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.