Nov 02, 2011 Amanda Seef Uncategorized
Public comment at Manlius Town Board is still temporarily removed from the agenda until new rules of decorum can be adopted next month.
The Manlius Town Board voted unanimously in September to suspend public comment from the meeting agenda for 30 days. During that time, supervisor Ed Theobald said he would review the purpose of a public comment period and report on ways to improve it at the Oct. 26 meeting.
That report has now been moved, potentially, to Dec. 14 and public comment is still suspended from the agenda.
“To me, it was getting out of control and away from the direction public comment was to be used for,” Theobald said.
Negative or derogatory comments about town personnel or board members and “disturbing” public concerns were being voiced at the meetings, Theobald said. Often, speakers would go over the allotted five minutes, a stipulation put in place by the rules of decorum.
Theobald has sent his suggestions for changes to the rules of decorum to the board, and the board is expected to adopt those changes at the Dec. 14 meeting.
“I have recommended to the board to not have the public comment period on the agenda,” Theobald said.
New York state open meetings law does not require a public comment period at board meetings. The period was added by a former supervisor in the late 1990s and the rules of decorum were designed in 2007. They were last revised in January 2008, two years prior to Theobald starting as town supervisor.
“I’m adamantly opposed to it,” said Manlius resident Lou Van Wie. “It doesn’t give any of the tax paying residents a basis to voice their displeasures for what’s going on in the town. It takes away your ability to communicate with the town. I don’t think it’s good government.”
Public comment periods wouldn’t be totally barred under Theobald’s plan, which still has to be amended and approved by the town board.
“If the door is open, the door is open all the way. If you accept positive comments, you must accept the negative. Treat everyone equally.”
— Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government
Should Theobald’s changes be adopted, residents would have to notify the town clerk of the subject of their comments. The topic would be screened by Theobald, who would determine if the comments were appropriate for discussion at the town board meeting. Items that would be deemed appropriate, Theobald said, include ‘action items,’ such as issues the board can do something about within the town, or issues applicable to the town or residents. Private property matters, neighbor disputes and state, federal or county issues would not be applicable to speak about.
Read the advisory opinion issued by the Committee on Open Government in 2009 here.
Joe Novek, who has taken the issue of public comment to the Committee on Open Government, says comments should be allowed at all meetings, regardless of if they are on the agenda.
“I think they need to do it on the standards of the Committee on Open Government, not on their standards,” Novek said. “They’re discriminating, if you open it up to a public forum, you have to allow dissenting points of view, too.”
Once approved to make the public comment and bring the item to the board, that person’s time will be added to the agenda.
“It makes it easier for everybody,” Theobald said. “I can say in advance to the board to be prepared to address the residents concerns. Hopefully we can satisfy and resolve whatever their issue is.”
Adding a step to voicing an opinion or concern at a board meeting will not help the public, said Manlius resident Ken Wagner.
“The public needs a forum to voice their opinion and to put steps to that process, in my opinion, will stifle people coming forward,” he said. “Don’t make everybody pay for the actions of one or two. I think the screening process would apply toward censorship.”
Robert Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government, says the town is more than welcome to remove the public comment period from the agenda, though public comment, including dissenting viewpoints, should be allowed. Choosing who gets to speak, or about which topics, is not fair, he said.
An advisory opinion issued in 2009 by Freeman regarding the public participation in town meetings, particularly in the town of Manlius, states that a town board does not have to require residents to speak; however, if they do allow comments, they must do so with “reasonable rules,” which treat each member of the public equally.
“If the door is open, the door is open all the way,” Freeman said. “If you accept positive comments, you must accept the negative. Treat everyone equally.”