September 9, 2009
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
I have received a draft policy concerning “Conduct at Town Board Meetings” that will soon be considered by the New Hartford Town Board. In this regard, pursuant to your request that I review the draft, I offer the following brief comments.
It is noted at the outset that the right to attend meetings of public bodies, such as town boards, is conferred by a statute, the Open Meetings Law. Prior to the enactment of that law, there was no general or constitutional right to attend meetings of those bodies. Similarly, although there is a constitutional right to speak, there is no such right to speak during meetings. Under the Open Meetings Law, it is clear that it provides any member with the right to attend, listen and observe the performance of public officials. The law is silent, however, with respect to the right of the public to speak or otherwise participate during meetings. Because that is so, it has been advised that a public body may choose to permit the public to speak at its meetings, but that it is not required to do so. Most public bodies do authorize limited participation by the public, and in those situations, it is suggested that they do so by adopting reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally.
In view of the foregoing, it is suggested that the second sentence in the first “Whereas” clause (“Some residents......) be deleted and that “The response to these claims is that” be deleted from the third sentence. It is recommended that the new second sentence state that: “The Town Board has the authority to ensure that everyone has the right to participate.....”
Item 1) in the second Whereas clause indicates that “the meeting building will be opened to the public no earlier than 30 minutes and no later than 15 minutes prior to the scheduled start time.” In my opinion, those limitations may be overly restrictive. What if the Town Board wants or has a need to meet at 2 p.m., and the “meeting building” has been open to the public continuously since 9 a.m.? In like manner, item 2) states that the Supervisor will begin each meeting at 6 p.m. Again, a restriction of that nature would reduce the Board’s flexibility in terms of the time when meetings can be held.
Item 5) in states that there is a limit of “two video cameras per meeting” and that those cameras must be “tripod mounted.” In my experience, video cameras are often now small, and they can be mounted or kept still without being placed on a tripod. There is in fact an attachment for cameras the size of a bottle cap that can be placed on a half full bottle of liquid that might be used in lieu of a tripod. Although I believe that the Board could validly prohibit the use of special lighting or movement, based on judicial decisions, I would suggest the first two sentences be replaced with: “Recording devices may be employed during meetings, so long as their use is neither obtrusive nor disruptive.”
Item 9) indicates that individuals “will have up to 5 minutes to speak to the Board.” In my opinion, 5 minutes may be unnecessarily long, particularly if there are many speakers. More typical is a limitation of 3 minutes per speaker. The same provision states that “The Town Supervisor can end the address short or extend the allowable time.” In my view, it is questionable whether that authority may properly exist in one member of the Board. Better, in my opinion, would be: “The Town Board, upon approval of a motion to do so, may, for good cause expressed in the motion, reduce or extend the time during which an individual may speak.”
Should that recommendation be adopted in some manner, item 13 should be amended to refer to “A person who disregards the directives of the Board....”
I hope that you find the foregoing to be constructive and that I have been of assistance.