Stoughton Town Meeting members overwhelmingly supported a bylaw change at the final session of the 2012 Annual Town Meeting in an effort to assure that a public comment period was a required part of the board of selectmen's meeting.
Article 75, petitioned by Precinct 4 Town Meeting member Dr. Roberta Camacho, was passed June 13.
However, in a memo dated Sept. 18, the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office informed Stoughton Town Clerk Cheryl Mooney that the bylaw change was well-intended but could not be approved because it conflicts with state law.
"We recognize that the intent of the amendments adopted under Article 75 was to promote open and participatory political process in the Town, which is a laudable goal. However, because the amendments conflict with state law and unlawfully interfere with the executive branch [the Board of Selectmen], we are constrained to disapprove them," the Attorney General's memo states.
The bylaw change proposed:
Regular meetings of the Board of Selectmen shall provide for a 15 minute period of public comment. provided however, that the Board may promulgate rules that regulate such period of public comment as deemed appropriate and do not negate the intent of this section.
But according to the Attorney General's Office:
General Laws Chapter 30A, Section 20 (f) applies to all meetings of a public body, including open meetings of the Board of Selectmen, and establishes the discretion of the Board chairperson to allow public comment at open meetings, as follows:
(f) No person shall address a meeting of a public body without permission of the chair, and all persons shall, at the request of the chair, be silent. No person shall disrupt the proceedings of a meeting of a public body.
The amendments adopted under Article 75 are in conflict with G.L.c. 30A, Section 20 (f) because they remove the discretion from the presiding officer (the chair of the Board of Selectmen) whether or not to allow public comment, and instead require the Board to allow a 15 minute period of public comment.
"I don't think the right to speak to selectmen in a public forum in a respectful matter should be lost," Camacho said at the annual town meeting.
The public comment period was briefly taken off the agenda this past winter as the Board sought town counsel's opinion on if a comment period was in line with the new open meeting laws, board of selectmen chair John Stagnone explained on the town meeting floor. Town Counsel determined it was and the comment period has since been reinstated (well before the bylaw vote at town meeting took place).
Despite the attorney general's ruling, which would allow selectmen not to have a comment period, Stagnone said he has "no intention" of doing away with it - the plan is still to have a public comment period.
"I think it's important," selectman Bob O'Regan said of having a public comment period.
O'Regan, an attorney, said the important take-away from the ruling is that the attorney general's office said town meeting cannot legislate how the Selectmen should conduct its meetings.
It's the same limit O'Regan and fellow selectman Cynthia Walsh face in their subcommittee to improve Town Meeting, he said.
The selectmen can make their end of the town meeting process more efficient - like having a smaller warrant without placeholder articles - but can't instruct that town meeting must start on time, or that too much time is being spent recapping old business or that there should not be "cookie breaks," O'Regan said.
"I hope the folks who were moving to have comments at selectmen's meetings will focus on those types of reforms to make town meeting run more efficiently," O'Regan added.
A copy of the Attorney General's ruling, obtained at the Stoughton Town Clerk's Office, can be found in the media gallery.