For a spirited debate about freedom of speech, you don’t need to go to Washington or Albany. Just visit Port Jervis.
That is where Mayor Kelly Decker tried to bring some sense of order and fairness to the issue and wound up, as do most who make that attempt, in trouble.
He first proposed new rules that would allow public comments in two ways — at committee meetings which usually deal with specific topics and at council meetings only when the comments were related to issues on the agenda.
What he was trying to reduce was a phenomenon familiar to many a board member, the tendency of some to treat any public meeting as an invitation to make comments on any topic, relevant or not, and often at length. And while some characterized Decker’s proposals as ill-advised limitations on free speech, such criticism is not really fair.
What, after all, is the purpose of a council meeting? It is to conduct the public business and there are many laws concerning the way such business must be conducted. The state open meeting laws are very specific when it comes to informing the public, to requiring agendas in advance with enough details to let the people the board serves understand just what the issues are and, in many cases, what the costs are as well.
Only in the case of a true emergency can the board meet without a great deal of notice and preparation. Executive sessions, held without public attendance, are subject to strict rules and although some boards some times interpret those rules loosely, most at least try to comply.
So if boards need to stick to an agenda and follow the rules, perhaps the public could agree to the same restrictions. It’s not a revolutionary thought and it would indirectly indicate the public’s appreciation for those who serve their community voluntarily and who might like to get home at a decent hour instead of listening to open-ended monologues on topics that might or might not be relevant.
So there was a lot on Decker’s side but there also was a lot of disagreement so he compromised, proposing what amounts to an open forum with people being allowed three minutes apiece to make comments at the start of council meetings.
That solves the issue for the time being in Port Jervis. But it still lets linger an unresolved matter everywhere — how people can better work with elected officials to make sure that important topics do get the publicity they deserve.
For that, we need to think not outside the box but outside the meeting and not just in Port Jervis. Most governments have websites that could be used much more vigorously. What about posting all relevant documents before meetings? What about streaming all meetings? What about allowing live comments as the meeting progresses? What about using available free or low-cost software to provide instant transcripts that would serve to inform people until official minutes are adopted?
The technology is readily available and inexpensive. Using it more broadly would provide a 21st century solution to the age-old quest for more citizen participation.