Opinion: Hanneke’s Bid To Constrain Public Comment Is An Assault On Democracy
by Art and Maura Keene
On Monday March 6, the Town Council will consider changes to its Rules of Procedure. Town Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke has proposed a change to the rules that would limit public comment to 30 minutes. At the current limit of three minutes/comment, that would allow a maximum of 10 people to speak early in the meeting. Any other Amherst resident wishing to speak would have to wait until all business was concluded before another public comment session would be held to accommodate them. This could mean that the concluding public comment session would take place late in the evening, since council meetings have been known to extend past midnight. And, of course those waiting to comment would have no idea how long they would have to remain in order to be heard.
Hanneke blames public comment for the extraordinary length of council meetings which often run past 11 p.m. She suggests that residents should, instead of speaking at council meetings, submit their comments to the council in writing, though at present, there is a 30 days lag from when comments are submitted to when they are posted. The new rules would require that written comments be posted by the day of the meeting that they are addressing but it is neither clear that town hall will be able to pull this off nor, if they can, that this would offer sufficient lead time for councilors to consider the comments before deliberating. Clearly this change in the rules requires more thought, more discussion, and more input from the public.
This rule change has been placed on tonight’s consent agenda, meaning that unless a councilor objects, the measure will be adopted without any discussion. It is of course ironic that this council might vote to curtail public comment without a robust public discussion, and we believe that irony is lost on the proposer, Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke who has been a long-standing opponent of public comment and public participation. Here are some reasons why public comment policy should be left unmolested.
- The posting on the consent agenda is neither transparent nor democratic. 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. How is the public to know that their rights to address their elected representatives are about to be curtailed?
- Squashing public comment should not be a means to solve the council’s time management problems.
- Most of the issues running long during council meetings up to this time have been related to either racial equity or zoning, and cutting off discussion on these critical issues is dangerous and appears partisan.
- The public is a party to this government. The ability of the public to give comment is an important part of the democratic process.
- Public comment is not only for the councilors, it is to let the rest of the community know what some of their fellow residents are thinking.
- In some cases, residents who are more knowledgeable and who have done more research on a topic than councilors can bring up aspects that others have not considered. The recent debates over artificial turf are just one of many complelling examples.
- Public comment is one of the few ways that residents can weigh in on issues important to them.
- Proposals to curtail public comment from a government that proports to embrace democracy is an embarrassment to the town. Our neighbor across the river, which also has a town council form of government, routinely exercises robust public comment without trauma.
- The council should be looking for more ways to receive public input, as State Sen. Jo Comerford is doing, rather than limiting it.
- Sen. Jo Comerford will be presenting after public comment on Monday. In her most recent newsletter she said she’s been working on the Senate temporary rules committee on public access to the political process – helping “Western MA constituents engage robustly on critical issues”.
We note that Councilor Hanneke has a history of attempting to squash public comment. At the council’s inception, she was the mastermind of putting public comment at the very end of Town Council meetings, the timing of which was changed after a now legendary video clip of Peter Tripp lambasting the Council for making him wait until midnight to offer his comment went viral. She infamously moved to cut off discussion at a Council meeting discussing the July 5, 2022 Amherst 9 incident using the “nuclear option”, a Charter provision allowing one Councilor to cut off discussion without the need for a vote. She proposed, and was the sole vote, to return prematurely to in-person-only Council meetings, although it is clear that the new hybrid format gives much more access to residents to participate in meetings. In so doing she stated that “ the only reason people want remote meetings is because they just don’t feel like getting in their car and driving down to town hall”.” We suspect that Hanneke’s effort to sneak through a new constraint on public participation under the cover of the consent agenda is just the first salvo in a resurrected campaign against public participation.
Amherst residents who value democracy should take notice and speak up. This is an election year. We will remember those councilors who believe that giving the public space to voice their concerns and share their expertise is a waste of the council’s time.
5 thoughts on “Opinion: Hanneke’s Bid To Constrain Public Comment Is An Assault On Democracy”
How bitterly ironic that the Amherst Forward PAC that used the slogan “more democracy” to bring this new form of government to Amherst, now has one of the PAC’s endorsed Councilors proposing a most undemocratic restraint on public input. So let’s see, with only 30 minutes of public comment, each limited to 3 minutes…which 10 Amherst residents will speak for everyone? More democracy? Nope.
Councilor Hanneke is responsible for this proposal. But Lynn Griesmer, as the President, created the agenda (Sec. 2.2(b) of the Charter: President sets agenda “with advice from members of the Town Council and the Town Manager’). Her agreement was essential to its placement.
My letter sent to Amherst Town Councilors, 3/6/23
I can understand wanting to limit the length of meetings, to do business before your brain shuts off, and not have to listen to dozens of 3-minute speeches that can be rambling and repetitious, not to mention, opposed to one’s ideas.
But as people in Amherst already feel disregarded, as councilors aim to deregulate zoning, bring on major tax increases to pay for controversial and un-transparent projects, and pay too little attention to deteriorating infrastructure and resources, that seeing public input as a burden to be curtailed is unwise.
And as councilors have told me that they spend 15-20 hours per week on town business, resulting in $5.50 per hour pay, I’m sure councilors feel especially unrewarded after midnight. (The proposal to raise the annual pay for town councilors would then be $11 per hour.)
But Town Council’s promise, when it replaced Town Meeting, was more public input. Not less.
I can see fairly changing the 3-minute limit, without threatening democracy. Personally, I aim to make my public comments not longer than 90 seconds. I believe it makes my comments easier to understand, not spending time with throat clearing at the beginning, or summarizing twice at the end.
I can see a training video, made by professionals, hosted on the town’s site, about how to organize and present a concise but totally adequate 90 second public comment.
I can also see the town having more modern ways of collecting input and communicating it clearly on the public record. We could have online explanations of an issue, and a Survey Monkey (but better) to collect opinions. Different from the town’s engagement site – this would be more immediate, asking for feedback on an issue, then reporting the results during the public meeting.
And summarizing the relevant comments from the public comment page. Or other creative ways to publicly report public opinion.
And to state the obvious, it’s bad optics for a town councilor to try to limit public input, when most of the long public comment meetings were about proposals made by that councilor.
And then there is the thing about Amherst being the town where only the H is silent. This kind of thing is counter to our brand. Our government should capture our perspectives, not work around them.
Ira , perfect! Make your ideas known. Very simple and easy to implement.
As much as I admire Ira’s efforts to condense his own thoughts into an “elevator pitch” of at most 90-seconds, why don’t some of our paid Town Councillors have the patience to simply listen to a few of their constituents for a few minutes each, just a few times a month?
(For the record, Town Meeting Members were unpaid, while some other elected officials were offered a paltry “stipend” — it was a bit under $300 year when I served the Select Board, but I donated the first few paychecks to local charities before arranging for the rest to stop being issued— I guess there’s some little bit of the Town’s reserves fund which I can feel good about going instead to feed a student or fill a pothole or paint a bike lane….)