2012-11-29 / Front Page

New council mulls rules, procedures for meetings

Board not sure whether liaisons are necessary
BY MARGO SULLIVAN

The newly elected Town Council may soon put its stamp on the way official meetings are run.

Councilors proposed several changes Monday to past council rules and practices. Although the panel did not take any official action during the work session, they indicated a vote on some of the items could come as soon as the Dec. 3 regular meeting.

Among the topics under review, the members considered adopting a new order of business at council meetings. They also looked into the pros and cons of continuing to appoint Town Council members as liaisons to town commissions and committees.

And they weighed the benefits of seating the town solicitor on the dais next to the Town Council president during meetings so the solicitor could deliver legal advice out of earshot during the open meeting.

The council also looked at changing the day and time of their second monthly meeting to Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., instead of Monday at 7 p.m. Finally, they postponed discussion about filling vacancies on town boards, and on the rules and procedures for the water and sewer commission.

For discussion purposes, Mary Meagher, council vice president, prepared a new format for the Town Council agenda. She said she studied several meeting formats used by a “half dozen” other communities, including Charlestown and South Kingstown.

In summarizing the proposed new order of business, Meagher stressed two changes. The first was open forum, when members of the public are allowed to comment. The other change was the town administrator’s report, which is when Bruce Keiser delivers a summary of activities by town departments.

“My effort on rearranging the agenda was to get open forum up early,” Meagher said. “Then people could stay for as long as they wanted. The town administrator report is another important piece.”

She went on to suggest there was no need for the administrator to deliver the report verbally during the council meeting. Instead, the administrator could file the report online in advance of the meeting. “And then we just ask questions,” said Meagher.

Other options, she said, included attaching the written report to the meeting agenda. Meagher also advocated for listing bullet points on the agenda to highlight the main points in the administrator’s report.

She also proposed adding a new section to the top of the agenda to note the rules about open forum. The proposed wording said, “Citizens are welcome to speak at this Town Council meeting; at public hearings about the topic being heard; at open forum to clarify any item on the agenda, to comment on any communication, to address items not on the agenda or items listed on the consent agenda; at specific times set aside for public comment after the town administrator’s report and other reports, and before any votes on unfinished or new business. Citizens should use the microphone at the front of the room and provide their name and address. They should address their comments to the council. Comments made directly to the audience or town staff will be ruled out of order.”

In the body of the agenda, she listed time limits for citizen comments, such as three minutes per person for unscheduled residents, and 10 minutes per person for scheduled requests.

Meagher added a final section to the note but asked councilors to suggest revisions on the wording: “It is our hope that citizens and councilors alike will be tolerant of different points of view, respectful of each other’s right to speak, and mindful of everyone’s time.”

Council President Kristine Trocki said she thought the entire recap would serve as a “good reminder” about the meeting rules.

Councilor Blake Dickinson thought the note could go on the website instead of on top of every council agenda. Trocki disagreed.

Trocki said the council should “create a feeling” that people are welcome to “come and talk.” For people who have never attended government meetings, she said, the note would clarify the rules so people feel comfortable speaking.

Councilor Eugene Mihaly asked for a clarification about when the council members can respond to citizen comments made during open forum, if a resident raises an issue not on the agenda.

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero said, “Someone can bring it to your attention, but you can’t give them a solution and vote on it because it’s not on the agenda.”

Mihaly went on to ask if he could ask for elaboration if he’s not clear what somebody’s saying.

“Yes, you can ask him,” Ruggiero said. Then he added the council should set rules about public comment.

“Every meeting you have is a public meeting, but that doesn’t mean the public has a right to speak,” Ruggiero said. He recommended some form of order. Otherwise, he said, it won’t a “very efficient government.”

“It will have to be decided where you want people to speak and where it’s not appropriate,” Ruggiero said.

Trocki said she had one “overarching general comment” about the council meetings.

“Is it necessary to have two meetings a month versus one, and then a water and sewer meeting mid-month?” she asked. Trocki suggested the second meeting should be a committee and a commission meeting so that other commissions can meet jointly with the entire council.

“That’s a great idea,” said Keiser. He added that the joint meeting “cements the relationship in a way the individual liaison doesn’t.”

Keiser said he found the liaisons unproductive. In his view, he said, liaisons were supposed to relay information to the other councilors, but in the past some liaisons had gone beyond the communications role and become advocates for the town commissions.

“Watching the way liaison roles have been utilized in past,” he said, “there hasn’t been a significant impact on council decision making based on what the liaison brings back. I haven’t seen where one way or another the liaison actually effected the decisions of council.”

Dickinson suggested a “blended solution,” calling for the council to appoint liaisons to some committees, but hold joint meetings with others.

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser, who attended the meeting, said she would work with whatever system of communication the council preferred. She went on to say she did see a value in appointing a Town Council member to attend School Committee meetings regularly.

“I think there’s a benefit to having someone at meetings to get a sense of the dynamic of how things are working,” she said. Kaiser sends the council a summary of every meeting but added she sees a big difference between councilors receiving School Committee meeting notes and a councilor physically being there to understand “all the ramifications.”

Trocki suggested the council should talk over the liaison issue with other town boards and hear their opinions.

Meagher pointed out there are some rules about separation of powers.

“We shouldn’t be involved with zoning,” she said.

Councilor Thomas Tighe said the council could rely on Keiser to suggest which boards should be invited to the council meetings.

“He would have a better idea what they’re involved in and what they’re doing,” Tighe said.

The work session, which had been scheduled for 7:30 p.m., started at 8:21 p.m. and followed a closed-door meeting. The executive session had been advertised as interviews with nominees for council appointments for solicitor, prosecutor, probate judge and town sergeant.

Before the closed-door meeting, it was announced to the members of the public in attendance that the council would be going into executive session to discuss appointments. Keiser cited the pertinent section of the Open Meetings Act. Keiser informed the audience that they would have to vacate the chambers until the conclusion of the executive session. When it was questioned why no roll-call vote was taken, Keiser acknowledged a procedural misstep that the vote should occur while the public is present.

Trocki said after the meeting that no decisions had been made and no votes were taken. The minutes of the executive session meeting have been sealed, she said.

Ruggiero said after the meeting the only interviews were with him and Carolyn Mannis for prosecutor. Ruggiero said their applications were on file and were public record. He said the positions had not been advertised and the appointments are prerogative of the councilors.

“Legally, there is no reason to advertise,” he said.

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