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Commissioners spar on public comment; Advised law limits 'open forum' discussions  

Credit:  Written by David Still II, The Barnstable Patriot, www.barnstablepatriot.com 20 May 2011 ~~

The chairman of the Barnstable County Commissioners imposed new parameters for public comments at the board’s May 18 meeting, which made for uncomfortable moments throughout the meeting both among commissioners and with members of the public.

Commissioner Bill Doherty of Harwich limited public comment to only those items listed on the commissioners’ agenda. He said that he was attempting to run the meeting in accordance with the opinion he and the commissioners received May 17 from County counsel Robert Troy regarding commissioners’ discussions, public comment and the Open Meeting Law.

Doherty’s announced the change at the meeting and without discussing it first with fellow commissioners Sheila Lyons of Wellfleet and Mary Pat Flynn of Falmouth.

Saying that the commission planned to take up the setting of such a process next week, Lyons objected to Doherty’s decision to restrict comment tightly at this week’s meeting, objections that flared at different times during the meeting and after.

For the final 10 minutes of the May 18 meeting, members of the group interested in the county’s activities with wind projects

“You’re going to decide to just ignore that?” Lyons asked, later adding, “I don’t feel comfortable.”

Doherty asked for a motion to recess the meeting until the Assembly’s 4 p.m. meeting. Neither Flynn nor Lyons would make the motion, and more than a minute of silence elapsed.

Lyons reiterated that she was uncomfortable and began to offer an assessment, at which point Doherty ruled her out of order, as she had not been recognized to speak.

Lyons then requested that Doherty recognize those with their hands raised.

“I do not honor that request,” Doherty said. “If you want to talk to these people, go outside and talk with them.”

The Memo

In his memo, Troy said that under the new Open Meeting Law that went into effect July 1, 2010 the chair is responsible for posting of meetings, including a list of topics the chair “reasonably anticipates will be discussed at the meeting,” along with updates to those postings as revisions become known prior to the meeting.

The reason for this, according to Troy, is to provide notice to the public of what’s to be discussed. Discussing topics not listed on the agenda as posted or revised “constitutes a violation of the Open Meeting Law,” Troy wrote. “The Chair of the meeting is legally responsible for this violation.”

With respect to public comment, Troy wrote, “While some members of the public view the right to appear and address a public meeting as an unquestioned legal right, the reality is that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has enacted legislation that imposes significant restrictions on the right of members of the public to address a public body.”

Troy does not believe it is possible or in compliance with the law for the commissioners to address the public on questions related to on issues not on the agenda. He recognized the problems this could cause for public forums to which the public is invited to speak: “It seems paramount that the prohibition against participation of public officials at the open meeting of a public body effectively curtails the effectiveness of the public forum process since it contemplates a one-sided presentation that cannot be met with a response from the governmental body.”

He recommended that the commissioners adopt a process that invites the public to schedule to speak on particular issues in advance so it could be listed on the published agenda.

“This practice would promote efficiency and allow the public to receive the response of the public officials in a simultaneous fashion at the same meeting,” Troy wrote.

The Public

For the past two months, members of the public interested in the interrelationships between the county, Cape Light Compact and Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative (CVEC) have been regular attendees at the weekly meetings of the county commissioners. They have also regularly addressed the commissioners during public comment and engaged in discussions with the commissioners, usually Flynn and Lyons, who have indicated an interested in getting responses to the questions raised.

The group, which includes residents of Brewster, Harwich, Wellfleet and Sandwich, has asked in recent weeks for the commissioners to exercise some authority or influence to stop CVEC from filing with the Department of Public Utilities to exempt Brewster’s turbine project from local regulations.

Eric Bibler of Connecticut, who has family in Wellfleet, is head the revived but informally organized Save Our Seashore, saveourseashore.org. He said that for the past five weeks he and others have appeared in person and submitted letters to the commissioners asking for specific actions regarding the county and CVEC.

Bibler felt the commissioners should have done something regarding the questions he and others have raised. There was no response this week during the meeting.

Doherty provided his copy of Troy’s memo to the Patriot, which included his highlights, many of which refer to the responsibility of the chair before and during public meetings.

After the meeting officially recessed on the motion of Flynn, those in attendance had their say as the commissioners signed the various documents they’d approved earlier in the meeting. Bibler was the most vocal, detailing his attempts to get answers to questions over the previous five weeks from the county regarding the Cape Light Compact and CVEC.

The commissioners met in their smaller meeting room, which does not have any source of amplification. A constantly running air conditioner often made it near impossible to hear the commissioners’ conversation, as their voices would drop lower and lower, prompting regular request for them to speak up.

The commissioners expect to meet with Troy next week to discuss his May 17 memo.

Source:  Written by David Still II, The Barnstable Patriot, www.barnstablepatriot.com 20 May 2011

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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