After , Board of Selectmen members agreed at Monday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting to change their approach to the public comments section of their meetings.
Selectman Michael Newhouse broached the subject and made a three-part proposal. The first stipulation Newhouse suggested is that residents not speak for more than five minutes.
The final parts were that participants in the public comments section agree to stand in their seats and state their name and address, and that they agree not to be critical of anyone who is not in attendance to defend themselves.
“We keep ending up in the same situation meeting after meeting after meeting,” said Newhouse. “As simple as I believe (Chairman Louis Cimaglia) has made the rules, I suggest that we make them even more simple.”
Resident Michael Bodnar, a regular at selectmen’s meetings, strongly disagreed with the idea.
“I’ve been waiting for this to come to a head,” said Bodnar. “Every once in a while, we have dissent. The only place for us to express that is here. You can’t stifle it. As a veteran, you (Cimaglia), should know very well about freedoms and the freedom of speech. As flawed and biased as our opinions may be, so are yours occasionally.”
All board members agreed to the changes. Michael McCoy said he created the public comments section as chairman several years ago, and that he does support Newhouse’s proposal because, “Public comments is not to give an open mic to talk about everything and everything.”
Board member Michael Champoux said there are other means for residents to express concerns about issues in town outside of selectmen’s meetings.
“There’s no intent or desire to squelch free speech,” said Champoux. “There’s ample ways to have one’s opinions heard. If you want to have your opinion heard in front of a camera, that’s not what this forum is about. We’re having a meeting. We’re not putting on a show. We’re trying to get the business of the town done.”
Kevin MacDonald, who was removed from a recent public forum about the new high school, voiced his disagreement with the policy.
“You talk about respect,” said MacDonald. “I personally think respect is earned.”
Following another heated exchange with Cimaglia, MacDonald was told his five minutes to speak was up.
“I prefer you not make a joke out of my meetings anymore,” Cimaglia said to MacDonald.
Judy O’Connell had remained silent on the issue in recent weeks, saying she has been waiting selectively to voice her opinion. On Monday, that time came and she also agreed with Newhouse’s proposed changes.
“It’s about civility and respect,” said O’Connell. “There are rules of engagement. It’s not a turf battle. We may come down on the opposite sides of an argument, but there are rules of engagement… I’ve reached my threshold for pain to sit silent. There’s a way you should present yourself as a human being, and it’s to be cordial.”
Selectmen said they will continue to enforce the public comments rules at future meetings.
“The term free speech engenders many emotions in people,” said Newhouse. “Free speech does not give a blank check to say whatever you want, when you want. Period.”