By Thomas P. Caldwell
BRISTOL — A move by the new chair of the Newfound Area School Board to streamline the meeting agenda met with strong resistance from the former board chair but the other members were unconcerned until those in the audience spoke up.
Ruby Hill of Danbury, who succeeded Vincent Paul Migliore as chair last month, changed the format of the meeting agenda for April 14 to reduce its bulk; but, in doing so, she also eliminated the public's opportunity to offer comment just prior to the board taking any action. Her changes would not have raised an eyebrow in most school districts, which typically limit public comment to the beginning or the end of a meeting, but Newfound for at least the last nine years has given members of the public two chances to voice their opinions.
Under the old procedure, at the beginning of the meeting, those in the audience have been allowed to speak on any issue, whether on the agenda or not. Mid-way through the meeting, after the board has discussed all agenda items, the audience had a second opportunity to speak with the benefit of having learned more about the topics under consideration. The board then could keep that public comment in mind when going back through the agenda items for a vote.
Hill's agenda placed public comment at the beginning, limiting it only to agenda items, and again at the end, after the board has made all its decisions.
Migliore raised an objection at the beginning of the meeting, saying the change had been made unilaterally, without any prior discussion. He also objected to shutting out the public, saying it had been very helpful to him in making decisions to hear what people in the audience had to say.
No one seconded his motion to open a discussion on the matter, and the board went on to other business. At the end of the meeting, though, when the public had a chance for final comment, several spoke up on Migliore's behalf, saying they objected to the new format.
That led the board first to support Migliore's suggestion that the matter be put on next month's agenda for discussion, then to discuss the merits of the change that evening.
Hill said her intention was only to streamline the agenda, not to shut out the public.
Jeff Levesque, the board member from Groton, said he agreed that the public discussion at the beginning should be open to any subject, not just the items on the agenda. Members also considered a compromise that would allow public comment on each item as it was discussed, prior to a vote, eliminating the need to take up each item twice, as in the old procedure.
In the end, the board agreed to take up the agenda format again at next month's meeting.