Fellow members defend current comments policy

GREENFIELD — Martha Vail wants to make it easier for people to come before the county council, to share their thoughts or concerns with the board.

It’s a feeling her fellow council members don’t share.

The councilwoman’s request prompted a brief discussion, but Vail, who took office this year, stood alone in her belief that a time for public comment should have a standing place on every agenda.

Vail pointed to an article last month in the Daily Reporter detailing various local boards’ policies on public comment and said she found the council’s rules — which require citizens to make a request in advance to address the board — too restrictive, compared with others.

She pointed to Mt. Vernon School Board’s liberal public comment policy, which reserves time at the beginning and end of its meeting for people to discuss issues or concerns with the school board, as an example. The board gives the public three minutes and lists on its website tips for making a good presentation.

The issue has been weighing on her, said Vail, who ran a campaign on better communication between government boards and residents.

The idea to reserve time for residents to speak was rejected by other members. The debate lasted about five minutes before council president Bill Bolander abruptly moved on to a piece of unrelated business.

Council member Kent Fisk said he was a member of the Greenfield-Central School Board when a resident once used time reserved for audience comment to berate a coach, which he felt was inappropriate in a public forum.

“These meetings aren’t for someone to voice personal opinions against other people,” he said. “These are meetings in the public, not public meetings.”

Vail said while campaigning for her post last year, she told people she would represent them and take care of them. To do that best, she needs to hear from the people when they feel moved about something they’ve heard, she said.

That could make a meeting a few minutes longer — but that’s time the public is owed, she said.

“I realize a lot of us have jobs — we want to get out of here — but I feel my obligation when I was elected was to represent everybody out here,” she said.

Other governing boards in Hancock County seem to be more open to receiving input from the public than the council, she said.

Every town and city council reserves time during its meeting to hear from constituents, and while the Hancock County Board of Commissioners doesn’t reserve special time at each meeting for public comment, the board does hear from members of the public if an issue they are concerned about arises.

Other council members defended their current policy, saying it works well.

By asking residents to request comment time, council members know ahead of the meeting what a resident wishes to speak about and can direct them to a different board if the county council can’t help with their concern, Fisk said.

Council members’ phone numbers or emails are listed on the county website, making them easily accessible to the public if they have a grievance they want to discuss, Fisk said. Though two members’ — Randy Sorrell and Bill Bolander — contact info isn’t listed.

Councilwoman Jeannine Gray echoed those sentiments, saying agendas are published online ahead of the meeting. If a resident has a question or concern, they can contact their council person.

The policy as it stands keeps meetings moving efficiently, she said.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.