Town pushing comment policy on boards not appointed by them; Questions raised (Updated)

by beth on May 18, 2017

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Over the past year, the Board of Selectmen has had several conversations about public decorum. At issue is how residents treat Town boards when angered over controversial issues.

Recent controversy at the Public Works Planning Board led selectmen to taking one more step – pushing a public participation policy on boards they didn’t appoint. That same controversy was used as an example by one anonymous reader who opined the policy may go too far.

That reader asked me to solicit feedback from others. What do you think of the policy?

  • Do you think it is necessary for reigning in out of control residents?
  • Do you think it is too restrictive?
  • And, I’ll add to that, what do you think of the board’s choice to dictate that policy for all meetings in Town buildings?

To read the policy, click here. Of course, many of you will want more context before you can weigh in.

Back in January, selectmen adopted the Public Participation Policy. It was intended for their board and the boards they appoint.

Apparently, those committees were never asked to adopt the policy. That was addressed on Tuesday night. And during that discussion a decision was reached to take it one step further.

In the discussion, Chair Brian Shea and resident Desiree Aselbekian both referred to a meeting that was seen as an example of why the policy is needed. During a Public Works Planning Board meeting, one resident purportedly got really riled up and loud enough that police were called in.*

The reader who reached out to me participated in the PWPB meeting referred to. The resident ascertains that continued push back from abutters commenting at the PWPB meetings led to a very different outcome than if they hadn’t been vocal.

Of course, the selectmen’s policy doesn’t eliminate public comment. But it puts all of the power in the Chair’s hands.

Based on discussion by the board, the reason for that was too allow more discussion when the chair believes it is warranted. (An earlier draft from September would have specified time restrictions on comments.)

So the question raised appears to be, does the policy give the chair too much power? Would it allow a chair to suppress public feedback? 

In January, some debate took place among board members about policy specifics. But none seemed opposed to the Chair having power and discretion.

However, there was some debate about the language. No one argued it was perfect. In the end, members agreed to accept the policy, then deal with any issues they come across by making revisions later.

When the issue was raised this week, it was for selectmen to instruct all boards they appoint adopt the policy. Aselbekian* said that recent behavior at meetings caused her to reverse an earlier opinion that state law sufficiently covered comment policy.

She urged the board to look into applying the policy to all boards that meet in Municipal buildings. (That currently covers any non-school boards elected directly by residents or appointed by the Moderator.)

Aselbekian suggested that they may want to check with Town Counsel. Town Administrator Mark Purple didn’t see that as necessary. He thought it appropriate for selectmen to create rules for meetings held in buildings they are custodians of.

Selectmen voted to do that. Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf added a caveat, any board that disagrees with adopting the policy should notify them by their next meeting and explain why.

That caveat that wasn’t included in the communication from Purple to committees yesterday. An email went out stating:

On January 17, 2017, the Board of Selectmen adopted the attached policy regarding public participation at meetings of Town boards and committees. The policy was done to memorialize the expectations for proper decorum for both the public and board and committee members at these meetings.

Based on some issues with public participation at a recent Public Works Planning Board meeting, the Selectmen again revisited the policy at their May 16, 2017 meeting. While it was noted that the policy could only apply to those boards and committees appointed by the Selectmen (and as a suggested practice to those boards and committees who are elected or otherwise appointed), the Selectmen are the custodians for all town-owned buildings and properties, excepting School properties. To that end, the Selectmen voted unanimously that the attached policy will apply to any public meeting held in a Town-owned building, effective immediately.

Please pass this information along to your respective board and committee members.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation. If you have any questions, please let me know.

Now that you have the background, feel free to weigh in through comments below.

*Aselbekian is a former chair of the PWPB who lives with the current Chair James Hellen.

**The incident took place at a PWPB meeting for a scheduled vote on recommendations related to siting a water tower. Not having witnessed the incident, my knowledge is second hand.

A reader told me that abutters to a potential site at Fairview Hill were upset that the board hadn’t notified them of the meeting. (One neighbor came across the public notice and notified others.)

They were also angry that the report revised after a previous public hearing on the issue hadn’t been made available in advance. They were allowed to look at the boards’ copies for a few minutes. But that led to further anger with claims that comments promised to be included weren’t.

That version has since been disputed by the Chair, Hellen. You can read his version in a more recent post. And he points out that the incident referred to above took place at the May 1st meeting. That date had been set in front of abutters at their March meeting.

Police were called in, to the May meeting when an angry resident’s outburst was considered out of control. He left before police arrived.

(In the end, the board voted to qualify their recommendation to the report by asking selectmen to do “due diligence”.)

Updated (5/24/17 4:33 pm): Based on feedback from Hellen and the report and letter shared by Public Works, I’m updating the info on the water tower recommendation (and board communications). For more details, see the dedicated post.

1 louise barron May 18, 2017 at 4:56 PM

Let’s be clear. There are those board members who have shown disrespect to folks at meetings, when they wanted to speak. There have been many meetings that the chair of a particular board chose to close public comment, even when others wished to speak and were in line to do so. Cut him right off at the ankles, so to speak. Negative attitudes and displays to residents by board members is ugly. A chair person just last night showed disdain by facial expressions at residents. As long as we live in this town, boards need to show respect to those who put them on the boards they sit.

2 YY May 19, 2017 at 9:23 AM

I hope this flat out doesn’t apply to “public hearings”. I don’t know or understand many of the boards/committees but I would think some of the more narrowly focused boards/committees might not hold “public hearings” but really makes sense to engage in public debate.

3 Margarite Landry May 19, 2017 at 11:07 AM

When the Main Street Project finally listened to citizen input, then the outcome was positive. Before that, the situation was oppositional and frustrating. There is a lot of experience and expertise among the residents of this town. If a chair decides to shut down citizen comment, what benefit does that have?
Some boards have made decisions without sufficient citizen input, and then are puzzled when residents get frustrated and oppositional? Maybe it’s time for more citizen input and not less.

4 Al Hamilton May 19, 2017 at 12:11 PM

Perhaps, before addressing the Chair, each supplicant should approach on bended knee and genuflect 3 times.

This policy seems unnecessary and smacks of political correctness run amuck. What, for instance, is a “respectful” tone. I am old school, I believe that respect is something you earn it is not a birthright. Courtesy yes, respect – earn it.

The state law is more than enough power. I have seen Town Moderators and other chairs use it by warning an over enthusiastic speaker that they need to compose themselves to avoid the undesirable alternative. I have never seen this fail to work.

The plain fact is that this “policy” is an empty vessel. The reality is that a good chair manages meetings and conflict and a ineffective chair will never exert effective control.

The best public meetings are ones that are a mixture of open discussion and vigorous debate moderated by a chair that keeps good order while allowing attendees to contribute and ask questions. I think this policy hinders this goal.

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