DEMOCRACY REQUIRES VIBRANT PUBLIC COMMENT

by D.R. Barberet

It was admirable that, at their meeting on December 10, 2018, members of the Amherst Town Council expressed concern that a proposed 6:30 p.m. start time for future meetings might inconvenience or deter those who wished to speak during the 15-minute public comment period traditionally held at the start of each meeting of the former Select Board. However, their solution—to move the public comments to the end of meetings—hardly improved the situation.  At the meeting on January 28, one hardy member of the public spoke—at 12:04 a.m., technically the next day.

More troubling were the comments of one of the at-large councilors, Alisa Brewer, at the December 10 meeting. Brewer stated that the only reason there was any public comment at council meetings was because the Charter Commission had mandated it. She further stated that she was opposed to public comment as a primary source of information because residents already have public forums, e-mails, phone calls, and private meetings to make their views known to the council, and that the more “stuff” the council had to attend to at the beginning of meetings, the later it would be until they got to “things.” This councilor appears to not understand the double dimension of the term “public comment.”  This is a time for members of the public to voice their concerns in public before the council and also before those physically present in the audience—including the press—and as well for those watching Amherst Media’s broadcast, an audience that is surprisingly larger than one might think.

E-mails, phone calls, and private meetings do communicate an individual’s concerns to their councilors but not to the public at large, unless the councilors choose to make public such information. Even then it may well be filtered through a councilor’s own perspective. It is the council that retains both knowledge and control of this information, leaving the public, whom the council is charged to serve, potentially unable to gauge or even know the concerns of fellow residents.

I find it deeply troubling that, barely two months into a new form of government, a councilor who has been elected by the entire town feels that residents already have sufficient means to make their concerns known, and that taking even fifteen minutes of the council’s time to publicly hear the voices of town residents is simply too much. The charter campaign repeatedly hammered the point that the voices of Amherst residents were not being heard. Town Meeting was demonized as an elite body that was out of touch with and unresponsive to the majority of the town. Yet, in my nearly twenty years as a Town Meeting member, I never heard any of my fellow representatives advocate for fewer opportunities for the public’s voices to be heard.  

The right to address publicly those who have been elected to govern our town should not be seen as an inconvenience that hinders the real business of the council.  The council should not give the appearance of being a private club that effectively controls public input. Nor should it be the sole entity that “frames the topic,” another concern expressed by the councilor as she lamented how a comment made by a member of the public at the beginning of the 10 December meeting unduly influenced, in her opinion, later discussion by the council. Input by the public—in public—can have the unfortunate consequence of unsettling debates and discourses that seemed smooth, efficient, and well thought-out in advance. It’s the price of a little thing called democracy.

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