Selectmen Reject Bylaw Mandating Letters Be Read At Hearings

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Chatham


CHATHAM – A proposal to require that all letters sent to boards, committees and commissions be read out loud at public hearings was rejected by the board of selectmen last week.

The board declined to include a general bylaw amendment regarding the reading of correspondence at public hearings on the warrant of the Jan. 23 special town meeting. A majority of board members felt the bylaw impinged on the rights of chairman and was unnecessary.

Selectmen said, however, that recent discussions and communications with chairmen made it clear that they felt letters should be read and they expected chairman to follow suit.

“We've made it loud and clear what we expect,” said Selectman Cory Metters. “We can bring this to an annual town meeting” if the board's wishes aren't followed.

Chairmen of several regulatory committees, including the historic business district commission and zoning board of appeals, objected to a bylaw, saying they had regulations in place governing how the committee functioned including reading of letters. Most committees, for instance, read all letters and read form letters once and note others who sent the same letter.

There was concern that requiring that all letters be read could provide a platform for personal attacks and dissemination of misinformation. HBDC Chairman Dan Sylver said when people speak at public hearings, a chairman, under the state Open Meeting Law, can keep them on topic. Being required to read all letters would be “just a way for someone to cry fire in a theater and get away with it,” he said. “It's a good idea but I think it sends the wrong message.”

Selectmen Dean Nicastro said the proposed bylaw, drafted by town counsel, was “overreach.” Boards and commissions got the message that selectmen want all letters read, and unless there's an “obstreperous lack of cooperation,” the town shouldn't meddle in the internal workings of the groups, he said.

“I think it's bad policy, bad government and inadvisable to be putting this in the form of a bylaw,” Nicastro said.

Selectmen Seth Taylor had a different take. He said he favored putting the bylaw before voters and letting them decide. Voters don't get a say over committee and commission appointments, he added, and this would be “an opportunity for them to make a statement if they think it is appropriate.”

Resident Judith Winters, who first proposed a policy on letters, said while she didn't initially have a bylaw in mind, she thought it was a good idea to provide consistency. Her concerns were not directed against anyone specifically, but, she said, some chairman took it personally. She added that reading only one form letter gives “short shrift to citizens of this town who took the time to write letters.”

She suggested that letters should be read without inflection, “without disgust, laughter or other ways of demeaning what was written. I think that's totally inappropriate and it happens often.”

Rejecting the bylaw basically tells committees they can do anything they want, she said. “And that's what's going to happen.”

Selectmen voted 3-2 not to place the article on the warrant, with Taylor and Amanda Love dissenting. Metters reiterated that the measure could be resurrected if committees ignore the selectmen's wishes.

“We're not going to dismiss this entirely,” said Metters.

The board endorsed an article that will accelerate the conversion from manual to automated water meters. So far 3,536 of the town's 7,206 water meters have been converted to the automated system, with 3,670 remaining to be replaced. If the $375,000 sought in the article is approved, the timeframe for completing the conversion will be reduced from four to two years. The cost would be covered by the water surplus fund, which currently has a $2,761,705 balance.

Finance Director Alix Hielala said more funds would be requested at the May annual town meeting to complete the project, expected to happen by December of next year.

Selectmen were slated to finalize the Jan. 23 special town meeting warrant this Tuesday, after The Chronicle's deadline.