Chico Martin, vice-chairman of the Bristol Planning Commission, was not only disrespectful to a citizen of Bristol, but very likely was in violation of the state’s open meetings law when he prevented long-time Bristol resident John ‘Slim’ Pickens from seeking a clarification on a pertinent topic facing the commission. Martin’s conduct in this incident warrants serious concerns about his suitability as acting chairman, and we encourage Bristol residents to view the publicly televised meeting and read the exchange between Martin and Pickens in today’s front-page story.
Martin’s actions, we hope, stem from a misunderstanding of the state’s open meetings law. Perhaps he simply doesn’t recognize that the public has a right — not just a privilege, but a legal right — to speak at publicly held meetings. The chair has the flexibility to limit those public comments to “reasonable rules,” but not to shut out public discussion or comment.
In the instance on Tuesday, Martin clearly prevented a citizen of Bristol from reasonably seeking information and clarification about an issue the commission had long discussed, and which it would continue to discuss at that evening’s meeting. It is impossible to view Martin’s actions as anything other than an illegal ploy to prevent public discussion of the commission’s actions.
Equally damning is the perception that Bristol’s Planning Commission simply doesn’t care about its residents’ concerns, questions or opinions. With Martin as acting chair, he has effectively put a kibosh on public discourse and placed the board as the seer of the public’s secret will. In a meeting last month in which commission members disagreed about the role of public opinion on the board’s decisions, Martin said the commission fulfilled its role best by acting on its own intuition rather than reacting to public opinion — even the public opinion polls that were requested and conducted by the commission.
“The poll was for our benefit,” Martin said of the Town Meeting Day poll that showed Bristol residents were solidly against resource extraction in the town’s conservation zones. “How we interpret that poll is up to our individual judgments…”
Other commission members disagree. “We asked for the poll and we asked for the hearing,” said one of those members, John Elder. “I think we have a responsibility to take into account the opinions expressed by our fellow citizens.”
Bristol residents should weigh in on this discussion. If Martin, and supporter Bill Sayre, are right, citizens should say so. If residents think their opinions should be listened to and respected, they need to be sure Martin, Sayre and any others get that message.
The selectboard has a role to play as well. Planning commission members are appointed by the selectboard and serve at their pleasure. It is the selectboard’s responsibility to monitor the commission’s conduct and respond accordingly when things go awry.
Angelo S. Lynn