BAR HARBOR — The open public comment period at town council meetings will continue but with a formal prohibition on discussing open court cases against the town.
Town councilors voted 5-2 Tuesday to put the new restriction in place, two weeks after council chairman Paul Paradis caused a stir when he stopped a resident from speaking during a public comment period when they began to discuss current ongoing litigation.
Councilors Tuesday also held firm on their rules for public hearings, voting unanimously to continue to limit speakers to three minutes each, with shorter follow-ups as time allows.
“All of us were very troubled by our last meeting, for various reasons,” Paradis said. But, he explained, the advice from the town attorney regarding open court cases still stands, and he still stands by his position. “There are many potential risks associated with taking comment on items in litigation,” he said.
Councilors Gary Friedmann and Clark Stivers voted against the restriction. “If you can’t hear from townspeople what’s on their minds, were basically saying, ‘we’re going to defend this lawsuit regardless of the sentiment of the town,’” Friedmann said.
Paradis upset several residents during the public comment period at the March 4 council meeting when he refused to allow resident Barbara Fenderson to speak about the recent citizens’ petitions that were filed regarding public utility zoning changes. Councilors had opted to set a November vote on the items introduced in the petitions, causing supporters to file suit in court to try and force a vote in June. Paradis told Fenderson that the town attorney had advised against taking comment on pending legal matters.
Later that same night, some citizens were upset when their comments during a public hearing on land use ordinance changes that are on the June ballot were limited to three minutes. This limit has been in place since Paradis took over as chair last summer, but several said March 4 that they couldn’t possibly fit their comments into such a short space.
Paradis said Tuesday that the limit had been prompted by some people speaking for more than 30 minutes during public hearings. To counteract this, the council adopted the three-minute rule used during hearings before Maine legislative committees.
Councilors agreed unanimously Tuesday that three minutes is plenty of time to speak, but added a caveat to their rule that as time allowed, speakers would be granted a two-minute rebuttal or follow-up comment.
“I think three minutes is a fair amount of time and gives everyone a chance to speak and really forces the speaker to condense their comments into something that is well spoken and well thought out,” councilor Anne Greenlee said.
Regarding the public comment period, several councilors said Tuesday that there are numerous ways to have one’s voice heard, and that the public comment period is only one of them.
“It’s not your only way to address the council,” councilor David Bowden said. “You get stopped at the grocery store, you get stopped at the Mainway … somebody has an immediate concern,” Bowden said.
Bowden questioned the overall use of the comment period, which he said has become more of a forum to attack how the council is doing its business than to raise legitimate concerns. He questioned whether having the public comment option at every meeting was still a good idea.
“It’s become Monday morning quarterbacking of how we handle things …versus issues of what problems in town – sidewalks, streets – that people used to bring to us,” he said.
Councilors did not state many specific risks of public comment concerning matters under litigation. Councilor Burt Barker asked whether they had something in writing from the town attorney that they could share with citizens to demonstrate the risks. Town Manager Cornell Knight responded that the suggestion came out of a conversation he had with the attorney, and that there was no written opinion.
Paradis stated that one concern was that if a citizen during public comment asked a question and councilors failed to answer (as is their policy during the open comment period), “there could be an affidavit or something that said, ‘I asked them this question, and they refused to answer.’”
Barker said that a written opinion from the attorney would help to explain things, because “right now, they think we’re snowballing them.”
“We are representing the townspeople, we shouldn’t be banging heads with them,” Barker said.