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North Adams City Council Votes to Limit Public Comment
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
02:33AM / Thursday, January 24, 2019
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Robert Cardimino objects a rules change that keeps residents from speaking on individual agenda items at City Council.


The council members take their new seats for the year.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday voted 8-1 to limit public comment, disappointing and frustrating those who regularly attend the council's meeting. 
 
The new Rules of Order are a return to past practice in only allowing the public to speak to agenda items at the beginning of the meeting during "hearing of visitors" and keeps the open forum portion at the end of the meeting. 
"For the last year there's been harmony and a good exchange of ideas," said frequent commenter Robert Cardimino. "This is a solution looking for a problem."
 
He threatened to start bringing signs back into the council chambers and warned there could be a return to the more contentious atmosphere that had plagued previous councils. 
 
Councilor Rebbecca Cohen was adamantly opposed to the change and cast the lone vote against it. 
 
"I'm not in favor of this change. Keeping an open communication with the public is super important I think for the council as well as for the community to be involved," Cohen said. "I have seen strides with people coming to meetings and commenting."
 
She said people tell her they like to hear other members of the public speaking at the council meetings. Yes, she continued, people can get confused about items and it can get unwieldy. 
 
"If we stick to the rules, if we stick to making sure we're sending things to subcommittees and we're really trying to keep order in our meetings, I don't think that there's a need to cut short people talking on every agenda item," Cohen said.
 
Lisa Blackmer, who as council president had reinstituted the ability of the public to speak on agenda items, rose from the audience to speak against the change.
 
"I think as we are trying to engage our community and our democracy, we really should be hearing from people," she said. Some councilors might be easily accessible but others aren't for various reasons. "It's important for people to have an opportunity to speak to each and every issue if they want to."
 
The meetings are the business of the City Council but the council should be hearing from people who have something to add, she said. 
 
Council President Keith Bona, who drafted the new rules, felt that people had plenty of time to speak compared to other communities. He'd contacted more than a dozen city clerks and found that some councils allow no discussion, others require signing up a week ahead of time and one community requires permission from the mayor to speak. 
 
"We at the moment are by far the most gracious when it comes to giving public discussion," Bona said. 
 
Besides he said, "I don't believe the city councilors here are that hard to find, you can call, email, so we are representatives of the city. It was difficult I think we'd hear about it election time."
 
Councilors Wayne Wilkinson and Paul Hopkins said they would vote for the changes because the council needed to be doing its business and agendas were posted in time for anyone to find out about the issues. Committee meetings were far less formal and offered more opportunities for engagement, they said. 
 
"I feel it's important to hear from the community whether it's information or opinions regarding the agenda items," said Councilor Eric Buddington. "Where it becomes less useful is when we start engaging in debate about what was just said at the meeting."
 
He thought it more useful to allow input prior to the agenda items. 
 
Bryan Sapienza, a member of the Public Arts Commission and a regular attendee at meetings, said it was an opportunity "to voice to our councilors how we feel about certain issues and waiting to the end of the meeting, when the vote is already cast, is too late."
 
"Sometimes we don't have all the information to speak on an agenda item until we hear it at the council meeting," he said, adding that two minutes won't add that much to the length of the meeting.
 
Cardimino asked if there could be a compromise to allow individuals to speak on two or three important agenda items. "I love this city just as much as you do," he said. 
 
"And I've been at it a lot longer than you. ... Let's keep it peaceful."
 
But when the council swiftly voted to implement the changes, he thought it "shakes the foundations of the Constitution" and vowed to challenge the council. 
 
In other business, the council affirmed the appointments of Jeffrey Naughton, to a term expiring Feb. 1, 2022, and Marc Morandi, to a term expiring Jan. 1, 2022, to the Airport Commission. 
 
The appointment of Anna Farrington to the Public Arts Commission was withdrawn by Mayor Thomas Bernard because of a residency issue.
 
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