The Saratoga Sun -

Public comment requires respect from both sides

 


Recently, the Saratoga Town Council and the Saratoga Planning Commission have taken action that appears to seek to limit public involvement at their meetings.

In both cases, the reason given for the changes was to generate more productivity among the board and council members and allow them to be more effective at their jobs.

The Saratoga Town Council removed “Items from the Public” from its agenda and at its meeting Tuesday announced the agenda item would only be included if people submitted their topic of discussion by the Thursday prior to the meeting.

This was to give council members time to research submitted topics so they could provide good answers.

This month the planning commission changed its agenda to allow public comments for one minute. We’re not sure if this is a figurative or literal minute and certainly it doesn’t take much time to introduce yourself for the record and make a couple of comments.

A citizen may want to explain their comments or provide some context to them, however, and sometimes that takes longer than a single minute.

Rather than adopting an unrealistic procedure, and to better serve the public, we think the public comment period could be managed for time, repetition and ethics by the chairperson.

The commission also decided to refrain from comment on the citizen’s statement or question, except to ask questions to clarify understanding of the citizen’s remarks.

After researching the citizen’s questions or comments, the board is to provide an answer or explanation at its next meeting.

This policy limits the participation of board members as well. Not all questions from the public require research and investigation and board members should be allowed to respond immediately if they are able.

By limiting public comments to a short question from a citizen and eliminating any discussion between the board and the public, the commission is curtailing public involvement and, in some cases, actually slowing down the process.

Putting items from the public on agendas is not required by law, but ethically citizens should be entitled to a conversation with the board at an official meeting that can be recorded in the minutes.

The planning commission should welcome this exchange.

Similarly, the town council by requiring the submission of comments prior to the meeting is restricting the spontaneity of public involvement in the town’s business.

Council members are elected and board members appointed to represent the public and carry out, with some mediation, the public’s will. The public should be given due opportunity to weigh in with comments, concerns, questions and advice.

That being said, the public has a responsibility to present comments in a civil manner and with respect for the time of everyone attending the meeting. A litany of repetitive comments are unnecessary when a simple statement of agreement will suffice.

Criticism of the board should be limited to its actions and decisions. Personal attacks are beyond the pale and should not be tolerated.

The public should respect the order and decorum of the meeting and allow the governing body the time to conduct its business. The mayor or chairperson are bound to preserve the progression of the meeting and maintain control of the agenda.

It should also be said that both the council and the planning commission have long reserved a space for public comments on their agendas and allowed citizens to comment, sometimes at length, during their meetings.

On Tuesday, the town council approved a motion to continue its tradition of allowing an open space on its agenda for public input and we commend that action.

We understand it can make things difficult for the council and often council members are unprepared for many comments.

Democracy is not always neat and predictable. By its nature, it is messy and slow.

But by running for office or agreeing to appointments, council and board members have placed themselves in the public arena. We commend that action also. It takes courage, work and a thick skin to do what most are unwilling to do.

We also commend citizens who attend public meetings and offer comment. That also takes courage, work and a thick skin.

Preserving a public comment period on your agendas gives responsible citizens the opportunity to engage with their elected and appointed representatives in a public forum and become part of the public record.

 

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