Controversy arose at the Bar Harbor Town Council meeting last week when chairman Paul Paradis announced that speakers at a public hearing on the re-codification of the town’s zoning ordinance would be limited to three minutes each. Although all were ultimately allowed to speak without being asked to sit down, and many enjoyed more than one turn, setting stingy limits on how long citizens can talk during the only opportunity they have to speak publically on issues of pending law is worrisome. Any impediment to the free exchange of ideas necessary for local democracy to function should be avoided.
Granted, the zoning issues have been discussed in tiring detail on numerous prior occasions. And at previous hearings, some of the same speakers have droned on for nearly an hour each. Even the U.S. Supreme Court limits oral argument on questions of constitutional law to just 30 minutes for each side.
Folks serving as the chairs of governing bodies often are given a ceremonial gavel for use when needed in the conduct of meetings. A gavel represents tacit acknowledgement that some in attendance may not have the same dedication as the majority, to keep the discussion positive and moving forward.
While not all committee or board chairs may be comfortable in the role, they should wield their gavels with authority should a speaker ramble on too long or range too far afield from the topic.
Is three minutes too short for testimony at a full public hearing? Probably. Is an hour per person too long? No question.
Establishing a fixed limit in advance, as many other communities and the Legislature often does, may help a chair avoid the appearance of being arbitrary. But too brief a time limit on comments opens the chair to complaints about stifling debate.
Citizens should have an opportunity to appear before elected officials to bring matters of importance to their attention. But scheduling open public comments at the beginning of a meeting, gives precedence to those who show up at the last minute over those who have submitted agenda items well in advance of a meeting. Scheduling a period for public comments after the prepared agenda has been concluded would seem a much fairer approach.
Those conducting the public’s business must assure that everyone has a chance to speak about his or her concerns, without prejudice concerning the value of their contributions to the discussion. But, in fairness to all concerned, advance public notice of the agenda permits all interested parties to know reasonably well the time in the meeting when the issue most concerning them is likely to be heard.