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Time to End Censorship of Public Comment Period at Selectmen Meetings

Today, Citizens wishing to speak during public comment at Board of Selectmen meetings must submit a petition a week before the meeting. It didn't use to be this way.

Today, Citizens wishing to speak during public comment at Board of Selectmen meetings must submit a petition a week before the meeting and have that petition approved by the Chairman of the Board, currently Selectman O'Brien.

It didn’t use to be this way.

In fact, up until 2.5 years ago, citizens could show up for public comment period at a board meeting and ask any question they wanted. The last meeting this occurred was Selectman Haarde’s first meeting as a member of the board. 

At the following meeting, without public discussion, comment, or apparent reason Selectman Drobinski announced at the end of the meeting:

 “that the Board is tabling citizens' petitions tonight.  He asked that citizens inform the Board of intended petitions a few days in advance of scheduled Board meetings, to allow for the Board to prepare accordingly.  Chairman Drobinski further announced that this revised policy will be posted on the Town website.”

Years of tradition enabling residents to show up at the meeting and ask questions, were dissolved with a few sentences.  

Now I can somewhat sympathize with the board wanting to control the meeting, keep to an agenda and be prepared for questions.  But when I witnessed Tuesday night’s board meeting where Mark Kablack, the lawyer for the Northwoods Condominium Project, appeared on the agenda to spar with Selectman Haarde, it made me realize how important it is to restore the uncensored public comment period.

Mr Kablack is highly connected to several members of the board through his previous volunteer public service, the various business dealings he has had in town and through his wife, who is the town planner. So while he could pick up the phone and easily get on last Tuesday nights selectmen's meeting agenda, the rest of us can’t get on the agenda during public comment period without prior approval.

In fact, right now, topics are being blocked from public comment period by the chairman.  I know of at least one citizen who can’t get on the calendar at all.

The board’s policy of not allowing open public comments is not in keeping with other town committees. Despite withering criticism leveled at the LS School Committee several years ago, and the most recent criticism leveled at the SPS Committee, both of these groups maintain open public comment time. Neighboring towns also have open comment periods at their meetings.

Mr. Kablack’s presentation on Tuesday was one of the more rancorous proceedings I have seen, rivaling some of the worst of the Lavendergate  meetings.  With Selectmen Drobinski leaving due to a self-declared conflict of interest over the studies his firm had conducted at Northwoods, we were left to watch Mr. Kablack and Mr. Haarde get into a heated discussion over the use of the word study.  The purpose of Mr. Kabalck’s presentation is still lost on me and probably others.  But  I don’t fault Mr. Kablack for wanting to come before the board to discuss whatever was on his mind. However,  I do fault the Board of Selectmen for allowing this agenda item while blocking other citizens from appearing before them. 

Everyone in town, not just those politically connected, should have access to Board of Selectmen meetings, even for just a few minutes without prior censorship.   It is time to change the policy and end the censorship of public comment period.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Andrew MacEntee October 20, 2012 at 11:33 AM
Yet another Sudbury tradition - open public comments without prior censorship -swept under the rug by Obrien and Drobinski. Why? Because the two do not want certain issues aired in public, especially when the airing reflects poorly on them. Of course, they have and no doubt will continue to justify the censorship claiming the need to compy with the open meeting law. What a crock - an outright falsehood - to which the even Town Counsel can attest. WHAT A WELL RUN TOWN. Another reason to go from 3->5 Selectman
ron darden October 20, 2012 at 01:54 PM
Mr Semple's column speaks truth to power. O'Brien and Drobinski are the worst kind of hypocrites. They run for reelection touting institutional knowledge and the importance of maintaining Sudbury traditions. But upon election they trash long standing tradiitions of open public comment and BOS chair rotation - not to mention violation of liquor laws, being missing in action and showing up on a list of tax scofflaws. Sudbury can do better
Pat Brown October 20, 2012 at 02:05 PM
Once can certainly criticize the Board's policy on citizen comments--if one can find it. Pop quiz: Can you find the policy? Shouldn't the policy be clearly available to anyone who wants to bring an issue before the Board of Selectmen? The actual policy of the BOS is here: http://www.town.sudbury.ma.us/committees/news_story.asp?id=2991 The policy reads: Selectmen's Office (posted: Thursday, June 17, 2010) If you wish to have a topic discussed under "Citizen's Petitions" on the Board of Selectmen's Agenda, you must submit a letter or email containing the subject matter and any supporting information to the Selectmen's office no later than the Wednesday preceding the particular meeting at which the matter will be addressed.
SkimThreePercent October 20, 2012 at 02:23 PM
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall".
Jeff W October 20, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Are there documented examples of people using the process and being denied access? I've been involved in Town activities for decades and I always had to schedule time with the Selectmen in advance, and have my materials submitted a few days in advance. It doesn't seem to be an onerous requirement, and with Selectmen's meetings running into the wee hours I would guess it let's them plan the evening better. Now, if requests are being -denied- that's a different issue.
JON999 October 20, 2012 at 06:12 PM
I know of one resident who has formally requested time at the BoS meeting in recent weeks to discuss Jody Kablack's handling of the Johnson Farm 40B matter and has so far been denied by Larry O'Brien. But Chairman O'Brien allowed Mark Kablack to rancorously interrogate Bob Haarde over the distinction between "studies" and "studied." I know, ironic.
Pat Brown October 21, 2012 at 01:34 PM
My request including documentation submitted Monday, June 28, 2010, was the subject of a flurry of discussion on the afternoon of Friday, July 2, 2010. My request was initially granted and then rescinded because the chair of the Sudbury Housing Trust (SHT) was unavailable on July 6. I was unavailable July 27; having assumed that I would be heard at the meeting following my submission, I hadn't cleared my schedule for the remainder of the summer. I was finally given an agenda item on August 24. Even then the SHT chair was unable to attend at the last minute, but I was permitted to proceed with another member of the SHT in attendance. For full context, I had submitted my initial informal request to the Board on June 10, prior to publication of the policy on June 17. That request was completely ignored. I did eventually get my hearing but it was a little over ten weeks following my initial request. I wasn't denied access, but I found the response under the "policy" exceedingly disappointing. Now the "policy" is hidden away on the website. There's still no requirement for any acknowledgment of a request. Where my request took ten weeks to be heard, Mr. Kablack was on the agenda three weeks after Town Meeting. Has a citizen petition been heard in front of the Board since mine in 2010? I appreciate the Board's need to know what topics will be discussed so the Board can be prepared to discuss them. I think we can do better on the "policy."
Pat Brown October 21, 2012 at 02:18 PM
An afterthought. The Board of Selectmen, specifically the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, sets the agenda. My comments above are not meant as a criticism of town staff, who were uniformly helpful and professional in communicating with me. This is a policy issue that must be addressed by the policy making body--the Board of Selectmen.
ron darden October 21, 2012 at 03:40 PM
While respecting Ms. Brown's thoughts, I fear they cloud the main issue: The BOS ought to revert to its tradition of having an open slot for public comment at each meeting WITHOUT PRECONDITIONS OR CENSORSHIP. This differs from a citizen requesting a specific agenda item, which may call for preparation or others attendance. On a personal note, my memory is that it was a citizen's confrontation with Larry OBrien at a BOS meeting that precipitated the current policy. In essence the new censorship policy was instituted in reaction to the airing of alleged personal misbehavior (anti semitic remarks) on the part of Larry OBrien, not some policy question that needed further preparation. Of course, the BOS majority would never admit to this and instead used the Open Meeting Law as a cover. But that cover has been blown - all the other Town committees continued use of public comment is proof of their spurious justification, and yet another example of lack of transparency in Town leadership.
Pat Brown October 21, 2012 at 05:43 PM
Thanks, Ron. It wasn't my intent to cloud the issue. I asked a question in June of 2010: Did the Board of Selectmen believe that the Sudbury Housing Trust (SHT) vote opposing the repeal of 40B was "making policy"? I wasn't aware that any member of the SHT had to be present to address this; clearly the SHT did not think this was making policy. I also didn't think answering my question would require a great deal of preparation by the Board. I thought it would require a simple Yes or No answer and I wanted that answer to be publicly available. How did my question call for preparation or other's attendance? The Board thought it did--do you? However, I dutifully followed the process as it evolved. When the Board wanted written documentation describing my concern, I supplied it. When the Board wished to invite the SHT and gate my question on their presence, I waited. I followed our existing "policy", and found it very disappointing. I agree that the Board should hear Citizens' Comments (as they are called in Concord) or Public Comment (as in Wayland) every meeting without advanced documentation and scheduling. The Board can always schedule a time to report back to citizens on issues that are too complex to be addressed immediately.

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