CHATHAM — Acknowledging that it doesn't replace the state Open Meeting Law, a split board of selectmen last week adopted a policy encouraging the chairmen of town committees to allow public comment at their meetings whenever possible.
Drafted by resident Norman Pacun and amended by selectmen, the statement acknowledges the Open Meeting Law and the need both for public participation in government and for orderly, productive meetings. It specifies that public participation should be allowed when time permits, even in meetings designated as “workshops” or “working sessions” when sometimes public comments are not allowed. The statement requires that the chairman be “fair in hearing a range of viewpoints and in making rulings so as not to grant special consideration to any person,” and acknowledges that while the law allows a meeting chairman to limit discussion, chairmen need to do so reasonably and with regard for both inclusiveness and efficiency.
There have been several instances recently where chairmen have asserted their right to control who speaks at meetings. Earlier this year the airport commission was the subject of an Open Meeting Law complaint about the chairman's failure to allow a resident to speak, but the Attorney General's Office rejected the complaint, pointing out the law specifically allows chairmen to determine who speaks at a public meeting.
Amendments offered to the new policy at last week's board meeting specified that comments should be “reasonably germane to the agenda item under consideration,” and specified that the chairman should provide advance notice – either in the agenda or verbally at the start of the meeting – about whether public comment will be taken and when. Selectmen also opted to append to their document a passage from the attorney general's Open Meeting Law guide that stresses that meeting chairmen have the legal authority to control or disallow public participation.
“Is it the vision that every single public meeting will offer public comment?” Chairman Jeffrey Dykens asked the group. In certain meetings, like when the selectmen hold a goal setting session, it may be preferable to limit discussion to board members. “Every once in a while you do have to have a meeting of yourselves,” he said.
Selectman Dean Nicastro said the document is “aspirational” since it doesn't trump state law. He proposed language that would specifically allow a chairman to preclude public comment during work sessions, when doing so is in the best interest of accomplishing the committee's business. He specifically noted the selectmen's working sessions on goal setting, which he said are excruciating enough without the time added by public comments.
Board member Cory Metters disagreed, saying it would be clearer to either require a chairman to always allow discussion or to give the chair the discretion to disallow it in any type of meeting. Otherwise, it opens the process to “mischief,” he noted.
Selectman Seth Taylor said some members are concerned that the public will abuse the policy by misusing the right to comment, and others are worried that board chairmen might abuse their power to limit debate. In such a case, it is best to err on the side of the citizens' right to speak, he said.
“Why is it that we have to clarify the Open Meeting Law?” planning board Chairman Peter Cocolis asked the board. He argued that the public participation policy is prompted not by a large number of problems, but by a few complaints. He said his board strives to allow public comment, and doing so has allowed the group to craft zoning changes that won approval at town meeting. But in some rare sessions, public input may not be appropriate, Cocolis argued. State law gives chairmen considerable discretion in limiting discussion, but it also provides penalties for those who wrongly limit public input. If chairmen consistently limit debate at meetings, “you guys can fire us. Everybody can complain about it, and that's perfectly fine. The point is, there's a way to get at the chairmen” and hold them accountable, Cocolis said.
Pacun said the policy doesn't attempt to supersede the Open Meeting Law, but acknowledges it. “Nothing in this document removes from the chairman the right to prevent disruption, the right to run the meeting,” he said. When it comes to when public comment is allowed at a meeting, or for how long, “those decisions are left to the chair,” Pacun said. But any amendment that specifically allows chairmen to preclude public comment at work sessions or workshops would be counterproductive, he noted.
“I think the exception swallows the rule,” he said. The goal is to “make sure that we, as a town, support the type of fairness and transparency and inclusion that we have done for hundreds of years in our town meeting form of government,” Pacun said.
Historical commission Chairman Frank Messina acknowledged that some committees have had “dust-ups” over public comment, but said selectmen have dealt with those issues.
“We're here because somebody feels like there's a problem,” he said. If chairmen are improperly handling public comments at their meetings, selectmen should call them in for a discussion rather than drafting a policy, he said. “Talk to us,” Messina said.
Historic Business District Commission Chairman Dan Sylver said he was taken somewhat aback by the policy.
“To me, it implied that there was a wrongdoing by the chairs,” he said. Sylver said he believes he's complied with the Open Meeting Law, “and apparently the [state attorney general] agrees with me,” he said, since there have been no violations of the law. Sylver called the policy a “feel-good” measure.
“You're asking people to volunteer for these committees. The Open Meeting Law is like a large sword being dangled over their heads, and being used as weapons,” he said. While boards must abide by the law, so too must citizens, Sylver noted.
With Dykens dissenting and Nicastro abstaining, the policy was adopted by the board on a 3-1 vote.