Deerfield Select Board of Directors adopts revised public comment policy in response to ACLU complaint

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DEERFIELD – Following a complaint filed in July by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Select Board adopted a revised public comment policy that may be updated following future executive sessions.

Members of the public, however, were unable to discuss the policy because board member Carolyn Shores Ness said the board must maintain the ability to participate in executive sessions with the lawyer. from the city.

The policy, which can be viewed in the October 20 meeting file, sets a period for public comment at each meeting and allows all residents to have equal time to express their views, whether or not those thoughts relate. items on the agenda. It prohibits threats, incitement to imminent illegal behavior, and defamatory or sexually explicit statements. However, the Select Board changed the policy to allow obscenities and personal attacks because these are constitutionally protected, according to city attorney Michael Kennefick, attorney for Mead, Talerman & Costa LLC.

“There is no case law that supports it,” Kennefick said. “Obviously, we don’t want obscenities or personal attacks, but they were not found to be unconstitutional. “

Council member Trevor McDaniel said the policy grew out of several “contentious demands” that have been brought to city councils over the past year.

“Sometimes in meetings and hearings related to these requests, it seems like the discussion and speech has gone in a direction that seems inappropriate to everyone,” McDaniel said. “The City’s lawyer reviewed our existing public participation policy and advised us to make some changes. … The Select Board sees this policy as a step forward towards a productive discussion.

Some members of the public have tried asking questions about the policy, but Kennefick said board members should not respond at this time.

“There is no hearing on this issue tonight, it’s just the adoption of the policy. … I would advise against dialogue, ”Kennefick said. “They can comment, but I really don’t recommend answering questions. It’s sort of a matter of executive session at this point and continues to be. “

During the designated public comment segment of the meeting, Jennifer Remillard, alternate member of the Zoning Appeal Committee, said she was unhappy with the lack of discussion around the public comment policy.

“One of the main reasons I listened to tonight was the fact that you had the public comment policy on the agenda for review and approval,” Remillard said. “It’s really disheartening that there has been absolutely no public comment on this. … If this is in response to the ACLU complaint that was filed by other residents, then I feel like there should have been a lot more transparency.

The adoption of the policy last week follows several weeks of talks with city council over a July 22 letter from the ACLU saying it had “serious concerns” about the suspension of public comments. at several meetings in June.

The letter – signed by ACLU attorneys William Newman, Ruth Bourquin and Alan Seewald – addresses the selection committee meetings held on June 16, 22, 29 and 30 which presented public comments regarding the reappointment of the Detective Sgt. Deerfield Police Department. Adam Sokoloski at the Zoning Appeal Board. At these meetings, some members of the public raised concerns about the appointment of a police officer to a city regulatory board, citing barriers of “power” and “privilege”.

After two weeks of deliberation, the board appointed Sokoloski to the ZBA at its June 30 meeting with a 2-0 vote – Shores Ness abstained – provided the board develops a best practices policy for appointment to city regulatory boards.

Planning board chairperson Analee Wulfkuhle asked the select board what the best practice policy was and whether there had been any progress on it.

“In the topic of transparency, what about policy and / or discussions on appointments to boards and committees? Wulfkuhle asked. “I understand there is going to be work on this.”

The Select Board also signed an $ 8,000 contract to launch a “Respectful Workplace” workshop that will be mandatory for all city employees. Shores Ness said there hasn’t been substantial progress on a specific best practice policy, but the mandatory workshop may be one of the first steps in developing new municipal policies.

“Whether selected, volunteer or appointed, the Select Board has the power to make it mandatory,” Shores Ness said by phone Thursday. ” We are progressing. “

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