Selectmen Opt For Inclusion Over Restricting Agenda Requests

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Board of Selectmen News

CHATHAM – A proposal to only allow registered voters to make agenda requests at selectmen's meetings was rebuffed by a majority of the board last week.

Selectmen voted 3-2 to embrace inclusion and continue with the long-standing policy of allowing anyone to make an agenda request under the “Public Announcements and Agenda Requests” segment of the board's regular weekly meetings.

“To exclude voices in political times that beg inclusion would be a very big mistake for us,” said Chairman of Selectmen Jeffrey Dykens. “I think we should be a town that invites participation in our democracy.”

Allowing registered voters and not non-resident property owners and business owners to request agenda items during the meeting would “have a chilling effect” on participation in town government, he added.

Added Finance Committee member Norma Avellar, “This is saying to a large number of people we love your money, we will take your money, but keep your mouth shut. Wrong, wrong, wrong!”

Non-voters would still have an opportunity to request agenda items by contacting the town manager or a member of the board; agenda requests made by board members must be heard within 30 days. Selectman Seth Taylor, who proposed the policy change, said Chatham is more inclusive with summer residents than most Cape towns, with an official summer residents advisory committee that comments on financial matters and warrant articles, and non-resident taxpayers are often allowed to speak at town meeting, “which is virtually unheard of in any other community.”

The policy proposal was not intended to “slur or minimize our non-resident taxpayers in any way,” Taylor said, “but I think we've already been very generous, in fact more generous than almost any town on Cape Cod.”

The restriction proposed by Taylor would go beyond summer residents and include business owners and representatives of organizations that do business with the town, said Selectman Dean Nicastro. Taylor's proposed restriction is “overly limiting,” he said.

The proposal received support from Selectman Amanda Love, who said it stemmed from nonresidents who are suing the town. “There's people costing us a lot of money these days who need to get reeled in,” she said.

The policy proposal, as well as a second one put forth by Taylor which would have required that the entire board to vote on agenda requests presented in public session, was all about “who gets to drive the bus,” Taylor said. People with “narrow political considerations” sometimes abuse the process, he said, adding that he could recall at least five instances when someone making an agenda request used the opportunity to make a political point. That “takes away the whole notion that it's just a simple agenda request,” Taylor said.

Removing that platform “is a necessary component to doing rationale business,” he said. There have also been instances when citizens made agenda requests that never materialized. When someone makes an agenda request in public, the entire board should act on it, not just the chairman, which is the case now, Taylor said. That “absolutely guarantees the appearance of that individual's request on the agenda,” he said.

Under a town bylaw, the chairman is responsible for the board's weekly agenda, a system that has been in place for years and has worked well, said Dykens. The proposal was a response to a specific incident, he added, referring to a situation several weeks ago when George Myers, a nonresident, asked for an agenda item regarding waterways bylaws and mooring policies. Taylor moved that the board not accept the agenda request, but other members of the board did not want to vote out of concern that it would be a violation of the Open Meeting Law, since the topic was not listed on the agenda.

Town Counsel Patrick Costello wrote in a memo that the board can vote on matters raised during the public comments sections of an agenda if the chairman could not reasonably know 48 hours prior to the meeting that the issue would be brought up. He also stated that a person's voting status is irrelevant in whether or not he or she can speak at a board meeting.

Dykens acknowledged that people sometimes go on too long during the comment and agenda request segment of the meeting, and he said he will “certainly strive to do a better job in terms of being very specific with agenda requests.”

Selectmen voted down Taylor's first proposal, regarding restricting public agenda requests to voters, by a 3-2 vote, with Love and Taylor dissenting. The second proposal regarding the entire board voting on public agenda requests, was also rejected 4-1, with Taylor dissenting and Love abstaining.

A proposed policy regarding conduct at public meetings drafted by resident Norman Pacun was deferred to incorporate some suggestions by Nicastro and Taylor. The draft statement cited the need for order at public meetings as well as stating that chairmen should be fair in hearing a range of viewpoints and not granting special consideration to anyone in the desire for fairness and transparency. The chairman's discretion under the Open Meeting Law to control who speaks at the meeting should be “exercised reasonably,” the draft reads.

The revised policy will be brought back to the board within 30 days.