Public gets more time to talk in Harpswell meetings

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HARPSWELL — The Board of Selectmen approved changes to the public participation rules for the fourth time this year, adding an additional comment period of up to 15 minutes per person at the end of each meeting.

Speakers previously were loosely limited to five-minute speaking times near the beginning of each meeting.

“This is the fourth change this year. A lot of the ideas are good but amending it is creating confusion,” resident Matthew Rich said in last week’s meeting.

He suggested including a time at the beginning of the meeting to allow community announcements and a separate time at the end of the meeting for public comment.

Resident Ann Standridge said a lot can be said in five minutes and suggested a comment period at the end of the meeting to allow town business to be completed first.

Selectman Elinor Multer said originally she suggested the comment period be at the start of the meeting so people could speak and not “have to sit through the whole meeting.”

Multer said “for very selfish reasons” she is not in favor of unlimited time for public comments. “How much public comment should the board be expected to hear?,” she said.

Chairman James Henderson suggested a five-minute comment period at the start of the meeting as well as a comment period at the end of the meeting to allow longer speaking times.

“I suspect there won’t be that many (speaking at the end of the meeting),” he said.

Multer said five minutes is enough.

“I don’t know any other public body that allows unlimited time,” she said, adding some meetings do not allow public comment of any kind. “By allowing five minutes and reading what they give us, we are doing all we are expected to do.”

Resident Elizabeth Davis said it is important people know selectmen are willing to listen.

“People could get the feeling it’s tiresome and boring to listen to what they have to say,” she said.

Selectman Mark Wallace said people who wish to speak longer can request an item be added to the agenda, then selectmen and the public “can talk all we want about it.”

“I don’t mind tinkering with it until we get it right,” Henderson said of the repeated changes to the rule.

He said if there are a large number of people addressing a particular topic for more than five minutes, “clearly there’s an issue” requiring discussion. Multer requested a limit to the number of speakers allowed at the end of the meeting or setting a specific block of time aside that could not be exceeded. 

“The mind cannot absorb more than the seat can endure,” she said.

The rule was amended 2-1 to allow a comment period of up to 15 minutes per person at the end of regular council meetings, with no limit on time or number of speakers.

“It basically leaves a place for longer-winded people at the end of the meeting,” Henderson said.

The change was approved by Henderson and Wallace. Multer was opposed.

Stephanie Grinnell can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or sgrinnell@theforecaster.net.

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