READFIELD — At many meetings of school boards or municipal officials in Maine, the audience is small or nonexistent, and there are few public comments.
The opposite is true in Readfield, where the demand for a public forum is so great that it could spill over into meetings arranged just for that purpose.
In the last two years, residents have packed the meeting room of Gile Hall for Board of Selectmen meetings and made abundant use of the public comment portion of the agenda. There’s a group of regulars who frequently question or criticize town officials’ actions.
Seeking to balance opportunities for public input with the need to conduct town business, selectmen are grappling with a strategy for public communication.
“The critical issue right now is how to actually manage select board meetings so that the meetings are effective and efficient,” Town Manager Stefan Pakulski said. “There’s been a bit of a struggle with people wanting to use those meetings as opportunities to promote issues that they feel are important, but the select board may not share the same opinion that the meeting itself is the best forum or format for doing that.”
In recent months, selectmen have made multiple decisions about public communication. They adopted a written policy in November and will survey residents on ideas for running meetings.
Tom Dunham, a meeting regular who’s leading a campaign for a town charter, is critical of the way the selectmen have handled the issue so far and thinks a charter would provide more consistency and fairness.
“It’s too bad, because there’s some people that can contribute on agenda items, and they’re simply not allowed to speak,” Dunham said.
Pakulski said virtually no one attended the board meetings when he started as town manager nine years ago; but in early 2011, the meetings became livelier when a group of residents started attending to ask questions about Readfield’s Public Works Department.
Many of the same residents campaigned to abolish the department, which voters approved doing in a June 2011 referendum and reaffirmed in September 2011.
Several of the residents remained active at board meetings after the public works issue subsided, continuing to question officials on matters such as paving of the transfer station driveway and the purchase of a generator.
In recent weeks, many people have criticized a selectmen’s decision, made in early October and since described as temporary, to move public comments to the end of the agenda, after the live TV broadcast is shut off.
Selectmen said they did so to protect town employees, some of whom have been criticized by name during the live broadcasts. The public comments are still included in meeting minutes, but some residents have said their freedom of speech is being limited.
Selectman Greg Durgin has said the setup does feel like censorship to him, and he regrets having voted for it.
Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said municipalities all handle public communication in their own way.
State law does not guarantee a right to speak at meetings other than hearings, but residents may expect it. Conrad said the municipal association recommends providing a public comment period, with time limits if officials feel they are necessary.
Readfield’s selectmen looked to Farmingdale’s public communications policy to create their own, which they adopted in November.
The policy encourages residents to attend selectmen’s meetings and to bring their concerns to town officials. The public comment portion of the agenda is limited to 15 minutes.
People who want more time or a response to their questions are asked to contact the town manager ahead of time.
Personal attacks against town employees, town officials or members of the public are prohibited; and the chairman of the selectmen can terminate remarks at any time if a speaker violates the policy.
Selectmen also have created a survey, to be posted soon on the town website, www.readfield.govoffice.com, to seek public input about public communications.
Questions include when the opportunity for public comments should fall on the agenda, whether it should be broadcast live, how to protect employees and residents from personal attacks, and whether to organize occasional public forums for residents to share input and concerns.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645