Meeting times discussion sparks fiery exchange between Stockbridge Select Board members, residents
STOCKBRIDGE — A move to shift the Select Board's meeting schedule prompted a harsh verbal confrontation Wednesday among members and a handful of citizens attending a rare 7 a.m. board session.
Newly elected board Chairman Terry Flynn has been tinkering with the town's traditional Monday night Select Board meeting schedule, and the occasional midmorning Wednesday sessions to hear reports from town department heads, proposing a shift to Thursday nights twice a month, and Thursday mornings at 7 once monthly.
He contended that rescheduling to later in the week would yield "the most flexibility and the least amount of frenzy" for the posting of agendas, which require 48 hours advance lead time, with weekends excluded from the countdown.
Flynn has also sought to limit public comment to the end of board meetings, after votes have been taken on agenda issues.
"Absolutely no way do we want to reduce transparency here," Flynn said, "but we would have a great deal of regularity" because the public would grow accustomed to Thursday sessions. In addition, he said, public access CTSB has committed to televising all meetings for Spectrum cable viewers as well as posting the videos on ctsbtv.org.
Newly elected Select Board member Roxanne McCaffrey supported the switch to two Thursdays per month at 6:30 p.m. on a regular basis "so it can become an established routine and to make it a little more efficient for us and probably making a little less scrambling at the last minute" to include new agenda items. In addition, there would be a monthly session at 7 a.m. on Thursday.
But the changes triggered a volley of intensely personal, verbal punches and counterpunches, with Flynn trying to gavel the off-the-rails session back on track, declaring several people out of order as the dispute intensified.
Tempers flared after Select Board member Ernest "Chuckie" Cardillo objected to the proposed Thursday meetings, noting that the Monday evening sessions have been traditional in order to encourage maximum public participation.
As the board prepared to vote, Flynn turned aside Cardillo's suggestion for public comment.
"If we've already voted, how can they voice their opinion on something? We can't change the vote," Cardillo said. "How can you not have public comment on the issue when it comes up?"
"On setting schedules we won't, Chuck, and that's it!" Flynn exclaimed.
"I oppose. I don't think this is the right way of running a town," Cardillo asserted angrily. "So, we're not going to let the public speak. We're supposed to be transparent, keep an open mind, and we're starting off on the wrong foot. ... I don't vote on something without public comment because these are the people we're serving!"
But Flynn responded that at its business meetings, the Select Board can decide when public comment is appropriate.
When he pointed out that only four residents had shown up for the 7 a.m. meeting, Tom LaBelle protested that "we don't count. How many do we have to have here, Terry, before we count? I don't understand excluding the public comment, it's a very bad beginning; what a way to behave. You're limiting public debate; this is one of your first moves. This doesn't really jibe with your previous principles."
"This is terrible for the town!" resident and Conservation Commission member Patrick White shouted, as Flynn flung down his gavel.
"The most important thing for this town is to start administrating in a very efficient way," Flynn declared. "The Select Board needs to be operating as a business operation where there's actually discussion among the members of the board. Every meeting cannot be run as a town meeting. Democracies do not work by having direct town meeting-style democracy for every single operation of its government."
After resident Harold French warned Flynn that "your line of thinking opens yourself and the town of Stockbridge to a lawsuit," McCaffrey called for calm, pointing out that the board is trying to keep meeting schedules consistent in order to be efficient and to react quickly so more items can be included on the agenda as they come up during the week.
LaBelle protested that "only under our current chairman has a gag rule been imposed on the public."
As the board finally voted, 2-1, to change the meeting schedule, Cardillo declared, "I'm strongly opposed to not having public comment and opposed to how this meeting is being run." Flynn gaveled him out of order before moving on to other agenda items.
In an effort to restore equanimity, White told Flynn, "We don't have to be personal, we don't have to get angry, but I think you should take some advice."
Flynn agreed to "definitely take this under consideration."
Under state Attorney General Maura Healey's guide to the open meeting law, updated in October 2017, "Every resident of Massachusetts should be able to access and understand the reasoning behind the government policy decisions that affect our lives. Although public participation is entirely within the chair's discretion, the Attorney General encourages public bodies to allow as much public participation as time permits.
"While the public is permitted to attend an open meeting, an individual may not address the public body without permission of the chair," the law states. "An individual may not disrupt a meeting of a public body, and at the request of the chair, all members of the public shall be silent. If, after clear warning, a person continues to be disruptive, the chair may order the person to leave the meeting."
The law also authorizes the chairman to call on police to remove "a disruptive individual if the person does not leave."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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