By Linda Dillman
Residents are questioning the Madison Township trustees’ plan to return to tighter rules on public comment at trustee meetings.
Some residents feel their right to speak at a public meeting could be curtailed. But, according to Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, attendees are not provided the right to be heard at meetings.
According to the act, the township can limit time, place, and access at its meetings as long as the restrictions are content neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest. The act also allows the township to remove a disruptive person at a meeting.
Last August, the trustees began addressing the issue after a series of contentious meetings. Although asked to fill out speaker slips, many attendees still spoke unrecognized from the audience instead of moving to the podium for commentary.
Meetings are taped for public record and township officials say unrecognized commentary is difficult to attribute to individuals, can drift off subject, and contribute to the length of a meeting.
Enforcement of public comment rules requires any speaker to complete a form with their name, address, phone number and topic prior to the meeting. The trustees are considering an option only requiring a name and topic.
Speakers will continue to be limited to a single opportunity for a five minute presentation and restricted to the topic currently under board discussion. Only three people on each side of an issue will be recognized. Additional written information can be presented to the township fiscal officer for entry into the record.
Community activist Reece Kenney said, “If this is the old way, we have not been following it.”
If approved next month, instead of a single public input session, there will be two. One will take place at the beginning of the meeting and permit comment only on agenda items. The second session will be held at the end of the meeting for non- agenda items and may permit up to six speakers.
“This will keep meetings moving along,” said Trustee John Pritchard. “It keeps issues on the table. It’s not like we’re taking the rules and steamrolling over the public. We’re not here to silence. It provides an outline—a rules of the road. It’s not set in stone. It’s flexible, but allows us to keep a meeting from getting out of hand.”
Trustees are free to modify or waive rules of procedure by a majority vote.
According to the township, language under Rules of Decorum was tightened. Speakers cannot engage in personal attacks or use slanderous or profane remarks toward any trustee, staff or the general public. Anyone engaging in this behavior or any other disruptive conduct can, at the discretion of the chairman or majority of the trustees, be barred from further public comments during the meeting.
If a person breaches rules of procedure and decorum, fails to heed a warning and persists in disturbing a meeting, they will be ordered to leave the meeting. If they do not leave, they can be removed by law enforcement.
Revised public comment rules will be on the trustees’ February agenda in a final format for adoption. The trustees changed their regular meeting dates for 2018 to the second Tuesday of the month and will next meet on Feb. 13.