CHATHAM — In the past year, several town committee meetings have spawned heated debate; one prompted the chairman to call police, and in another, a shouting match devolved into a brief fistfight. In response, it might be time for board and committee chairmen to come together for training on how to encourage proper decorum in meetings.
That was the perspective of selectmen, who discussed meeting decorum Tuesday at the request of Airport Commission Chairman Peter Donovan.
Selectman Seth Taylor said one useful tool would be a committee handbook which codifies meeting procedures and spells out penalties for violators, like a version he drafted months ago. The majority of the board at the time favored a handbook that took a more welcoming tone with those volunteering for committee work.
If selectmen don't behave with decorum, they can be ousted by voters, but appointed committee members cannot, Taylor noted. In such a case, voters trust selectmen to remove those committee members, and “if you don't have a serious set of parameters that define what acceptable and unacceptable behavior is,” then it's up to the subjective decisions of selectmen, he said.
Board member Dean Nicastro said he favors the current handbook, which contains guidance on civil discourse in meetings. Chatham has a long tradition of allowing board and committee chairmen to control meeting agendas and conduct. In the case of some airport commission sessions, Nicastro said some people in the audience have sought to participate to the same degree as commissioners, which slows discussion. While transparency and public involvement are important, “at the same time, the boards and committees of the town need to be managed in an efficient process,” he said. Personal attacks are never appropriate, Nicastro added.
Selectmen Chairman Jeffrey Dykens said it is appropriate for a chairman to limit or even prohibit public input in a meeting, provided that other opportunities for public comment are provided later.
Resident Steve Buckley suggested that chairmen make it clear to the public before the meeting whether public comment will be taken, in order to prevent frustration.
Resident Juris Ukstins, a frequent attendee of airport committee meetings, said he filed an open meeting law complaint against Donovan for allowing personal attacks and for not allowing him to speak.
“I feel this is not how the Open Meeting Laws are intended to be used,” he said.
In the past, the town has hosted meetings for committee chairman where they could share best practices and review policies, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said. Sharing their own experiences, “they were able to talk some things out,” she said. Such a meeting is probably overdue, she noted.