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.