The German Flatts Town Board is in the process of revamping how it handles the public comment portion of its meetings.
At its first meeting of the year on Jan. 2, the board voted to require residents to submit questions in writing seven to 10 days in advance. Town Councilman Denny Mowers made the motion for the change.
“We need to give you the correct answers,” Mowers said to German Flatts residents on Monday when the issue was revisited during a specially called organizational meeting.
New town Supervisor Peter Rovazzi made a motion at the Jan. 8 meeting to rescind and revise the policy on how public comments were handled. The motion ultimately was tabled, but the board did choose to discuss the issue further at its next meeting.
Although the requirement to submit questions in writing seven to 10 days prior was technically in effect, Rovazzi allowed residents to make comments after the decision. Rovazzi made the decision because the two meetings took place fewer than seven days apart.
Rovazzi — who voted against the change — also voiced his disillusionment with the requirement prior to Monday’s meeting.
“We are here to represent the public,” he said.
Rovazzi was worried that people could miss the opportunity to voice their opinions on things that were being voted on if they had to submit their questions days ahead of time. He said the decision to submit the questions ahead of time was implemented to create more structure during the meetings. He said the public would comment in and out and throughout the meeting.
“This is quite a bit too structured,” Rovazzi said of the new rule.
Around the area
The Utica Common Council sets aside 30 minutes of every meeting for the public to voice their opinions, and they, along with several other local municipalites that use the same system, say it seems to work well.
“I think this works amazing,” said Utica City Clerk Michelle George.
George said the Common Council follows Roberts Rules of Order. She said the rules were most recently adopted in 2014.
It is up to the president of the council to keep the member of the public on topic and on a time allotment — typically one to three minutes — depending on how many people are signed up to speak.
The Herkimer County Legislature follows the same practice. The speakers, however, are not required to be from Herkimer County. This is a bit different, as typically a speaker must be from the municipality that the board represents.
The Legislature requires people to sign up to speak at the beginning of the meeting and also enforces the 30-minute total allotment. The county has had the procedure in place for the better part of 20 years.
“That’s pretty much the norm,” Herkimer County Legislature Clerk Sally Deming said, talking about the procedure.
Paul Miscione — the new town supervisor in New Hartford — said the public comment section of the meeting was important. He said every member of the town was invited to come speak.
“There’s nothing to hide,” he said.
Miscione said he would be worried that the public would not attend the meetings and speak if they thought they had to worry about various loopholes to their comments.
Public comment and the law
Public bodies are not required to allow the public to speak during their meetings. According to the Open Meetings Law, the bodies are only required to allow the public to attend the meetings.
German Flatts Town Attorney Jeff Rheinhardt noted this during Monday’s meeting, telling the board that the decision on public comments was up to them.
“From a legal perspective, you’re not bound either way,” he told the board.
A representative from the Department of State Committee on Open Government said that the procedure must be uniform, no matter how municipalities decide to handle public comments.
“As long as the rule is being implemented uniformly and fairly to the public,” said Kristin O’Neill, committee assistant director. “You don’t want people you like to ask a question and then have people you don’t like (and) saying ‘No, no, no. You can’t do that.’”
O’Neill said many public bodies will allow people to speak during a public comment portion of the meeting, instead of answering questions directly from those in attendance, noting the public body “isn’t even obligated to answer the question.”
Stephanie Sorrell-White of Gatehouse New York contributed to this article.