Open comment rules debated

BAR HARBOR — Current rules for the 15-minute public comment period at the beginning of town council meetings remain in place following a debate among councilors Tuesday about the benefits and drawbacks of the practice.

The discussion came at the request of councilor Burt Barker, who said he was concerned that people who have come to a council meeting to hear or discuss a scheduled agenda item sometimes have to wait a long time when the comment period goes longer than the allotted 15 minutes.

Items for the agenda must be submitted far in advance. Those using the public comment period just show up and speak.

“Everything that happens at a council meeting is important,” Barker said. “If the beginning of the meeting is more important than the end, I think we’re doing something wrong.” He asked whether moving the comment period to the end of the meeting, or keeping the 15-minute limit firm and reopening comment at the end of the meeting, might address the problem.

A proposal to hold the public comment period only at every other meeting received four “yes” votes, but the change did not pass because changes to the council’s rules of order require five “yes” votes. Councilors Gary Friedman, Clark Stivers and Anne Greenlee voted against the change.

Council chairman Paul Paradis said if residents have concerns, “getting on the agenda is the proper route to take.” He encouraged residents to email or call any councilor or the town manager to request an agenda item. In holding the public comment period, the council is “penalizing the people who took the time to get on the agenda and provide background material,” he said. “The comment period seems to provoke people to be disrespectful to town staff and councilors.”

Councilor David Bowden moved to eliminate the comment period entirely, but only he and Paradis voted in favor of that motion.

“The value of the comment period is that it sends a message that residents are welcome and encouraged to come to council,” Friedmann said. “It’s a statement that we’re an open group and willing to listen to people. It doesn’t mean we have to tolerate rudeness or attacks.”

Councilors agreed that listening to public comments in the formal period sets up an awkward situation, because no vote or action is taken on the comments. Councilors don’t respond to or summarize citizens’ concerns during the meeting.

“Almost every one says, ‘You guys don’t listen to us,’” Barker said. “I don’t think people think we’re listening to them if we don’t respond.”

Resident Terri Zabala spoke in favor of the comment period, saying that town staff had directed her to the council when she brought up an issue. “If we could just get an acknowledgement that you hear what’s being said and that you’ll take it under advisement, that’s all anybody is expecting from you.”

Councilor Clark Stivers asked if an issue raised by several residents during the public comment period could be added to the agenda for that meeting. Council is supposed to provide public notice that it will be discussing an issue, Paradis said, and changing the agenda could run afoul of that requirement.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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