North Adams City Council to shift public comments to start of meetings

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NORTH ADAMS >> The City Council is poised to adopt new rules that would move the public open forum period to the beginning of the meeting, but it will not adopt a recommendation to limit what visitors could speak about.

The council voted 7-2 — with councilors Keith Bona and Nancy Bullett in opposition— to adopt a new set of meeting rules.

The most significant change over previous years is that the rules move the open forum period from the end of the meeting to the beginning, where it will be called a "hearing of visitors."

During open forum, any member of the public would be allowed two minutes to speak freely on any "municipal interest." The council members would be prohibited from entering into a debate on the topic except to correct misinformation.

"Members of the public would be able to comment on agenda items or bring up any matter of municipal significance before the council deliberates on the evening's agenda items," wrote Councilor Kate Merrigan in a letter to the council. "The General Government Committee recommends that members of the public still be able to comment on agenda items as they come up during the meeting."

The new rules, which were reviewed by the council's general government committee, were passed to a second reading and final vote next month.

Bona opposed the new rules because he sought to require speakers from the public only address issues that are on the agenda and before the council that evening. He expressed concern that allowing a member of the public to speak on any topic could offer them the opportunity to level accusations or make claims against a person or business that wouldn't be present to respond.

"They're not being libelous in what they're saying, but they could mention very specific names," Bona said. "The problem I have with that is it's not on the agenda."

Bona noted that visitors actually have more freedom to bring up topics not on the agenda than the council itself.

Bullett noted that the council meetings themselves are not the only way to raise an issue to the council.

"It can be provided in writing as a letter, it can be given to us via email, so there's multiple ways," said Councilor Nancy Bullett. "I would have to agree with Councilor Bona."

Merrigan agreed that ideally residents would get in touch with councilors prior to the meeting so that the councilors can be better educated on the topic and be more helpful, but she noted that isn't always possible. She added that she likes having it as a space where people can contribute to the meeting.

"In our popular culture, that's the image people [have of] municipal participation — come and say something at the microphone at a meeting," Merrigan said. "There's a degree to which that's where people are at as a comfort zone."

Contact Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376.


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