Clarence Fanto: At meetings, let residents talk the talk

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LENOX — Grass-roots democracy, as witnessed in our local city council and town meetings, is vital yet fragile — all too easily abused by "usual suspect" individuals and groups with axes to grind and unyielding positions about projects and proposals.

Pittsfield's City Council meetings have been disrupted periodically, requiring rules of order to be scrupulously observed by the council president.

Last month, the North Adams City Council, in a well-intentioned proposal to reduce volatility, ran afoul of the state's Open Meeting Law. Council President Keith Bona drafted a plan to give the council president the power to ban people who need to be removed by police from attending a certain number of future meetings.

"I don't buy into the free speech argument [that] anyone can say anything at our meetings," Bona said in an Eagle interview. "They can't do it at the state or federal level, nor should they here. Stick to our rules, keep it to city business without attacking people, and all will be fine."

That seemed like an eminently reasonable position, but it turns out that while state law gives the president of a city council or town board power over who can speak at meetings, it doesn't allow the door to be shut against the public.

To be specific, Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush advised the North Adams council that "a public body cannot prohibit a member of the public from attending future meetings unless there is a stay-away order issued by a court for the location where a public body meets."

Bona's modified proposal was approved by the City Council, 6-2. But the two dissenters cited concerns over First Amendment free speech rights.

A subsequent Eagle editorial, citing Norman Rockwell's "Freedom of Speech" illustration representing the ideal of democracy in action, acknowledged that "in reality, town meetings can be tedious, contentious and far less inspiring" when grandstanders try to hijack discussions.

I'll say! Here's a tale of two towns, where I spend many fascinating, sometimes frustrating, hours observing vastly different styles and approaches to conducting public meetings where the people's business is transacted by elected officials.

In Lenox, Select Board and annual town meetings were roiled a few years ago by a group of residents outraged by a memorial to a deceased town resident put up in Kennedy Park. But decorum has prevailed since town leadership changed and effective Select Board members were elected and re-elected.

Attendance at the meetings is sparse; that's probably because most residents view the town as well-governed, especially since annual tax increases are held to a moderate 2.5 percent, the town's public schools are lauded for their excellence, and schools Superintendent Timothy Lee works harmoniously with Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen to hold education spending increases to a target of no more than 3 percent.

As Ketchen told me the other day, "While no one likes to see increases, with rising costs, they are inevitable. So, we at least want to make these predictable."

His budget plan also benefits from new hotels and homes that bring in lodging and property revenues, adding to the town's tax base.

An absence of contentious issues also keeps meetings civil, though that might change this year as the town considers possible regulations on short-term vacation home rentals and on retail marijuana businesses.

On to Stockbridge, where the current Select Board runs every session like a mini town meeting, with extensive public comment on every conceivable topic, while the moderator allows virtually unlimited debate at special and annual town meetings.

Who knows whether Norman Rockwell would approve of this no-holds-barred approach to town governance. But there has been extensive media and public comment over the way meetings are run, especially with often-poisonous debate over the largest development proposal to confront the town in anyone's memory.

Both sides are dug in with their preconceived notions about the 37 Interlaken developers' plans for a $150 million resort, condo and single-family housing complex at the former DeSisto School. Some letters to the editor reflect extreme positions and over-the-top hostility toward property owner Patrick Sheehan.

At last Monday's Select Board meeting, Chairman Donald Chabon took note of all this in an unusual, pointed series of prepared statements.

He denied suggestions by some that meeting agendas have not been posted properly, 48 hours in advance, as required by state law, and in some cases without sufficient detail. He pointed out that all public meetings are televised by Community Television of South Berkshire, and it's worth noting that previous sessions can be viewed online. Chabon stated that executive sessions behind closed doors have been few, "and only when required."

"We do encourage participation and comment on everything," he acknowledged, adding that previous boards "have cut off conversations; we don't do that, we allow it to play out. We want people to share ideas, be actively involved, we do allow multiple comments, we seek suggestions and accept criticism. We understand that many people feel strongly about matters, and their feelings should be noted."

But, Chabon added, "we do request civility and abstinence from threats. We can disagree without that."

He called the turnout of 133 residents for the Jan. 22 special town meeting "phenomenal" but also noted wryly that it lasted "over three hours for just four articles, and that's a bit much."

Quite an understatement, considering that voters overwhelmingly approved each item after a tedious 40 minutes of discussion per topic.

Reasonable time limits on speakers would help, as would a rule that an individual can only speak out once on each town meeting article.

With this Tuesday's Planning Board public hearing on the 37 Interlaken proposal looming, and other Town Hall meetings to come on this massive development idea, perhaps moderators should consider an appropriate time limit — not to limit the power of the people, but to promote and expedite it.

Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com and on Twitter, @BE_CFanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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