Jul 28, 2014

Public Comment? I'll Have Seconds

The Town Council recently added a second public comment session for the end of its meetings.

Public Comment? I'll Have Seconds

Residents attending Town Council meetings sometimes want to say something after actions are taken, only to have to wait until the public comment session at the next meeting. A recent change will give them a second bite of the apple.

Town Councilman Nick Kapoor's proposal to add a second public session to the tailend of the council's meetings passed by a vote of 5-4.

"This is an idea I brought forward to the Town Council as a non-member to have a second public session," Kapoor explained at Monday night's meeting. "This keeps government more open and allows the public to weigh in on Town Council actions without waiting until the next meeting and over the summer. It's at the disgretion of the chairman."

The change to the council's rules and procedures will allow a second public session lasting no longer than 20 minutes. The chairman may choose who gets to speak and no speaker can talk longer than three minutes. Discussion is limited to what happened at the meeting. This change does not apply to special meetings.

Not all Town Council members agreed with the change.

"We do allow public discussion at our meetings," J.P. Sredzinski said. "The public can see the agenda and comment to try to influence a vote and give us more information, present cases, opinions and views. We don't set a timer. We don't bang a gavel. I think it's okay the way it is. I appreciate your idea. I think it's great to have Town Council members with new ideas, but I don't think we need a change at this time."

Kapoor said in instances of a vote haven been taken on an appointee to a board or a commission, that person should be able to comment that same night.

"It's a good way to keep people involved," Kapoor said. "It keeps us more in tuned with what people are thinking. I highly recommend approving this."

Town Councilwoman Dee Dee Martin said she saw no drawback to it and Chairwoman Enid Lipeles also said she would be supporting it.

Town Councilwoman Debra Dutches said, "I guess my concern is if we take one vote or 10 votes in an evening and everyone in the audience has an opinion on it ... It belabors what we've done if it doesn't lend to the vote or more information. I'm just concerned with it."

Sredzinski said, "Most of my interaction with constituents is outside of the Town Council Chambers, not all in meetings. It's on the street, at Dunkin Donuts, emails, phone calls — the interaction is still there. I don't think this is going to benefit the council's input any by having a second public participation."

Martin replied, "If you don't see a benefit, do you see a harm? What would be the harm in doing it?"

Kapoor said, "There's nothing like having the first selectman and all of us sitting here. When it needs to happen, it's there. It benefits the public. They can speak."

Town Councilman Tony Unger said, "My concern is if we do this, it will create a big problem. If we already made a decision and if we re-look at it again, it will create more problems. It's better [to allow public comment] before we vote, not have it after, [where people can say], 'I don't like the way you voted.' There's nothing positive."

Kapoor said, "We should be open to hearing people who disagree with us. That's when our ears should perk up more."

Unger replied that the session should be about public participation and "not for us to defend our votes."

Town Councilman Frank Lieto said, "I agree with Mr. Unger. I think the harm would be causing people to violate our guidelines against personal complaints or defamatory comments."

Voting in favor of adding the second public session were Kapoor, Martin, Ray Knapp, Lipeles and Dutches. Voting against it were Sredzinski, Lieto, Unger and Town Council Vice Chairwoman Deborah Heim.

Don’t miss updates from Patch!