Pittsfield City Council votes to limit public discussion of agenda
PITTSFIELD -- City councilors may be less talkative prior to City Council meetings as they test a self-imposed limit on public discussion of potential agenda items.
After Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo accused five other councilors of violating the state's Open Meeting Law, the entire 11-member panel is now expected to wait until the council's meeting agenda is officially posted before airing their views on what might be on the council docket, according to Council President Kevin J. Sherman.
City Clerk Linda M. Tyer typically posts the agenda at City Hall and on the city's website on the Thursday before the council's regular Tuesday gatherings. This week, since the clerk's office is closed Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving, Tyer said the agenda will be available by 4 p.m. today.
The restriction is part of a compromise resolution that Sherman and Mazzeo crafted in response to Mazzeo's complaint to the state attorney general. In her complaint, Mazzeo said that Sherman, along with councilors Barry J. Clair mont, John M. Krol Jr., Christine Yon and Jonathan Lothrop, prematurely discussed a petition Yon filed -- the one that sought a no-confidence vote from the council against City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan -- before it was formally placed on the Oct. 9 meeting agenda.
By a 9-2 vote, with Krol and Churchill Cotton voting against it, the council on Nov. 13 approved the resolution which has been forwarded to the attorney general's office. The resolution also calls for councilors to review the Open Meeting Law and act professionally when discussing issues in the media.
Sherman says there's precedent for restricting discussion on possible agenda items.
"This did cause confusion earlier this year when a media outlet picked up an item at City Hall before the agenda was put out," he said.
While Sherman refers to the resolution as a guideline, not a mandate, several councilors view it as an attempt to suppress their right to freedom of speech.
"Censorship is no antidote for our ills," Krol said on Tuesday.
"Personally, I can't see councilors not publicly discussing things," Yon said.
Although Clairmont voted for the resolution, he's vowed to keep speaking freely, if warranted, on proposed agenda items.
"If something comes up that is a stamped public document, I will state it has the potential to become an agenda item," he said. "I will not let this infringe on my First Amend ment rights."
Mazzeo's claim of an Open Meeting Law violation was triggered by Yon's petition that sought a no-confidence vote against Degnan, the city solicitor, for her handling of Spectrum HealthCare Systems' federal lawsuit against Pitts field. Spectrum had alleged the city in 2011 prevented the Worcester-based company from establishing a metha done clinic in the downtown. In August, the city paid Spectrum $100,000 as part of an out-of-court settlement that included the clinic being established on Summer Street.
While the petition was debated on Oct. 9, no vote was taken. However, Mazzeo, in a two-page letter attached to her formal complaint, cited how Clairmont, Krol and Yon spoke about the petition before it was placed on the Oct. 9 agenda. Mazzeo said that was their attempt to influence the rest of the council.
Mazzeo claimed they violated the Open Meeting Law which prevents deliberation of agenda items outside a scheduled meeting. The alleged violations occurred less than 24 hours prior to the Oct. 9 agenda was released.
"Given comments made by councilors Clairmont, Krol and Yon on radio programs, it was clear discussions had taken place between councilors about the petition," Mazzeo wrote, "Their public statements and efforts to sway votes, it led many in public and even the council, to believe that the solicitor deserved the vote of no confidence due to incompetence."
Clairmont, Krol and Yon refuted the allegation at the Nov. 13 meeting saying Maz zeo offered no hard evidence, only her feelings on the matter.
Her letter also doesn't explain how Sherman and Lothrop violated the Open Meeting Law. Mazzeo was unavailable Tuesday for further comment on the matter.
Lothrop hopes the resolution to Mazzeo's complaint will allow the council to move forward.
"I don't feel we are near the days of [past councils]," he said. "But the public expects us to work together whether we like each other or not."
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