BRISTOL — When Bristol Planning Commission Vice-Chair Chico Martin refused to accept public comments from John “Slim” Pickens — the only citizen in attendance at the commission’s Tuesday meeting — Martin may have violated state law, according to Secretary of State Jim Condos and his deputy Brian Leven.
Pickens was seeking to better understand a map presented at the commission’s last meeting in October, which displayed the redrawn lines of a controversial, resource-extraction prohibition zone (see related story). When Pickens began to comment on the map, Martin cut him off and told him that if he did not have a question about something on the agenda, he couldn’t speak. Since the map was not explicitly stated as an agenda item, Martin silenced Pickens. After protesting to no avail, Pickens left.
Minutes later, the map was brought to the table by Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, who is assisting the planners as a consultant as they restructure the zoning ordinances. At the planners’ request, Lougee presented the planners with a redrawn version of the map that Pickens had inquired about moments before Lougee arrived.
According to Condos’ initial understanding of the situation, Martin was overzealous in shutting off Pickens’ desire to comment. Condos pointed to a section of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law, which clearly states: “At an open meeting, the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to express its opinion on matters considered by the public body during the meeting, as long as order is maintained. Public comment shall be subject to reasonable rules established by the chairperson.”
The map was “considered by the public body during the meeting,” and, as Condos explains, public boards should interpret the clause “reasonable rules” broadly in favor of the public.
“I think there are certain limits that can be placed on the public’s right to speak, but those limits usually are a time limit. If there’re 150 people in the room, saying we’re going to limit people to two minutes, that, I think, would be considered reasonable. On the other hand, if you have one person in the room, and the person wants to speak, limiting that person to two minutes might be unreasonable … I think if this would go to court, the court would try to determine what was reasonable in that particular instance.”
“The law clearly states that the public has the right to express opinions on a matter before the public body,” Leven added. “From the board’s (perspective) or the town or whatever agency it may be, if they’re inclined to disregard or not hear information that someone is willing to offer, that really calls into question the soundness of their decision-making process.”
OPEN MEETING VIOLATION?
Martin began the Bristol planning commission meeting Tuesday with a word on procedure.
“We will only be taking comments on our agenda, so that we can make better use of time of our consultant,” Martin said at the start of the meeting on Tuesday before Lougee arrived.
However, during the public comment portion of the meeting, when Pickens began to comment, he was cut off in mid-sentence.
“I’m here to make comments on your last meeting,” Pickens began, when he was interrupted by Martin.
“No you can’t,” Martin said. “We’re only taking comments on the agenda … It’s up to the discretion of the chair,” Martin continued, explaining that there wasn’t time for comments other than what was on the agenda.
“So for two months you’re not going to allow comments?” asked an incredulous Pickens.
“On anything other than the agenda, no,” Martin answered.
“May I ask just one clarification question pointing to the maps, just to inform myself?” asked Pickens. “I won’t make any comments. It’s just that the map isn’t very clear ... and I’d like to ask just one question about where something is located.”
Martin said the map accepted by the planners at their last meeting and printed in the AddisonIndependent on Oct. 20 was a draft. He said a final version of the map was drawn up by the regional planning commission and will be given to the selectboard. At the planners’ last meeting they approved the proposed plan and passed it onto the selectboard.
“You should reserve your comments on the map for the selectboard,” said Martin, failing to inform Pickens that the exact map Martin referenced would be distributed minutes later to members of the planning commission for further discussion.
“I’m very disappointed,” Pickens said to Martin and commission members. “I think it’s a little unfair to have a meeting — and I can only make a comment on that meeting after I’ve reviewed the meeting — and I come the next chance and I’m not allowed to make a comment… It seems very unfair and not very citizen friendly.”
According to the Secretary of State’s office, when public officials inappropriately shut down citizen comments there is a legal recourse and a public-process recourse as outlined in title one, section 314(h), of the Vermont statutes.
“The average citizen has a choice of taking his or her own legal action or filing a complaint with the attorney general’s office,” said Leven, adding that the attorney general’s office might then take up the case. Or, the selectboard can also take action over its appointed body.
Selectboard Chair Joel Bouvier was unaware of the details of the incident on Wednesday morning, but said he would look into the incident.
“It doesn’t matter to me who it is that asked the question,” Bouvier said. “If their due process was violated, … I will look into it.”
Meanwhile, as part of Condos’ Vermont Transparency Tour, he stopped by Middlebury on Nov. 7 and addressed the issue of accepting public comments at open meetings.
“I can’t say that enough. The public has a right to speak at your school or selectboard meetings,” said Condos. “You can’t shut them off.”
After the planning commission’s meeting, Martin was asked why he silenced Pickens and if he consulted Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.
“We accept comments on the agenda items,” he replied. “And in the past when we have had consultants or other business pressing, we haven’t had any public comments at all.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at email@example.com.