The value of public comment

I find it pretty arrogant for a Wallingford town councilor to say public comment at Town Council meetings should be eliminated and that the public rarely contributes anything of value to these meetings.

“I can count on one hand when someone came out of the audience that offered something constructive to say on an agenda item,” Republican Councilor John LeTourneau repeated in an interview with Record-Journal reporter Eric Vo. “Other than that, it has turned into political mayhem, where no matter what, we’re wrong – the council is wrong, the mayor is wrong, no matter what.”

I suspect that’s a slight exaggeration. Sure, there’s always someone – usually a few people per city or town – who regularly speaks during the time for public comments at meetings. They’re often self-appointed government watchdogs or may have a partisan ax to grind. Some just like to be on cable access TV. Councilors may not agree with much of what they have to say, and might think whatever criticism is being lodged at them unfair. But that comes with the territory of being an elected official. A canny politician understands this occupational hazard and has thick skin. The best of them can grasp the value of hearing an opposing perspective, even a partisan or unconventional viewpoint.

But public comment periods also may be average residents’ only recourse to address government business affecting them. Doing away with that portion of the meeting would deprive all residents of an important forum should they need it.

Fortunately, the council rejected LeTourneau’s comments. Democrat John Sullivan reminded him that councilors work on the public’s behalf.

The people “are the heartbeat of the town, not the council,” Sullivan said.

Republican Christine Mansfield eloquently defended public comment in a letter to the editor:

“Since revolutionary times, the Town Hall meeting represents one of the most vibrant forums for public comment and questioning ...And yes, the reality of politics, personal ambitions and decorum lapses can cross a slippery line, at times, and deteriorate decorum and speech beyond effectiveness. But alas, it is our democracy to embrace. The orator stands to lose credibility, but never the forum.”

Not only did councilors from both parties disagree with eliminating public comment, they rejected a proposal to restrict the number of times audience members can speak.

In Meriden, a plan by Mayor Manny Santos to open up public comment at council meetings to any topic, not just items being voted on that night, hit a snag with the inclusion of wording that would prevent the public from “personally attacking any public officials.”

The ACLU called the prohibition “blatantly unconstitutional” and said the council could achieve “the goal of maintaining decorum through more narrowly crafted, viewpoint-neutral regulations.”

The public has a First Amendment right to criticize. I’m hoping councilors simply remove that section and move forward with making the rules less restrictive. It can be confusing when topics are listed on an agenda, but off limits for comment because they’re only being referred to committee. Or the topic of importance to the public may not be an issue councilors are even aware of.

The mayor and the council are moving in the right direction by increasing opportunities for public input.

Reach Managing Editor/News Eric Cotton at (203)-317-2344 or ecotton@record-journal.com. Follow him on Twitter@ecotton3.



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