Letter: Limiting Public Comment Will Not Make Town Council More Efficient Or Better

Photo: Sierra Club

The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Couoncil on March 6, 2023.

I write regarding the proposed vote today to reduce public comment to less than the 3 minutes currently allocated per person, and to no more than 30 minutes per Town Council meeting.

This is a significant change restricting civic participation. It has faced no public scrutiny, and ironically, is put to vote at the same meeting where our State Senator, Jo Comerford, will be speaking. Notably she has said only recently that she will be looking for us to “…engage more robustly on critical issues,” not less. It is neither transparent nor democratic that the agenda item for Monday states: 8.a. Adoption of Proposed Amendments to Town Council Rules of Procedure: Rules 3.2., 5.1., and 5.2, giving no notice to the public that the change is about curtailment of public comment. That it was placed on the “consent agenda” for approval without discussion is also untransparent and anti-democratic.

Stopping public comment will not make TC more efficient or better. If TC meetings are too long, then I urge the TC to look within itself to see how agendas are set. A good example is the proposed vote today. Why is it even being put to vote without any discussion or consultation, evidence or rationale? Has the proponent done any time analysis of the TC meetings to determine the causes for the lengthy meetings? And, if public comment is too much, what actions do Councilors plan to take to hear from their constituents? Has there been consideration of best ways to hear from the diverse and wide range of residents of Amherst in other ways through other means? If none, on what basis are you representing us? 

Residents can hardly keep up with the proposals for change. We have just spent an enormous amount of time making sense of a proposal for changes that even the planning director said is too complex to analyze for impact. Today, there’s yet another new proposed change stated in language that hides the true intent behind the vote. Upon review these changes do not hold up to some simple standards: Is there a problem or future issue that the proposal will address? If yes, what is the issue? What is the proposed solution? How will this solution address the issue? These questions are a minimal standard that must be applied before a proposal is put to public comment and then to vote. 

Town Council will be a lot more efficient if a standard were set that required any council member to do their homework and present their proposal for public discussion after it has been vetted by a few criteria – what is the problem? What is the solution? What is the evidence that the solution will actually address the problem? How will it impact the different population groups in Amherst, particularly the more vulnerable groups?

A total of 30 minutes for all of public comment for and against issues of importance to us is an embarrassment to our Town. 

Limiting public comment is not the way to solve the Council’s organizational and time management problems. Instead, I urge you to do as Senator Comerford is doing – seek deeper ways to engage meaningfully and more widely with your constituents. Please consider asking your constituents how they wish to communicate with you and let us know how you will use that information in your decision making.

Rani Parker

Rani Parker is a resident of District 3, Amherst

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