last week, 'A veteran at some point in his or her life, wrote a blank check made payable to, 'The United States of America' for up to and including their life."
Repeated attempts to contact Swigart, who is attending a training session in another county this week, were not successful.