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Candidates for boards offer views of public access
Twelve candidates seeking election on boards having public comment were asked about a question raised in a recent letter to the editor.
Among other things, the letter asks that the public be permitted to comment at every Select Board meeting. The candidates were asked: With respect to the board you may represent, do you agree or disagree? Why do you think so?
All but one candidate submitted a respons. Their answers are published in full, giving voters a chance to see how hopefuls respond to a public question.
Michaiah Healy, first-time candidate
Residents can express their concerns about public matters in a few different ways: 1.) attending Select Board meetings and speaking at Citizens' Open Forum; 2.) seeking out individual meetings with elected or appointed officials; and 3.) through various online message boards and letters to the editor. Residents may also attend committee meetings (as permitted by the state Open Meeting Law) "to listen in" to the reasoning and process of a board or committee, but there isn't an obligation for board members to discuss issues with the public.
Those formats have benefits but also significant limitations. Those limitations have been expressed in public gatherings and settings through visible and verbal frustration of both the public and board or committee members. It seems that each side of the table is operating under different expectations of one another.
The board room is the physical public setting in which residents come to express their concerns and to have those concerns received and incorporated into decision making affecting town policies. When certain Select Board meetings do not include an opportunity for dialogue, when residents want very much to have the opportunity to express their concerns, residents become frustrated.
I believe the answer to this frustration is in the development of a regular, ongoing public space, where the format encourages active participation and respectful dialogue. The only space that I've seen holding this function for dialogue and problem solving, on the town level, is through the Envision Arlington task groups and community groups. That includes the Diversity Task Group, which I've chaired and cochaired for a few years. In this setting, the goal is not to persuade or win anyone over -- but to have concerns legitimized, responded to and a next step put forward in addressing the concern.
The benefit of having public discourse in a healthy and respectful manner where we are bound to the same set of agreements to one another in having a discussion is what our town desperately deserves with our public leaders. In the Select Board's Policy Handbook, under the section Board Meeting and Hearing Procedures, Section E- Citizens Participation at Select Board Meetings, it states: "A Public Comment or 'Citizens Open Forum' period will be scheduled at each meeting to hear concerns of the general public (some exclusions may apply). Citizens are welcome to raise new issues for future board agendas, identify community problems, and comment on past, present or future board agendas."
Yes, I support the idea of having a regular opportunity for a Citizens' Open Forum as part of each Select Board meeting, which would provide residents the opportunity to be heard and to collectively inform the decisions of the board. In the times when there is an intentional exclusion to having a Citizens' Open Forum, that should be explicitly communicated on the agenda and read aloud at the start of the meeting.
This is why I am running as a candidate for Select Board. I realized that I can lead this effort from the inside out, that by becoming an elected official, I can create an inclusive and responsive space within the system, and lead our community into a healthier way of relating to one another. I believe that by creating a more transparent and inclusive community, where we listen and respect one another, our community will be stronger, learning new perspectives and finding solutions on issues that we all care about. I'm running because I care deeply about all of my Arlington neighbors and I know that I have the tools to help us move forward. Reach me at michaiahforselectboard at gmail.com.
Diane Mahon, board chair
In accordance with the policy contained in the Select Board Handbook -- a policy I created, established in my first year as chair and was later adopted as a policy by the then-Board of Selectmen -- Citizens' Open Forum has and will continue to appear on every regularly scheduled Select Board meeting, with the cited exclusions contained in the Select Board Handbook.
Lenard Diggins, first-time candidate
No response submitted.
Paul Schlichtman, incumbent
Should public-comment periods at public meetings occur at every board meeting? This question requires a discussion that goes beyond a simple yes or no, because of the complications of state laws surrounding open meetings and public records.
Let’s begin with the ground rules for meetings of municipal boards and commissions in Massachusetts.
While the state Legislature exempts itself from all provisions of the Open Meeting Law, every board and commission, from city councils, select boards, school committees, down to the most obscure committees in the smallest towns, must comply with this law. Attorney General Maura Healey, who has primary responsibility for enforcing the Open Meeting Law, provides a guide to that law >> Here are some key points from her guide, relevant to this discussion:
Except in cases of emergency, a public body must provide the public with notice of its meeting 48 hours in advance, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays. Meeting notices must be posted in a legible, easily understandable format; contain the date, time and place of the meeting; and list all topics that the chair reasonably anticipates, 48 hours in advance, will be discussed at the meeting. The list of topics must be sufficiently specific to reasonably inform the public of the issues to be discussed at the meeting.
While the public is permitted to attend an open meeting, an individual may not address the public body without permission of the chair. Although public participation is entirely within the chair’s discretion, the attorney general encourages public bodies to allow as much public participation as time permits.
With certain exceptions, all meetings of a public body must be open to the public. A meeting is generally defined as “a deliberation by a public body with respect to any matter within the body’s jurisdiction.” The Open Meeting Law defines deliberation as “an oral or written communication through any medium, including electronic mail, between or among a quorum of a public body on any public business within its jurisdiction.”
The Open Meeting Law applies only to the discussion of any “matter within the body’s jurisdiction.” The law does not specifically define “jurisdiction.” As a general rule, any matter of public business on which a quorum of the public body may make a decision or recommendation is considered a matter within the jurisdiction of the public body.
Let’s translate some of the ground rules into day-to-day reality.
I like my colleagues on the School Committee. They are wicked smart and fun to talk to. However, my six colleagues are the only people on Earth with whom I am prohibited from discussing anything that might come under our jurisdiction unless we are at a properly posted public meeting. I can talk freely to parents, teachers, the superintendent, my cat and my good friend on the Somerville School Committee, but the public must be able to observe these discussions between members of the same committee.
Meeting time is precious because the School Committee can discuss and deliberate only at a public meeting. We have seven School Committee members because we bring different perspectives, and we learn from each other. We learn from listening to each other and asking questions. We often come to consensus, but not without multiple, thoughtful discussions. This why we need to manage our meetings, and our workload, to provide sufficient time for committee members to deliberate and to interact with each other.
The Arlington School Committee has a set of policies pertaining to the operation of the committee and the structure of meeting agendas. We provide for up to 20 minutes of public comment, with speakers limited to three minutes, at regular meetings of the committee. We also refrain from commenting and responding to speakers at the meeting, but we will refer topics brought forward by the public to subcommittee, to the administration for action, or to be placed on a future agenda.
While our regular meetings are very formal, our subcommittee meetings are an informal opportunity for anyone in the room to participate in a discussion. Generally, we sit around a table and allow anyone in the room to participate in the discussion. The formal vote at a subcommittee meeting is limited to members of the subcommittee, usually three members, but votes are merely recommendations that will be forwarded to the School Committee for action at a formal meeting.
Which brings us back to the public-comment portion of our formal meeting. As the quality of ACMi broadcasts improved, along with the increased use of social media, it is now easier to sense the pulse of the community, or Arlington Public Schools families, by following the conversations on social media.
People who want to get the attention of the School Committee can email individual members, the committee chair or the administrative secretary. A letter or email in the meeting packet, which is finalized 48 hours before each meeting, is the most efficient way to get an issue resolved or to place a topic on the agenda for a future meeting. School Committee members in Arlington, when we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic, are also happy to meet with folks over coffee, and our phone numbers are all published on the district website. We’re an accessible bunch. As a result, public comment at School Committee meetings has declined over the years, and while we have an attentive audience on ACMi, we often work in a room with lots of empty chairs.
Public comment is an inefficient way to get the School Committee to take action. The law requiring agenda items to be posted 48 hours in advance gives the committee, and the public, warning about a topic that might be decided at the meeting. With limited exceptions, we cannot wander off to make a decision that is not on the agenda. This “no-surprise rule” promotes open government.
I will illustrate the reasons that this is important with an absurd example. A plethora of people populate our public-comment period requesting permission to paint the Ottoson Middle School purple with pink accents. People describe this as a tribute to some worthy cause, promising it would be done quickly and at no cost to the town. After two hours of pink-and-purple presentations, the committee votes to approve the petition. Before anyone notices what happened at Thursday night’s meeting, a small army of pink-and-purple painters shows up at dawn on Saturday morning, and we have a neon purple school with bold pink accents before noon.
Before the sun sets on the pink-and-purple ziggurat, the whole town is driving up and down Massachusetts Avenue, gawking at the pink-and-purple problem on the hill. Acton Street is clogged with angry neighbors, soon to be joined by protesters from around town (including one singing sappy protest songs in a Barney the Dinosaur costume) and a news crew from Channel 7. How did this happen? The School Committee voted for this on Thursday night!
Under our current rules, the School Committee doesn’t respond to the pink-and-purple pitch of the plethora of presenters at public comment. The pink-and-purple presentation ends after 20 minutes, and the committee returns to the publicly posted agenda items. The committee’s response is to ask the superintendent to study the matter, or to forward the idea to a subcommittee. A pink-and-purple decision can’t be made until the subsequent meeting, where an agenda item for the pink-and-purple panacea appears on the agenda. This allows the pink-and-purple plan to percolate through the town, and committee members get to make an informed decision after receiving feedback from the entire community. Pink-and-purple pandemonium averted.
Public comment is a largely unused part of the agenda for every regular School Committee meeting. We do not require it on the agenda of a special meeting of the committee, though on-topic comments are at the discretion of the chair. What is a special meeting? It could be a quick meeting that allows us to consider an unusual item that can’t wait for the next regular meeting of the committee. It gives us the opportunity to post the limited agenda 48 hours in advance, quickly convene to deliberate and vote, and adjourn. This is what the Select Board did when it held a special meeting to choose either June 6 or June 13 for the postponed town election.
We need the flexibility to hold special meetings, as we are not legally allowed to make a decision by polling members in email, or any other attempt to build consent or approval outside of public view. It is reasonable to open a special meeting to public comment on the agenda items, but it is also reasonable to wait for a regular meeting to open the floor to public comments that don’t directly relate to the specific items on the agenda. It is even more reasonable as social media, email, and YourArlington.com are all more efficient platforms for informing the public or gaining the attention of the school committee.
Again, we must remember that public comments at a public meeting, unrelated to a specific agenda item, cannot be brought into the deliberations or decisions of the board receiving the remarks. Democracy is best served when agenda items are made available to all before the meeting, so that all who have an opinion can think about the issues and present arguments on a level playing field. Democracy is best served when public officials have the opportunity to read supporting documentation and think about the issues before them, and all members of the community have the opportunity to weigh in before a decision is made.
Bill Hayner, incumbent
I have been asked as a candidate to respond to a citizen’s request regarding public input. Each board has its own rules about how it will run a meeting.
The Select Board allows for public input during the meeting and may designate a specific time for public input. The Select Board chair indicated that there was no Public Input [Citizens' Open Forum] on the agenda and as such, there would not be any.
The School Committee sets a specific time, usually at the beginning of each meeting, for public participation, with no comment from members. The person can ask to be put on a future agenda for further discussion.
As a former chair, I realize it is a balancing act to run an orderly meeting and allow input from all members, especially when the discussion revolves around something with differing opinions. Add into this mix public participation, where everyone wanting to be heard can take time away from other items that need resolution during the meeting.
I respect and support the right of each board to run their meeting the way that works best for them.
Lynette Martyn, first-time candidate
As a candidate for School Committee, I think it is important to be gracious, understanding and respectful of the stress that our town leaders are currently working under as they navigate us through this difficult time when lives are at stake.
I would like to share my appreciation of our town leaders and essential workers. Our Select Board members are facing an unprecedented situation for which there is no rule book.
In a time of crisis, the public looks toward town leadership for guidance. There are lots of questions and concerns around what the future holds and what our town is doing to keep us safe. Residents need to be given ample opportunities to be heard and to be reassured that the town is doing the best they can.
Personally, as a concerned resident, I would love to have a weekly check-in space where I could talk to a Select Board member and have an opportunity to voice concerns and ask questions, similar to what teachers and local churches have been doing. A similar space would serve our Arlington Public School families and School Committee as well during this time of uncertainty, as I have been hearing from many confused and concerned parents and caregivers.
For more information about my ideas for the School Committee, visit my website at ElectLynette.com.
Liz Exton, first-time candidate
I am running for a seat on the School Committee. I support public participation at every School Committee meeting, so the committee can hear feedback from the community.
Board of Assessors
Mary Winstanley O'Connor, incumbent
Public comment is always permitted during the meetings of the Board of Assessors, which does not limit public participation to a certain portion of its agenda. It permits residents to comment as items are discussed during the open meetings. I concur with this approach, which the Board of Assessors has used for years.
The public is not, however, permitted to attend and/or comment when the Board of Assessors goes into executive session for purposes of reviewing and considering resident applications for property tax abatements and exemptions.
These matters, pursuant to M.G.L. c.59, §60, must be discussed in executive session as the application and/or exemption submitted often includes confidential information, including income tax returns, documents as to assets owned by the resident, medical records and other confidential and sensitive information.
After a decision is made by the board about a request for a property tax abatement and/or exemption, though there is no statutory requirement to do so, the board permits any resident who receives a decision to further discuss or review to meet in person with board members. Since the subject of the in-person meeting with the board is directly related to the resident’s application for an abatement and/or exemption, the meeting is not open to the public.
Gordon Jamieson, first-time candidate
Every board (and key town/school committees) should provide for public comment during its regular meetings.
Further, said board/committee meeting times should be scheduled at a time that facilitates public attendance and comment.
Errol Tashjian, first-time candidate
Yes, the Select Board should have heard or even solicited questions from the public. There is clearly a lot of concern about voter safety and the democratic process in general, and the general public may have good ideas on how to best move forward. Arlington government at all levels should strive to be more transparent and democratic.
Housing Authority board
Joseph Daly, incumbent
Brian Connor, who serves on the authority board with Daly, responded for the candidate, but he noted that the words are Daly's.
First and foremost, I did not watch the Select Board's meeting, so it’s tough for me to judge the environment or happenings of the meeting. However, I do think it’s important for members of the community to have an opportunity to speak at some point during open public meetings.
During my many years of serving on and attending open meetings, I understand this can be difficult for various reasons, whether it be a large amount of items on the agenda or time restraints. Obviously, we are all taking life on a day-by-day basis; we truly don’t know who will or will not survive this pandemic. I'm sure the board will have more discussions and opportunities for citizens to offer suggestions over the next eight weeks until the proposed election date. Who knows, the election may even be rescheduled again until the fall. Now is not the time to divide and conquer; we are all in this together; patience and understanding in this time of crisis must prevail.
I sincerely hope my fellow AHA tenants and citizens of Arlington remain safe; life is short, enjoy it!
Jo Anne Preston
Because I am a candidate for the Arlington Housing Authority Board, I have been asked to respond to the proposal that the public be allowed to regularly comment at board meetings.
As a Town Meeting member, I have attended many town board and committee meetings over the last two years in order to better represent my precinct. Some of the board meetings allowed public comment; others did not. I conclude from my observations that the contributions from members of the public made for much more informed decision-making than I saw at meetings in which the public was forbidden to speak.
One board meeting comes to mind and serves as an example of how a lack of public participation can limit the deliberations of the board. Last April, I joined nine other residents at a board meeting. The acting chair announced at the beginning of the meeting that no public participation would be allowed. So all 10 of the residents who attended sat there in silence for 45 minutes listening to the board and two town employees discuss the only important topic of the evening and the meeting ended 45 minutes early.
What was this topic? How can the board do effective committee outreach to the residents of Arlington. I am sure the residents sitting in the room could have contributed some valuable suggestions to this board discussion.
That board must have realized that public participation could be an important part of their process since it reversed its policy several months later. In meetings with public participation, the members of public and board did not often come to a consensus on all the issues, but the lively exchange of ideas and data led to deeper consideration of the proposals before them.
The Arlington Housing Board has a number of formidable obstacles to opening up its meetings to public participation. First, the dates and times of each meeting are sent to the town clerk’s office, which posts them on the town bulletin board, as required by the state Open Meeting law. I have never seen them on the town’s calendar of meetings, which is the first place that residents with an interest in the town’s proceedings would naturally look. Putting these meetings on the calendar would make it easier for citizens to attend them.
Second, the agenda for these meetings, which is also required to be posted by the Open Meeting Law, lists only the a few general categories -- Appointments, Local Tenants Organization, General Public and Project Updates -- and gives the public no sense of what concrete issues the Board will be examining.
These four categories, as revealed by the posted meeting minutes, are all that is mentioned on the agenda for 2019 January to September 2019 (the minutes for the five meetings from October 2019 to February 2020 have not yet been posted to the Arlington Housing Authority website). Since no further information is given, the public could not be able to learn what would be taken up by the board at these meetings, and thus, in practice, could not be encouraged to attend and speak on those issues that concern them. Other town boards, by contrast, regularly do inform the public in detail about the specific topics which will be discussed at the next meeting.
Third, The Arlington Housing Authority Tenants Handbook (2013), which is available in the internet, does not inform the tenants that there are regular board meetings and explicitly invite the residents’ to participate by attending and speaking.
Although undoubtedly some residents do find their way to the board meetings and speak, the deficiencies in the public announcement of meetings and announcement of specific agenda items is an obstacle to opening up the meetings to all Arlington residents who have an interest in the workings of the housing authority. These would include not only those living in the building complexes, but also those seeking housing, family members of AHA residents, residents of the town with proposals to assist the housing authority and Town Meeting members.
I seek a position on the Arlington Housing Authority Board in order to open up the meetings to public participation by all residents with an interest in improving the lives of those whom the board serves.
These responses to requests for opinion were published Saturday, April 11.
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