The chance to have your say at council meetings depends on where you live
In addition to being the place where policy is set, council meetings provide the opportunity for citizens to confront their elected leaders. The public comment portion of the agenda is when people sound off, be it about poor street conditions or the contract that was awarded without a bid.
In New London, however, you might have to wait a couple of hours to make your point in person. In Norwich, it could be a couple of weeks.
I received some calls after the topic surfaced at a recent meeting of the newly seated New London City Council, at which it adopted its rules of procedure.
Those rules limit public comments near the start of the meeting to items on the agenda that evening. Any citizens wanting to speak to the council about another topic must wait until the end of the meeting. The prior council adopted this rule after some speakers took to prating about topics of little interest, except to themselves, often blowing past the 3-minute limit and prolonging the meetings.
A couple of council members, however, felt the council was improperly penalizing all citizens for the callous behavior of a few. Councilor John Satti made a motion to amend the rule to allow people to speak on “any matters of interest,” receiving a second from the only Republican councilor, Martin Olsen, who had also expressed concerns about the restrictions.
But other council members opted to leave the policy in place, defeating the amendment 5-2. It wasn’t fair to those who attend the meeting to hear about city business to have speakers prattle on at the start about items not on the agenda, explained council President Anthony Nolan.
Curious as to how similar communities handle the situation, I checked on the council rules for Norwich and Groton.
Norwich City Council holds its regular meetings the first and third Monday. At that first meeting, public speakers may “address the City Council on a resolution or ordinance which appears on the council agenda.” That’s it. If you want to talk on some other topic, the council will refer you to the appropriate council subcommittee.
At the second meeting of the month, however, a “citizen can comment on non-agenda items of concern to the city and within the direct purview of the City Council.”
As in New London, comments are restricted to three minutes, but unlike New London, comments are cut off after 30 minutes.
Then there is the Groton Town Council, which is old school. It does not restrict the speaker topics, aside from the rules of good taste, and provides up to 5 minutes for public comments, which come near the start of the meeting. Apparently the council meetings in Groton have fewer speakers clogging up the agenda or the councilors have greater patience.
Is there a right or wrong way to allow for public comment? I don’t think so. It seems reasonable that legislative bodies would adopt procedures that fit their respective communities. If enough people get upset about any restrictions placed on them they will find a way to let their elected leaders know and, I suspect, those leaders would react with changes.
If a topic becomes particularly heated, with a large number of speakers wanting to be heard, a council is free to suspend its own rules.
Citizens have more access to their local elected leaders than ever before. The emails of all council members are easily accessible on the respective town websites, as are meeting minutes.
Not everyone will find the various rules convenient, but no one is being silenced.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.
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