Members of the Derry Town Council were correct when they said council meetings are their business meetings, not a meeting of the public. But that doesn’t mean councilors or selectmen have the right to ignore their constituents.
And it also doesn’t mean that individual members should denigrate the comments of their fellows.
At the July 9 Derry Town Council meeting, Brad Benson and Neil Wetherbee walked out before adjournment, after Benson’s motion to adjourn was not voted on.
Their action came after Councilor Mark Osborne had raised the issue of public forum, and said everyone had the right to be heard without interruption by the council. “If it’s not violent or profane, we should take our lumps,” he said. We agree.
Benson noted council meetings are business meetings, and residents speak at the council’s discretion. He’s right as well. Then he called for adjournment, and Al Dimmock – a frequent speaker at public forum before being elected councilor – told him he had no right to shut him up.
It degenerated from there.
Public comment or public forum on the agenda is there to allow residents an opportunity to provide input to their elected officials. And the public deserves this chance to speak publicly about their concerns.
Londonderry’s council rules say the comments are to be directed to the chairman and are not meant to be a platform for debate.
Derry’s council rules of order speak to the councilors’ relations with the community and state their primary responsibility is to “serve the Citizenry with dignity and respect….”
The Derry rules also say, “Council members must remain civil and no member engaged in debate shall make reference to any other member but in respectful terms.”
The formal rules set the tone. It comes down to a councilor’s duty to be respectful to each resident and to listen politely to what he or she might not want to hear – even if the speakers are not as polite as they should be.
While Derry is in the hot seat this time, any governing board with a public forum could be next. It takes patience to listen to the public, especially when the speaker may not have all the facts. Equally importantly, councilors don’t have to like each other, but they are obligated to treat each other respectfully. The council meeting July 9 set a poor example for the public to follow.
Personal attacks lead nowhere. And thick skins have to be part of the job. Listening may be a lost art, but councilors and selectmen are expected to exercise that skill.