MASSENA — A change will be coming to the public comment portion of Massena Central School District Board of Education meetings.
Board members on Thursday agreed to provide one public comment session at the beginning of the meeting, with time restrictions, but open to any type of discussion that didn’t get into specifics, such as personnel.
The current policy allows public expression following the meetings. Thursday’s meeting lasted for approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes.
The topic surfaced during the board’s previous meeting. Board member David LaClair Jr. said he favored allowing public comment at the beginning of the meeting so that if issues were brought up they could be discussed by the board. The second comment period at the conclusion of the meeting could provide additional time for the public to speak.
“Mr. LaClair at the end of our last meeting brought this up before I even had a chance to, that being the notion of providing an initial public comment period at the beginning of our meeting, and also one after the conclusion of our business for the evening,” board President Paul Haggett said. “So basically, two public comment sessions.”
Mr. Haggett, who shared Mr. LaClair’s sentiment, recalled how several people wanted to speak at the prior meeting.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Mr. Haggett. “We had several people that were at our last meeting that wanted to make public comment on an issue that you know had pretty much already been decided by the time they were able to do that.”
He said, in his opinion, it was “in the best interest of the way we do business to allow the public to speak at the beginning and then again at the end.” Mr. Haggett said his one stipulation would be that the initial public comment period be solely for items that are on that evening’s agenda.
“We could broaden things more for the second public comment session, but that would be my idea on the initial one,” he said.
Board member Loren Fountaine said he was in favor of an initial public comment period but didn’t think two were necessary.
“I think having the one at the beginning and letting them talk about whatever they want would be fine,” Mr. Fountaine said. “I don’t see the need for two. I personally don’t see any reason to limit the comments to what’s on the agenda unless we find it becomes a problem.”
Board member Patricia Murphy agreed, saying her concern was that having a second public comment period could make for long meetings.
“Sometimes they’re very long to begin with,” she said. “Everyone’s tired. Everyone’s pretty much ready to go.”
She suggested that if individuals had items for future agendas that they wanted to discuss, they could write them down and have District Clerk Angela Wilhelm send them to board members electronically.
“So what would be your plan for the next meeting?” board member Kevin Perretta asked. “Would we have to address every one of those items at the next meeting?”
“We would have to take a look,” Ms. Murphy said. “Are they related to things that we’re going to be addressing anyway or are they kind of follow-up things? I think we can be able to just look at it and then possibly have some discussion.”
Board member Timothy Hayes said he also favored one public comment period at the beginning of the meeting.
“I think just one is the way to go,” he said. “Most of the people don’t want to sit here to the end anyhow, and they want to address you. Some people leave. They sat there the whole time and never make their comments. I’ve seen that before because they kind of shake their heads and walk out the door. You’re giving them an opportunity to be heard ahead of time. But I don’t think they need to speak again later. I mean, here’s your comment period. If you want to do it, it’s now.”
“I agree with that,” board Vice President Amber Baines said.
Mr. Haggett noted that the current policy on public comment did not set any parameters for the amount of time an individual could speak.
“Was it three minutes?” Mr. Perretta asked.
“No,” Mr. Haggett said. “We may have that written on the agenda, but as far as the policy is concerned, that’s not included.”
Board member Robert LeBlanc suggested setting a time limit.
“In order to prevent the hijacking of meetings, I would limit the time,” Mr. LeBlanc said. “They can bring their subject, but they should be able to make it within like five minutes or whatever time we decide.”
Mr. Haggett, who chairs the district’s Policy Committee, suggested, and board members agreed, that the committee “make some tweaks that sort of reflect what we appear to have come to sort of a consensus around, which is one comment period, limiting the amount of time that people can speak and having it early on at the public board meeting.”
Mr. Perretta said it should also set ground rules for what kind of topics were off limits for public expression, such as discussion about certain individuals.
The current policy, which was last revised and adopted on March 24, 2019, can be found at http://wdt.me/xU8Vac.