New Paltz Town Board members differ about how public comment is incorporated into council meetings

The first meeting of the year for a town council is often used as an opportunity to strike a new tone or set a new agenda, whether or not there are new members joining that particular board. New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez welcomed one new member to the town council in New Paltz at their January 6 meeting, and a new tone was also set — albeit not entirely by the elected officials.

An intended shift in tone was a new attempt to better control how public comment is incorporated into council meetings. These aren’t New England-style town meetings, where everyone gets a say and has a vote, but New Paltz residents have come to expect the opportunity to make comments during public meetings. When resident Kitty Brown signaled a desire to speak even as the January 6 meeting was being adjourned, the supervisor did not acknowledge it until council member Julie Seyfert-Lillis pointed out the electronically raised hand.

“I do not want to have a back-and-forth and discuss things with people during the Town Board meeting. That’s what public comment is for,” said Bettez. Seyfert-Lillis acknowledged that the request from Brown, a prior deputy supervisor, was “unusual,” and perhaps prompted by Brown missing the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting.

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Dan Torres, freshly reappointed as the current deputy supervisor, explained, “We haven’t been consistent with how we’ve done this, and I just think we need to be consistent.”

Bettez agreed, adding, “Public comment is during public input. The rest of the meeting is for the Town Board, and we don’t go back and forth.”

An advisory opinion from the state’s committee on open government in 2007 dispels some misconceptions about commenting at public meetings and lays out some guidance for public officials around this issue. There is no requirement that members of the public be given an opportunity to speak at all in New York. If public comment is allowed, however, then the rules around it should be clear.

In the opinion, committee assistant director Camille S. Jobin-Davis writes that “the Open Meetings Law clearly provides the public with the right ‘to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy (see Open Meetings Law, §100). However, that statute is silent with respect to the issue of public participation. Consequently, if a public body does not want to answer questions or permit the public to speak or otherwise participate at its meetings, I do not believe that it would be obliged to do so. Nevertheless, a public body may choose to answer questions and permit public participation and many do so. When a public body does permit the public to speak, it has been advised that it should do so based upon rules that treat members of the public equally.”

At Town Board meetings in New Paltz, the rules in recent years have included having a period for public comment near the start of the meeting, and also a time limit for individual speakers. That sometimes has included responses by one or more of the elected officials, or even a discussion. Questions from attendees are also sometimes taken during other portions of the meeting. As for time limits, Jobin-Davis wrote in that 2007 opinion, “It is also not unreasonable, in our opinion, to deviate, under certain circumstances, from restrictions on the number of minutes a person is permitted to speak. However, it is our opinion that if time limits are relaxed for one person, if requested, they must be relaxed in the same manner for others.” Rules must not be “unreasonable,” and inconsistency is unreasonable. “Similarly, if a person arrives late to a meeting, and the public comment portion of the meeting has already passed, we see no reason to permit the latecomer the ability to speak during the business portion of the meeting. On the other hand, when the latecomer arrives within the public comment portion of a meeting, or prior to that portion of the meeting at which others are invited to speak, in our opinion, we see no reason for prohibiting that person from requesting to speak.”

Not allowing Brown to speak at a later time in the meeting appears acceptable, but if someone else had been permitted to speak late during the same meeting, it would have been a different story. The implication is that each meeting brings with it a fresh opportunity to cleave to discipline.

The unintended shift in tone was at the beginning of the meeting. Bettez mentioned during announcements that town offices would be closed for “the holiday,” and Seyfert-Lillis commented, “not Martin Luther King Jr. Day?”

“Usually we just say ‘holiday’,” Bettez said, but not before resident Stana Weisburd could be heard uttering an expletive that conveyed some level of shock or surprise. The supervisor confirmed later that “we don’t usually specify which holiday” when announcing a closure, simply that it’s a holiday closure.

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