By Leslie H. Dixon
OXFORD — It took some fine tuning, but the selectmen’s new Rules of Procedures ensures that the public will have an opportunity to comment at the Board of Selectmen meetings.
There is no statutory requirement in Maine that the public be permitted to speak at public meetings.
The Oxford Board of Selectmen approved a selectmen’s meeting Rules of Procedures at its Feb. 16 meeting that details how a board meeting will be conducted, including when and how public comment will be heard. The policy is intended to ensure an efficient and smooth running meeting and that it meets the requirements of Maine’s open meeting law.
In the three-page document approved on a 4-1 vote, the policy, in part, lays out what may and may not happen during public comment segment of the agenda, but not everyone was happy with it.
Selectman Scott Hunter, the dissenting vote, said he had several concerns during the discussion about the new policy, including the initial limitation on subjects the public can bring up.
Hunter said originally the policy stated that the public could only ask about agenda items, but since the public comment time was slated near the top of the meeting agenda it was limiting. The board then tried to have two public comment periods – one near the top and one near the bottom of the agenda.
“They should be able to ask what they want,” he said.
By last week’s Thursday, March 2 meeting, the public comment section was back to one time slot, which followed the town manager’s report near the top of the agenda. No subject now appears to be off limits – at least to ask a question about.
Under the new policy, the public must first identify themselves and address the chairman when they speak during the public comment section.
Inquiries that are not considered “simple” will be referred to the town manager to investigate or consider. The town manager will then report back to the selectmen. If board action is necessary, the action may be taken at a subsequent meeting.
The policy must meet the requirements of the open meeting law.
For example, it states that all board and special meetings will be held in public and open to the public and media. But if an executive session is required under law, that will be closed to the public and media. All decisions to be made must be made in public session.
Although not obligated to, in this case, the Board of Selectmen has decided to allow public participation at each meeting within limits.
The policy states, “Because the board desires to hear the viewpoints of all its residents and nonresidents, and also needs to conduct its business in an orderly and efficient manner, it may set a time limit on the length of this time period and/or a time limit for individual speakers.”
The Maine Freedom of Access Act is a series of laws designed to guarantee that he public has access to public records of government bodies at all levels in Maine.
The open meeting law, as part of that legislation, regulates the methods by which public meetings are conducted. The act applies to all meetings where transactions that affect the citizens of the state have occurred. If the law is violated, fines can be levied against the board for up to $500.
While the law permits anyone to attend public proceedings, public participation is not guaranteed. However, most boards do allow time for public comment, within established parameters designed to ensure order.
Boards develop their own policies for managing direct public comment and participation.
Some board recommend that public participation be limited to time periods just prior to the agenda items upon which citizens wish to comment rather than during a general public comment period elsewhere on the agenda.
The Oxford Hills School District Board of Directors, for example, has its public comment section at the top of the agenda, right after the flag salute and welcome by the chairman of the board.
Sometimes, a volatile issue or issues within a town may cause a board to rethink its public comment policy.
In 2013, voters in Peru narrowly passed an ordinance that requires selectmen to include a 20-minute public session at each board meeting and to put on the agenda any issue requested by a resident.
Selectmen had changed their custom of responding to questions from the floor and letting people participate at every weekly meeting to a policy of allowing public comment at only two meetings per month. Selectmen had offered to return to the weekly public segment but proponents proceeded with the vote.
Selectmen reacted by saying they would “take back” their meetings and not tolerate any disruptive behavior.
In Portland, the Planning Board has a “Guide to Public Participation.”
Board rules allow each member of the public to speak for three minutes (unless an extension is requested by the speaker and granted by the board.) In order to ensure that each member of the public has an opportunity to be heard, a person has only one opportunity to present their comments per agenda item.
The guide is clear in what the board will tolerate.
No “jeers or cheers” are allowed.