Selectmen consider Public Comment policy

by beth on September 8, 2016

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Above: Resident Karen Shimkus used the Public Comment section of Tuesday night’s selectmen meeting to ask the board not to curtail public comment. (Image cropped from Southborough Access Media video)

Over the past year, residents angered over decisions by the Town Government issues have crowded the Town House hearing room at Board of Selectmen Meetings. The most recent rile up was over Park Central and its impact on the Flagg Road area. It seems to have been the last straw for Selectman Dan Kolenda, who decided the Town needs a policy on public comment.

The selectman is seeking to post guidelines for the public on how public comments should be conducted. He shared a draft policy with the board for discussion Tuesday night. He based it on the Town of Lynnfield’s policy and edits from Chair Brian Shea. Board members plan to work on their revisions and discuss adoption at a future meeting.

Kolenda called public discourse “the best part of democracy”. He referred to the meeting that evening as having been an ideal example:

It’s an excellent back and forth between the community and the board and really vetting issues. It’s done through the chair. . . bringing up new issues the Town hasn’t known of before or bringing up exisiting issues for discussion

But that back and forth was mainly following public comment allowed on scheduled agenda items. In the board’s discussion, Kolenda referred to the Regional School Committee he serves on as a role model. Kolenda said he agreed with their policy to not engage on issues not included on the agenda. As he explained, their main defense is lack of notice to the public that the item will be discussed.  

But the Regional Committee’s policy of not engaging in any discussion with residents on unscheduled items has given them a reputation of shutting out the public. (In at least one past meeting, the board’s chair refused to even say if an item raised through petition would be put on a future agenda for discussion.)

Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf objected to having a written policy on public comment. Phaneuf said that she was the official who first added the section to the board’s agendas. She said in her almost twelve years on the board, there were only two times she felt were out of control. But she believed that there are heated discussions that are going to get out of control.

Echoing a comment by Selectman Paul Cimino, she believed chairs are capable of controlling the room:

I have trouble with telling people how they can speak how they can act. Because they’re in here because they have a concern. And it might take a little longer, but they have to vent someplace. This is where it’s going to happen. . .

I don’t think we need a policy. I think the behavior of this board will dictate the behavior of the audience.

Other board members seemed willing to adopt some form of the written policy. Though John Rooney and Paul Cimino both made clear they didn’t want to curtail public discourse.

Cimino focused on the changes between the written policy and their general practice. He believed it came down to three items:

  • Comments must be short and to the point. . . Plan on being allowed no more than three (3) minutes per person (not per topic) to speak.
  • Total time for Public Comment is fifteen (15) minutes, which can be adjusted by 1 the Chair, based on the meeting’s formal agenda content, and time requirements.
  • Town employees, committee, commission or board members who have business with the Board of Selectmen will not request recognition during Public Comment time.

He said that if they eliminate Town officals from public comment, they need to be very inclusive of getting them on the agenda. But he didn’t agree with time limits for the public. Kolenda said that the board needs to be able to conduct their business. When the public comment goes on too long, public interest wanes as the clock approaches midnight.

Selectman John Rooney was worried about a proposed prohibition on active debate:

  • You are free to ask questions or to make your point for all to consider. However, engaging in active debate with the Board of Selectmen or audience members will not be allowed.

Rooney said he often engages in active debate to better make decisions. (It was here that Kolenda referred to the Regional School Committee policy.)

But Rooney and Phaneuf did seem to agree with Kolenda’s responses – reitirating items not on the agenda shouldn’t be debated.

Earlier in the evening, during public comment, resident Karen Shimkus asked selectmen to not curtail public comment. One clause she specifically objected to is prohibiting reading of letters into the record. Later, selectmen indicated that their current practice already prohibits it.

Here is the draft that selectmen are reviewing:

PUBLIC COMMENT GUIDELINES
Effective Date: DRAFT POLICY STATEMENT

The Southborough Board of Selectmen recognizes the importance of public comment at the discretion of the Chair, on items on the official agenda as well as items not on the official agenda. We ask that all comments from the public be directed to the Chair and that all parties, including members of the Southborough Board of Selectmen, act in a professional and courteous manner when either addressing the Board, or in responding to the public. Once recognized by the Chair, all persons addressing the Board shall state their name and address prior to speaking. It is the role of the Chair to set time limitations and maintain order during all public comment discussions, as it is important that the Board of Selectmen allow themselves enough time to conduct their official town business.

GUIDELINES

Following are guidelines for Public Comment. These guidelines are not intended to inhibit public involvement, or to prevent questions and comments from the public, rather, they are offered as a way to facilitate public questions and comments into the meeting in a consistent and succinct manner:

  • Public Comment is a time when residents can ask questions or make comments on official agenda items. Public Comment is also a time when town residents can bring matters before the Board of Selectmen that are not on the official agenda. These latter comments shall be reserved for the “Public Comment” item on the meeting agenda..
  • Comments must be short and to the point. Letters shall not be read into the record -correspondence submitted to the Board shall be posted to the town’s website, and shall be made available to the public in that manner. Plan on being allowed no more than three (3) minutes per person (not per topic) to speak..
  • Total time for Public Comment is fifteen (15) minutes, which can be adjusted by 1 the Chair, based on the meeting’s formal agenda content, and time requirements..
  • You are free to ask questions or to make your point for all to consider. However, engaging in active debate with the Board of Selectmen or audience members will not be allowed..
  • All remarks must be respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal or slanderous remarks. Inappropriate language will not be tolerated..
  • In accordance with Massachusetts General Laws, no person shall offer Public Comment without permission of the Chair, and all persons shall, at the request of the Chair, be silent. No person shall disrupt the proceedings of a meeting. If, after clear warning from the Chair, a person continues to disrupt the proceedings, the Chair may order the person to withdraw from the meeting and if the person does not withdraw, the Chair may authorize a constable or other officer to remove the person from the meeting..
  • Town employees, committee, commission or board members who have business with the Board of Selectmen will not request recognition during Public Comment time..
  • Persons wanting to make a presentation, or to reserve time on an official agenda must contact the Town Administrator’s office to schedule an appointment..
  • Except in unusual circumstances, any matter presented for consideration to the Board of Selectmen shall neither be acted upon, nor a decision made the night of the presentation in accordance with these guidelines..

Updated (5/17/17 4:12 pm): In reviewing this old post, I discovered (and removed) a note at the bottom that seemed to be there in error – perhaps leftover from an earlier draft.

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