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North Adams Council Moving Hearing of Visitors to Back of Meeting
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
02:34AM / Wednesday, January 17, 2018
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The General Government Committee of Chairman Eric Buddington, Rebbecca Cohen and Paul Hopkins discussed changes to Rule of Order with President Keith Bona and Councilors Wayne Wilkinson and Marie T. Harpin.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The General Government Committee is recommending several changes to the City Council's Rules of Order, including moving Hearing of Visitors to later in the meetings and adding in a coda that would allow the president to suspend disruptive audience members. 
 
The amendments are at the request of Council President Keith Bona, who was elected to the post a the Organization of Government on Jan. 1. Each council president has the option of proposing modifications during their terms. 
 
The main change would be to move the location of the Hearing of Visitors on the agenda. Bona wants it back near the end of the meeting. 
 
"Up until Councilor [Benjamin] Lamb, it was always at the end anyways," he told the committee on Tuesday night. There was a tendency for meetings to end on a negative note because there tended to be a group that would lodge complaints during their two minutes, he said. 
 
Hearing of Visitors, sometimes known as Open Forum in the past, allows the public attending council meeting to speak on matters of municipal concern for two minutes. It does not allow for debate with councilors or the mayor, but at times it did slip into that as people used their time to directly ask the mayor questions. 
 
"One of the reasons I would like to see it back at the end is I would like to cut out the Q&A with the mayor," Bona said. "You're not supposed to be asking questions ... and then the mayor might answer it or might not .. sometimes it would go back and forth."
 
Instead, Hearing of Visitors would come directly before the mayor's and councilor's concerns, during which time the mayor could, if he wished, respond to issues brought up during the public comment period. 
 
Councilor Marie T. Harpin and committee member Rebbecca Cohen were concerned that residents would be forced to stay through meetings to be able to make comments about non-agenda items. Even so, they said they would support it. 
 
"I'm also a proponent of putting it into the hands of the guy who's running the meeting," committee member Paul Hopkins said.
 
The council has tried to strike a balance between public comment and some resident who they believe are using the time to grandstand or make spurious allegations. In 2012, then Council President Michael Bloom set rules that limited public comment on agenda items to a Hearing of Visitors at the beginning of the meeting and set a two-minute limit for other issues at the end of the meeting. President Lisa Blackmer restored public comment during agenda items more than a year later but kept general comment to the end of the meeting. 
 
Lamb, when he was elected president in 2016, moved Hearing of Visitors again to the beginning of the meeting, dispensed with Open Forum and sought to limit time to a total of 9 minutes. Councilors disagreed with the last part, preferring to maintain comment during agenda items and limit speakers to 2 minutes on each item. 
 
Blackmer, attending as audience, agreed with Bona that giving certain people the last word of the night left "a bad taste in your mouth."
 
"Unfortunately, we're making rules for the few people who grandstand," she said. "I'd hate to make rules for a few people who make us uncomfortable."
 
It is those few people, or really the actions of one, that prompted Bona to add in language to Rule 10, Hearing of Visitors. Should public safety being called to deal with a disruptive audience member, "that member may not be allowed to return for a number of meetings determined by the president."
 
Bona and members of the committee did not name anyone in particular but Robert Cardimino has been ejected from several meetings over the years for disruptive behavior. The council has nothing in its current rules addressing repeat offenders.
 
The language would give the president some "bite," he said. "It could really depend on how offensive that person was."
 
The other councilors were leery of the idea of banning members of the public and questioned what limits would be on the president. Bona said he expected they were all reasonable people and if they felt the president was too harsh, the councilors could vote him out in a year. 
 
The committee voted to recommend but with the caveat that Bona follow up with the attorney general's office to ensure such a move was within their authority. 
 
The committee also agreed with moving mayor's concerns to a separate line on the agenda so as not to imply he could only speak for two minutes; allowing brief liaison reports to be given verbally at any meeting; and creating a community calendar/events period during which both councilors and the public could announce upcoming events. Often those have been given during councilor's concerns. 
 
There was also a lengthy debate over a modification of Robert's Rules over "moving the previous question." A councilor moving the question terminates all debate and immediately goes to a two-thirds vote; if passed, the agenda item is voted. 
 
Bona's change allows for the president to ensure that all councilors have the chance to speak on a matter at least once before any vote. 
 
Committee Chairman Eric Buddington also motioned to allow citizens to place items on the agenda through a petition with 10 signatures. He found no second and the motion died. 
 
Fellow councilors were concerned that the number of signatures was too low, that it would put undue burden on the city clerk, and that it could be too easily manipulated. 
 
Bona said there are many ways to bring concerns before councilors and, in his experience, many of the issues tended to be administrative and outside of the council's purview. Blackmer noted that committees can call meetings whenever they wish to address citizen concerns and make recommendations. 
 
Buddington said there were groups forming around issues in the city and he just wanted to do something to encourage them to engage. 
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