The Waterville City Council during a livestream of its Jan. 16 meeting. City of Waterville photo

WATERVILLE — The City Council decided Tuesday to postpone a vote on a policy that governs whether people who attend council meetings remotely are allowed to participate.

Council Chairwoman Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, said City Solicitor William A. Lee III recommended the matter be postponed to allow for a public hearing on the matter before a vote.

At issue is language in the City Council’s Rules of Order and Procedure document that does not guarantee members of the public can take part in council meetings if they attend remotely. Some people at the council’s last meeting asked that the language be clarified so the public participation would be guaranteed.

The city did propose a language change, but that change still doesn’t reflect a request by resident Nancy Sanford that the public be guaranteed participation. The proposed language says “if public input is allowed or required at the meeting, an effective means of communication between the council and the public will also be provided.”

Sanford points to the word “if,” as the operative word.

While the council decided Tuesday to postpone until Feb. 20 a vote on the remote meeting participation item, councilors voted on the rest of the document, which addresses a variety of topics, including council powers, special meetings, parliamentary procedure, rules of decorum and rules and procedures governing public comment periods.

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Councilor Rien Finch, D-Ward 6, offered an amendment to the section about the public comment period that would remove the words “at the council’s discretion” from a directive to continue a public comment section at the end of the council agenda if the scheduled 15 minutes is not enough time for all who want to speak.

The council approved his motion in a 6-0 vote. The Ward 5 seat is vacant until a new councilor is elected, which is scheduled for April 2.

The document gives people addressing the City Council no more than three minutes to speak, with no more than 15 minutes allocated for general public comment periods. During that time, the council will not respond to or engage in discussion with the public. If the comment period exceeds 15 minutes, the comment period will stop and regular agenda items will be discussed.

Councilor Tom McCormick, an independent councilor representing Ward 7, said members of the public wanting to speak should sign up before the meeting and they may speak on a first-come, first-served basis.

Councilors Flavia DeBrito, D-Ward 2, and Brandon Gilley, D-Ward 1, agreed with Finch. Gilley said those who voted to elect councilors should not be restrained by a 15-minute limit.

Councilor Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, said he agreed, but opposed putting a lot of public comment ahead of important agenda items that need be discussed. He said he thought 15 minutes was a reasonable amount of time for the initial comment period, and if people have more they want to discuss, they can do it at the end of the meeting or contact councilors or other officials later.

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Resident Diane Weinstein objected to limiting public comment to 15 minutes and then adding time at the end of the meeting to continue it. She said if several people in attendance want to speak and people with disabilities are attending remotely, it would be unfair to those who do not get to speak. Councilors are elected to represent the public, she said, and it is during the public comment period that councilors learn what people want.

“How often did you have a large number of people make public comments that went over 15 minutes?” Weinstein said. “I think it was quite rare.”

She continued, “I really think your bifurcated approach is very problematic, and it disrespects your citizens.”

City Manager Bryan Kaenrath said Waterville is unique in that it allows for public comments on every agenda item, while most municipalities, including those where he has worked, allow public comments at the beginning or end of meetings.

In other matters Tuesday, the City Council voted to approve closing sections of Silver Street, Common Street and Merchant’s Way for outdoor dining from April 1 to Nov. 1. Finch was the lone dissenter on the Silver Street vote.

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