PERU — Voters on Saturday narrowly passed an ordinance that requires selectmen to include a 20-minute public session at each board meeting and to put on the agenda any issue requested by a resident.
A capacity crowd at the special town meeting at the former Peru Elementary School voted 49-43 to approve the local law.
Meeting moderator Don Roach had to reprimand townspeople who were using profanity and debating among themselves instead of directing questions and comments to him.
Selectmen had changed their custom of responding to questions from the floor and letting people participate at every weekly meeting to a policy of allowing public comment at only two meetings per month. Board Chairman Tim Holland said this was due to disruption and animosity from a few residents who interfered with the board's ability to conduct the town's business.
The board had offered to return to the weekly open session but those who circulated the petition in favor of the ordinance insisted on going through the ordinance process, Holland said.
He said he had been too lenient with disruptive behavior in the past. In the future, selectmen will insist on residents adhering to business-meeting behavior. "We will be taking back control of our meetings," he said. Profane, belligerent or threatening conduct will no longer be tolerated.
The ordinance authorizes any selectman to decide whether the behavior of a resident or another elected official is inappropriate.
A resident who refused to identify herself, but who others identified as Valerie Gurney, said she supported the ordinance because it took her three years to resolve a problem with the town. She said she had been on the agenda several times, but, "Because Mr. Holland doesn't like me, he wouldn't let me speak."
Selectman Edward Ferland spoke up in support of Gurney. "The selectmen should represent the people and not have their own agenda," he said. "This board has had a self-interest."
Resident Marie Eastman spoke against the ordinance. For years she had routinely attended selectmen meetings and had written a neighborhood newsletter about them. "I asked questions and always got answers," she said.
She said the group behind the petition for the ordinance had been antagonistic and disruptive, bringing up the same issues and questions week after week and interfering with the meetings. "I have heard name-calling," she said.
Resident Larry Porter said, "I am not a sheep. I don't like paying taxes and not being able to speak."
Another resident who spoke against the ordinance said, "People rehashing the same stuff twice a month is enough. There are people in this room who are causing the problem."
The ordinance is not the only divisive issue facing the town. Residents have filed recall petitions against all five selectmen. A public hearing will be held Feb. 11, and a referendum on March 4, to consider the recalls.