HARPSWELL — Three months after banning discussion of School Administrative District 75 during public comment at Board of Selectmen meetings, elected officials have redrafted the town’s policy so a content-based ban on public comment will not be possible in the future.
The latest amendment to the town’s public comment policy, the seventh since 2004, eliminated a clause that some, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, believed prevented the public’s freedom of expression.
The clause said “it is neither the purpose nor the intent of Public Comment to provide an arena for the repeated airing of views on on-going controversial topics unless and until such time as a topic presents a question requiring immediate action or a decision by the Board of Selectmen, at which time the issue will be placed upon the agenda.”
Citing that clause, Chairman Elinor Multer and Selectman Alison Hawkes voted on July 7 to ban discussion of the town’s relationship with SAD 75. The ban irked not only Selectman Jim Henderson, who voted against it, but several town residents and a lawyer representing the Maine ACLU.
Zachary Heiden, legal director of the civil liberties group, wrote to the selectmen on Aug. 30, informing them that “the power to limit speech based on the content of the speech is inconsistent with the First Amendment,” and encouraged them to reform their policy.
Concern over the reaction to the ban led the selectmen to schedule a special meeting Tuesday, where they spent two hours debating the merits of allowing more freedom during public comment periods, before ultimately deciding to allow residents to talk about whatever they want.
A handful of Harpswell residents, including Robert McIntyre, who frequently speaks about the town’s relationship with SAD 75 during public comment, and School Board member Kay O’Grodnik, attended the meeting and spoke out against the content-based restrictions in the old policy.
Under the new policy, Harpswell residents now have a chance at the beginning and end of meetings to speak for five minutes on any topic – whether it’s relevant to town business or not – as well as prior to a vote on each agenda item. They may also lodge complaints against town officials, staff members or individuals, something that was prohibited in the previous version of the policy.
The selectmen were divided over whether to limit comments to issues relative to town business or that have or will come before the board.
Hawkes said it would be difficult to determine what qualified as “town business,” a concern shared by attorney Mark Bower, who was assisting Town Attorney Sally Daggett. Hawkes also said limiting public comment to town business “keeps people from doing what this is about, which is serving the public.”
But Multer said she didn’t want to see the public comment period abused by people who were campaigning for one side of a municipal ballot item, or some other town issue.
“I don’t like the idea of selectman’s meetings being involved in a back-and-forth debate,” she said, adding that she was bothered by the way McIntyre used the public comment period to advance his perspective on a June vote to study withdrawing from SAD 75.
“Mr. McIntyre came to every one of our meetings in a certain period and campaigned for an issue that was on the ballot. Which made this his principal campaign venue … I just thought that was inappropriate at selectmen’s meetings,” she said.
Daggett suggested that adding a sentence about excluding unduly repetitive comments would address some of Multer’s concerns.
Ultimately, Multer was out-numbered by Hawkes and Henderson.
After the meeting, Henderson – who, unlike Hawkes, opposed restrictions on public comment from the beginning – said he felt good about the policy revision, which he said “maintained accessibility by the public to give us their opinion.”
He added that he hopes the revised policy “won’t raise so many issues that we have to come back or another board has to come back and revisit it.”