The first week the new Westerly Town Council met, the Council Rules of Procedure permitted two 15-minute citizens’ comment periods, the first for agenda items and the second for both agenda and non-agenda items. Councilors would respond to agenda items but advised not to respond to non-agenda items. I had knowingly taken full advantage of the council’s first meeting but was admonished by Councilor Giorno for citing three non-agenda items in the first citizens’ comments period. One councilor was paying rapt attention!
Being unable to attend the council’s second meeting, I took advantage of Councilor Ahern’s suggestion of citizens’ comments being submitted in written form then read aloud, a less time-consuming idea considering Councilor Giorno’s opinion that citizens, when taking the podium, should be proficient in public speaking. (Shouldn’t councilors then be held to the same standard?) When Council President Duhamel began reading my clearly titled comments, he was told to stop by Councilor Cioffi. Accompanied by a stifled “phew,” he said, “Thank you.” My unread citizens’ comments passed to the equivalent of the council dust bin.
By the third council meeting, the Council Rules of Procedure had been amended to one 10-minute citizens’ comments period to include both agenda and non-agenda items with councilor response limited to agenda items only. Since the council had imposed the 10-minute limit per citizen, Councilor Ahern suggested councilors should likewise limit their responses to 10 minutes.
Did she mean a 10-minute response per agenda item per councilor times seven, a 10-minute-total, seven-councilor response per agenda item or a 10- minute-total, seven-councilor response to all citizen-submitted agenda items?
If this Council is that obsessed with accounting for every precious minute of its time, it must likewise account for and respect the precious minutes scheduled speakers, honorees, reporters and citizens are forced to fidget and cool their heels waiting for scheduled meetings to begin. Monday’s scheduled 5:30 to 6 p.m. special meeting ran until 6:45 p.m., 45 unacceptable minutes beyond the time the 6 p.m. regular meeting was scheduled to start.
When I took the podium, I also distributed my written citizen comments to every councilor. The first regarded a letter submitted to the council about the removal of one of many supposedly permanent trees with plaques honoring or in memory of loved ones planted in downtown Westerly. No one responsible for having the trees planted ever received notice or reason for their removal. For years, the writer was thwarted at every turn to get the tree replanted. It went from no response to the town could only afford to replace one tree a year, to yes, her tree was on the list to be replanted, to the family’s devastation when they discovered that the grate where the tree had stood was removed and paved over. Most recently, after a call to Town Hall, she was informed that the town manager had decided to “yank all the grates.”
Devastated, she called the town manager’s office directly, but has never received a response. Councilor Ahern’s response, sounding off-the-cuff, referred to berries dropping on cars, leaves on the sidewalk, sidewalks being redone, and talk of the Westerly Land Trust relocating the plaques somewhere, while the real purpose for the trees in the first place was summarily ignored. Friends, family and residents would no longer be able to pause, enjoy the tree and remember the name on a plaque when they walked by. For the thousands of trees lining the streets in other cities and towns, how come those in Westerly pose such a nuisance? But, just walk several paces over the Pawcatuck Bridge and one finds the very same trees, initially chosen for their size, beauty and hardiness, lining West Broad Street. This issue demands a council workshop with the many who were given short shrift and the flip remark to “yank all the grates.” If I didn’t find the response sensitive and satisfactory, I wonder if others felt the same way?
My non-agenda item regarded clarification on how the council expects to deal with non-agenda items and how citizens’ comments submitted to the council in writing will be handled? Responding to my non-agenda item, despite the new procedures, Acting President Giorno jumped in to say, “Your ‘letter’ was made part of the minutes.” With all due respect, my clearly marked citizens’ comments were not a “letter” and because my comments were not read they would not have been made part of the minutes.
At this point, the council dust bin is where non-agenda items end up. Clearly, this council needs to revisit its policy on citizens’ comments. Thus far, councilors have picked and chosen items to respond to regardless of their being on the agenda or complicit with their council rules. In fact, it’s not about which citizens’ comments are or are not on the agenda or responded to, it’s about addressing and resolving every single citizen comment in a timely and satisfactory manner.
Hatsy H. Moore