I am submitting the following letter to the editor in response to your article "Ashland Selectman Have Had Enough of Public Comments at Meetings," which did not tell the whole story and misrepresented the facts.
At a recent Selectboard Meeting in Ashland, Chairman Jeanette Stewart announced that the board would no longer allow public comments at their meetings. Instead, the public must submit questions and comments in writing two weeks in advance. This action is the board's latest attempt to suppress public discussion. I was ejected from the meeting as I was trying to explain the other actions this board has taken to exclude the public and public commentary from its meetings.
Under Jeanette Stewart's leadership, the board has removed one of two public discussions from its agenda. Before that, the public was allowed to make comments prior to and after the business portion of the agenda. Up until the recent meeting, the public could only speak after decisions are already made. Immediately after the last election, the board moved the work sessions from Monday night to Monday mornings, effectively excluding many members of the public from attending. They also changed the location of the meeting to the small, uncomfortable room in the Town Hall with very limited space and access. Furthermore, the board announced that they would no longer allow public comments at the work sessions. The board promised that no votes on important issues would take place during the work sessions and that they would provide a recap of the discussions at the Monday night meetings. In fact, the opposite is true — we hear little about their work session discussions, and votes on important issues are routinely taken.
Complex and difficult issues are rarely discussed at Monday night meetings. As an example, the decision to prohibit public comments was made at the last work session. The topic was not even included on the Monday night's agenda. Instead, the board decided to announce its decision at the end of the meeting after the public comments had concluded. However, the issue came up earlier that they planned when a member of the public said that she understood the board had made a decision at the work session to exclude public comments. Jeanette Stewart replied, "How do you know? You weren't at the work session." Stewart then said she planned to announce her decision after the public comments. When I tried to continue this discussion, I was ejected from the meeting.
It is my understanding that the board decided to eliminate public comments because it has received comments from individuals outside of Ashland indicating that the perception that our Selectboard meetings are "a circus." Apparently, Ms. Stewart, Mr. Preston, and Mr. Golden believe that the problem lies solely with the public and thus, the best way improve their meetings is to do away with public discussion. I would submit that the board is often responsible for this environment. If you watch Monday night's meeting on Public Access, you will see how the board treats the taxpayers in the town of Ashland. They do not set a good example for civil discourse and are often rude and dismissive. Sometimes they erupt in anger, make false claims and accusations, and goad the public to anger. Their decision to exclude public comments is an example of their negative attitude towards the public.
Had I been allowed to continue my comments at the meeting, I was going to propose that we as a town develop ground-rules for public discussion, and that the town moderator facilitate the discussion. Ironically, I agree that some of the meetings get overly contentious. Part of this is simply the nature of the democratic process. John F. Kennedy said, "The unity of freedom has never relied on uniformity of opinion." Solving the problem by excluding public comments only exacerbates the underlying tensions that are at the heart of problem. Ashland, like many towns, is in the position of having to face serious economic problems that can only be solved by facing the issues, and working together to solve them.
Since Ashland residents can no longer speak at the Selectboard meetings, the Ashland Coalition for Action is restarting its blog, "Ashland Speaks," to provide an alternative forum for public discourse. The URL is http://ashlandcfa.blogspot.com or via the Ashland Coalition For Action website at http://ashlandcfa.org.