Limit on public comments draws criticism in Grafton
GRAFTON -- Monday's Selectboard meeting got somewhat testy when its members considered restricting the time allotted for public comments.
Selectboard Chairman Al Sands said current and former colleagues have told him the period of time for public comment has recently not been used as intended. As a result, the board unanimously passed a motion outlining a maximum time period of 15 minutes (with three minutes per person) for public comment. Sands drafted the outline and said exceptions can be made for emergency issues.
Sands said the original intent of a public-input portion was to allow citizens an opportunity to voice their concerns about something not on a meeting's agenda if they were previously unaware it would be an issue.
"But for people to continually come in and kind of rehash, or bring up, the same issues meeting after meeting was not really the intent of public comment," he said. "I think (we've) been pretty lenient and, looking back, perhaps lenient to a fault, of allowing some of the public-comments periods to go very long."
He mentioned he has reviewed recorded meetings and said sometimes comments from the public lasted for an hour.
One topic of frequent discussion is the issue of Iberdrola Renewables, one of the world's largest energy companies, which erected a wind-power test tower in Grafton, generating a fair amount of controversy. It has seemingly split the town, as the tower could be a precursor to Windham County's first commercial wind turbines, depending on the weather data it produces. Two test towers were recently erected in Windham as well.
Sands also said an issue would not be put on a future meeting's agenda if it has been addressed numerous times in the past.
Liisa Kissel, a Grafton resident adamantly opposed to the wind towers and a regular attendee of Selectboard meetings, said Vermont state law allows for public comment so that citizens can speak their minds without limitation. She said rules can be established to avoid a meeting's delay but "the spirit of rules is that the public may not be silenced."
Kissel was told the Selectboard handbook dictates that the chairman has the right and the ability to limit the time allotted for public comments.
Sands wanted to make it clear that members of the public can still comment on each individual agenda item as it comes up.
After the Selectboard approved the outline Monday, the first agenda item was about considering increasing the number of members on the town's Planning Commission to seven.
Sands said the commission was for many years made up of five members, but that figure was soon changed to seven and eventually nine (seven members with two ex officios). Sands said the Selectboard, which approves all appointments to the Planning Commission, "jumped the gun" and attempted to fill two vacant positions on the commission before realizing it had operated with five for a long time and deciding to stick with that number.
Some citizens at Monday's meeting wanted answers from the Selectboard about why its members were content with having only five people on the Planning Commission. One man asked if it was in the name of efficiency and Sands said the Selectboard simply had to make a decision. Sam Battaglino recently resigned from the commission, bringing the total down to four, so his vacancy will have to be filled.
The Selectboard opted not to reconsider its decision until all its members were present (Bill Kearns was absent from the Monday's meeting).
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.
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