DerryNews.com, Derry, New Hampshire

July 25, 2013

Derry councilors spar over public forum policy

By Julie Huss
jhuss@derrynews.com

---- — DERRY — A Town Council meeting ended abruptly after several councilors got fired up over public forum rules and two members left before adjournment.

At the end of the meeting July 9, councilors had the opportunity to speak on any issue that did not involve any previous agenda item.

A discussion on how the public speaks at meetings got some councilors hot under the collar — enough that Councilors Brad Benson and Neil Wetherbee walked out before an official adjournment vote was taken.

Councilor Mark Osborne began the dialogue by saying he thought the public portion of the meeting was important and that councilors should make a point to try to answer any questions while the person speaking was still at the podium.

“Sometimes, we also have to sit here and take our lumps, but as elected officials, that’s what we do,” Osborne said. “That’s what we were elected to do.”

Right now, there is a three-minute rule for those who wish to speak during the public forum, but often more time is allowed.

People have a right to speak on any issue except those that are listed on the agenda during that night’s meeting.

Osborne, also a lawyer, said he never wanted the town to get into trouble by squashing anyone’s constitutional right to speak openly or by making comments about anyone who speaks.

“When we say things about a citizen, in doing that, we do that at our peril,” he said. “We shouldn’t be surprised when people come up and defend themselves and state facts as they see it.”

Councilor Al Dimmock, newly elected in March and for years a regular face at council meetings, said he believed council meetings were public and people should have the right to speak their minds and get answers.

Before he became a councilor, Dimmock was often the first person to get up to the podium during the public forum. He told councilors the public had a right to have answers to questions and not have to wait a week or more for councilors to respond.

That two-way conversation can sometimes get heated and personal, Councilor Brad Benson said.

He said he didn’t believe the public forum was as productive as it should be.

“This is our meeting, not a public meeting,” Benson said. “We don’t even have to have a public forum.”

For the past several years, Benson said, he has seen the same six or eight people get up to speak, often on the same subjects and many also saying things that aren’t true.

“It’s what they interpret as the truth, and when it gets out there, it’s believed,” he said.

Benson also took issue with people making personal attacks on councilors, something he said should not be tolerated.

“Things turn into arguments,” he said. “Public forum is a chance to bring issues to the council, not yell and attack us. It’s to get things resolved. That what public forum is to me, but not what I’ve experienced.”

Dimmock took an opposite view from Benson and said council meetings are public meetings.

That sparked more tension and elevated voice levels among councilors.

“It is a public meeting, it’s town business and people who want to speak have a right to speak on town business,” Dimmock said.

Benson then accused Dimmock of disrespect and said he didn’t appreciate the way he was being spoken to.

“You don’t have the right to yell at me and point your finger at me and scream and yell,” Benson said. “Even though you think you can do that, you don’t have the right.”

Dimmock told Benson he was tired of being “ganged up on” during meetings.

Benson and Wetherbee then got up to leave, with Dimmock hurling a few more comments in Benson’s direction.

“You’re not the man you think you are,” Dimmock said.

Benson responded with one last statement before leaving the room.

“That’s a real, educated, mature statement, Al,” he said.

Council Chairman Michael Fairbanks tried to restore order and civility. The remaining councilors then officially adjourned the meeting.