Town adopts comment policy for Board of Selectmen and their appointed boards

by beth on January 20, 2017

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This week, the Board of Selectmen adopted a Comment Policy. The policy seemed less about adopting new rules and more about clarifying their code of conduct for the public.

The policy is intended to address what selectmen appear to have deemed ruly or disrespectful behavior by residents at some town committee meetings.

The new policy will apply not only to BOS meetings, but also to boards/committees appointed by selectmen. (Yes, that includes the Zoning Board of Appeals.)

The policy prohibits disruptive behavior and dictates:

All remarks and dialogue in public meetings must be respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal or slanderous remarks.

The text largely pulls from Massachusetts General Law. It also includes language intended to help boards comply with the state’s Open Meeting Law. Resident Desiree Aselbekian questioned the duplicative nature of much of the document.

Selectman Dan Kolenda had recommended adopting a policy and spearheaded drafting it. He explained that he wanted one concise document that residents could read, rather than asking them to research state laws.

There was some debate around the line:

Except in unusual circumstances, any matter presented under “Public Comment” will not be debated or acted upon by the Board at the time it is presented.

Timothy Litt* recommended including a line that explains how someone looking for a lengthy discussion should proceed (e.g., contact the Chair to get on the agenda.) Selectman Paul Cimino disagreed, saying he didn’t want to push people to not take advantage of public comment. And the Chair can always cut off discussion, and direct for an item to be placed on the next agenda.

Aselbekian pointed out that the board has often had constructive discussion with public commenters. She didn’t approve of characterizing those exchanges as unusual.

Cimino and Selectman John Rooney concurred. Kolenda and Chair Brian Shea were more concerned with ensuring that discussion during public comment doesn’t veer into violation of Open Meeting Laws.

Selectmen all agreed that useful discourse often occurs. Cimino and Rooney felt it should be up to the Chair’s discretion to determine how far the discussion goes based on the time available and whether or not it is a violation.

Rooney asserted that if the sentence remained he would still engage in “active discourse” with the public and deny it counted as debate.

Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf recommended adopting the policy and making changes down the road if needed. The board unanimously adopted the new policy.

Click here to read the policy.

*Ironically, when one resident commented on the draft policy, the board forgot one long standing rule, reaffirmed in the document. 

Shea recognized “Mr. Litt”(?) to comment. The resident didn’t state his full name and address. Without it, I couldn’t verify his name quickly enough to include in the original post.

Updated (5/18/17 10:00 am): In reviewing this old post, I was able to update that the above mentioned residents was Timothy Litt.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kelly Roney January 20, 2017 at 2:45 PM

“All remarks and dialogue in public meetings must be respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal or slanderous remarks.”

Check!

I do wonder about the word personal. Would it have been a personal remark to raise a question about former ZBA member David Eagle’s departure from Southborough at his final ZBA hearing?

I don’t want to rehash that hearing, but I think that would have been a legitimate question that Eagle, as then chair, should not have been able to rule out of order on the basis of this policy. I do think that, absent some explanation, his ability to close on the sale of his house the next day meant he had already moved from Southborough and thus was ineligible to serve on the ZBA.

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2 Jack January 23, 2017 at 6:10 PM

As this article states, “the Chair can always cut off discussion, and direct for an item to be placed on the next agenda”, but can public comment also be closed while people are still waiting to make comments?

In my memory of watching on SAM, in the rushed Park Central ZBA meeting which took place a handful of hours before Eagle officially moved out of town, there were two people waiting to make comments (one of whom had not yet commented that night). It sounds like public comment “should’ have been continued and put on the next agenda, but are the boards “required” to keep public comment open until all residents have had the option to comment publicly?

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3 Donna McDaniel January 20, 2017 at 9:35 PM

Wellllllll…. have to think about this one for a while. In my many (at least 20 years of being at Selectmen’s meetings either as a Selectman (3 yrs) or a reporter (the others, not counting watching TV), I do not recall anything that would upset the meeting that couldn’t be handled by the chairman suggesting the person’s time was up or, on a rare occasion, that the comments were not appropriate. Sometimes the person was asked to put his/her thoughts in writing to make them easier for board to consider and respond another time.
What I really wonder if there isn’t a reason for this becoming a problem (if it is really?) … namely that people may or may not feel like they’re being heard any time or if there is enough time for them to speak… I’d like to suggest that putting a concern in writing to the board, even beforehand, might be a way to at least open a discussion but I know I’ve written more than a few e-mails to the board with questions or comments and not ever received a reply (is there a rule about that?) — So the board might want to choose that as another time-saver but would they want to take the time to respond? (What ever happened with the time we “gained” with a 5-person board??)
I certainly sympathize with the idea of both not being heard and not having enough time to really listen but maybe this is a good time to decide just how important it is to actually be able to attend to a question or idea from a citizen.
So if not enough time at a meeting or to respond after a meeting… just when will it be that people have an opportunity to communicate with any board and/or individual board members???
Given the way the rest of the world is going, mighten we be thankful that there are people wanting to share in our democracy and communicate with those whom we’ve elected?

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4 mark dassoni January 22, 2017 at 6:28 PM

Donna if you reread my comment you and I both agree in what we both put up for replies . Mark Dassoni .

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5 mark dassoni January 21, 2017 at 11:26 AM

This policy is what we in Ashland , as long as it on agenda list to have ok ,if not boards do not add in , to all elected board chairs it means not to be in rush be patient with citizens let them speak fully not short and let them answer any board question to them, to appointed boards mostly to ZBA chair do not let members detour you to let citizen speak I been to many meetings that is seen this conduct and out bust and
\ or members speak out of turn ,the planning does it best at letting public speak including out of towners as I got speak ,to selectmen chair you let me speak also , at ZBA I first go to town counselor ask him first for guidance ,adopt this as policy and citizen -boards and trust each other again, Mark Dassoni .

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6 Wendy January 22, 2017 at 9:23 PM

I’d suggest that this ‘comment policy’ is hypocritical. The town boards cannot insist that the residents behave one way, but not properly ensure that the boards adhere to it as well. I’ve witnessed this tens of time during ZBA meetings, and the Selectman have been completely unable to control it.

The Selectmen should also consider the cause of resident’s behavior, not just the effect. Obviously, there are many very frustrated people in town who don’t feel like they’re being heard.

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7 Wrong January 23, 2017 at 2:26 PM

This was created entirely to keep themselves from being questioned on their shady antics. They want to do whatever they want and then tell the public that they are out of line. Shows the need for change starting at the top (kolenda/cimino 2017) and also town counsel.

How dare you question my judgement? Why wouldn’t we give a developer 21 of 22 waivers and sell the town out.

Complete joke continue to be heard and speak your mind until we get real leaders.

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8 mark dassoni January 23, 2017 at 2:52 PM

ZBA is questionable in shady antics , if nobody stay on them they only get more ego powered thinking we are not wrong at all , the selectmen and town counsel must go with citizens attorney to turn this circus around , poor planning board is being put under the bus by not only ZBA but by selectmen not appointing attorney for board , Mark Dassoni .

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