Towns cannot allow disruptive meeting behavior

We all live with the confidence that if our town steps on our toes or we feel strongly about an issue, we could stand up at a city council or selectmen's meeting and give 'em a piece of our mind.

Fortunately, most of us go decades, or even our entire lives, without feeling the need.

For a very small group of our fellow citizens, attending meetings and occasionally participating is a weekly or fortnightly activity.

Then there are others who believe that disrupting municipal meetings is their right in a democracy.

It is not.

Both Dixfield and Peru have been wrestling with this problem for months. In both towns, a small band of people regularly heckles, interrupts and otherwise abuses the right to attend meetings.

This has led to some interesting attempts to re-establish order.

In Peru, selectmen tried to change their policy of allowing public participation at every weekly meeting to allowing comment at only two meetings per month.

Board Chairman Tom Holland said this was in response to disruption and animosity from a few residents who interfered with the board's ability to conduct the town's business.

Voters responded by passing an ordinance requiring 20-minute public sessions at each board meeting.

Holland said he had been too lenient with disruptive behavior and promised the meetings would be more businesslike in the future.

"We will be taking back control of our meetings," he said. Profane, belligerent or threatening conduct would not longer be allowed.

Monday in Dixfield the Board of Selectmen voted to once again allow public comments at their meetings, but not if those comments are construed as complaints.

"Any speaker using foul language, shouting, using physical displays of anger or attempting to physically intimidate will be strictly prohibited and can cause the speaker to be removed from the meeting," wrote Chairman Mac Gill in a statement. Each resident will have five minutes to speak.

Both towns are on the right track, although forbidding complaints seems impractical, perhaps even impossible.

Does that mean people can only ask questions or offer compliments? "Why is my road not being plowed?" Is that a complaint or a question?  See what we mean?

In any event, the person running a meeting needs to set firm ground rules for productive public participation.

Those must include forbidding snide comments, heckling, swearing, name-calling and other intolerable behavior during a meeting.

And that may mean having a police officer available to eject people who do not obey the rules, or even obtaining a court order preventing incorrigible rule-breakers from attending meetings.

The audience should be silent unless called upon by the chair or recognized during the public portion of the meeting.

A healthy exchange of ideas should be encouraged, but intimidation, profanity and disruption cannot be tolerated.

Public participation is a central tenet of democracy, and New England town meetings are one of the purest expressions of that.

But when we elect people, it becomes a representative democracy. And the public needs to give those elected leaders the time and space to operate effectively during regular municipal board meetings.

When these meetings regularly erupt in incivility, the public interest is not being served. 

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

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Comments

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

It is imperative that

It is imperative that selectpersons everywhere learn the difference between passion and unruliness, and conduct themselves accordingly. Remember, know it or not, like it or not; YOU WORK FOR US!!

JOANNE MOORE's picture

So,

the only person who can disrupt public meetings, swear, shout, intimidate, etc.is Paul LePage?

 's picture

When a citizen appears before

When a citizen appears before the board to present the voice of two hundred citizens with the sole wish to have an orderly vote on a matter of great, community concern and that citizen is told the presented petition of two hundred signatures will not be recognized and not moved forward, there exists failure of representation and criticism of constituents. It has been said by one board member that citizens signing petitions do so without even knowing what they are signing.

Norman Mitchell's picture

Lie

This story is a lie I would Challenge this newspaper to show me the disruptive behavior in Dixfield ! How many years has in been since anyone was disruptive at a selectman's meeting ? And even then only when the gentlemen was enticed by a town official ! Town officials shouldn't be allowed to belittle the citizens , I have the video of that meeting when a concerned citizen was removed from a meeting in Dixfield !! Dixfield selectmens meetings are on Channel 7 you can watch for yourselves and see no disruption only corruption in Dixfield ! Limiting the citizens right to petition its government is unconstitutional you should give it a read ! ALSO TAKING THE RIGHTS AWAY FROM THE WHOLE TOWN FOR THE ACTIONS OF ONE NO LOGIC IN THIS METHOD ITS DICTATORSHIP // THIS WOULD BE LIKE GIVING EVERY PERSON IN TOWN A SPEEDING TICKET BECAUSE ONE PERSON SPEEDS ON MAIN STREET ! THIS IS DICTATORSHIP TIME TO TROW OUT EVERY SELECTBOARD IN EVERY TOWN THAT DOESN'T WANT TO HEAR FROM ITS CITIZENRY ! I ALWAYS THOUGHT THAT TOWN GOVERNMENT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A TRUE DEMOCRACY !!

Norman Mitchell's picture

One more thing

In the town government the citizenry is the legislative body ! Remember who you represent and who is in control !

DANNY FITZSIMMONS's picture

Yes by all means

Yes add shut up public opinon to the list of this newspapers anti american behavior, no complaints allowed here nope you dont like it too bad, there are those who disrupt a meeting yet there are those with viable gripes and they should be allowed to be heard even if it ticks off the council and sometimes they do deserve to be ridiclued or chastised for thier own misbehavior. So we all must submit to live our lives as others in power think we should live ah yes the great years of communisim which lies ahead dont think do as we say we know whats good for you and if you complain we will throw you in jail Ahh yes the Lewiston journals dream.

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