MILTON - Milton selectmen's decision to axe the age-old tradition of allowing questions from citizens during its meetings was met with resistance, condemnation, even derision when it was announced on Monday by Selectmen Chair Ryan Thibeault.
While no vote was recorded in minutes of a March 26 workshop selectmen curiously decided not to videotape, Thibeault announced during the selectmen's regularly scheduled meeting earlier this week that the board had decided questions from citizens would no longer be allowed and would be replaced by a "Public Comments" portion at the start of the meeting.
"We have decided public comment will be moved to the beginning of the meeting," Thibeault said. "This is not intended to be a question and answer between the citizens and selectmen."
The maximum "comment" time allowed would be three minutes, it was noted.
Thibeault explained that if someone wanted to have an extended Q and A with selectmen over a particular issue they were welcome to submit an agenda item at Town Hall for a discussion at the next regularly scheduled meeting. He said this would allow selectmen to be better prepared for questions the public might have.
"This is being done to be more organized, to move the town forward," Thibeault added.
Milton Town Administrator Heather Thibodeau said on Friday she didn't know why the workshop wasn't videotaped, but said it was selectmen's right to decide not to do so.
Referring to draft minutes of the workshop, she said while there was no vote, it was Thibeault who presented what are referred to as new "ideas of organization."
Thibodeau said the new structure did not constitute a "policy," terming it, instead, a new "organization."
Thibeault said the board is working on new meeting bylaws which will have all the details of the new "organization" which will be provided to residents "so we can all be on the same page" with regard to meeting protocols.
After his announcement, Thibeault proclaimed the first-ever non-Q &A "Public Comment" portion of a BOS meeting in Milton history. The rollout was clumsy at best.
The first comment, which came from an unnamed participant, was, "Why was that (March 26) meeting not recorded on Monday?"
"Thank you for your comment," said Thibeault blankly.
The next commenter, obviously irked and nonplussed, said, "Guess I'll submit a request so we can talk about this next time."
The next comment? "When you guys get this together, and we put it on the agenda, can we talk longer than three minutes?"
Again, Thibeault simply thanked them for their comment.
Another unidentified resident stepped forward with harsh criticism of the new policy.
"I think that, first of all, requiring the public to only participate in these meetings at the beginning prior to any discussion that's taking place is pretty much precluding us from participating in any way," he said. "From a town that has complained that the town doesn't participate enough, not letting us participate and letting us ask questions is exclusive at the very least."
"I don't think this new idea to have meetings is going to be conducive to participation by the public and leading to a good and meaningful dialogue," another said.
"One thing I didn't hear was visibility, and the ability of us to understand about where you guys are on different subjects," added Dennis Woods. "Visibility is the big thing. People have been complaining about that for years."
Resident Timothy Long suggested public comments should at least be allowed to continue at the end of the meeting so they could be relevant to the topics at hand, a sentiment echoed by Larry Brown, a former budget committeeman and MFPL Board of Trustees member.
Not everyone was against the new policy, however. One speaker said having a conversation with selectmen in the form of an agenda item and not a Q and A at meeting would provide a clear representation of the substance of the issue in meeting minutes.
Recently elected selectman and former Milton Fire Chief Andy Lucier made no comment during Thibeault's exchange with residents, while newcomer Selectmen Vice Chair Erin Hutchings was not in attendance at the meeting due to illness.