Following ACLU complaint, Deerfield Selectboard adopts revised public comment policy

  • Deerfield Selectboard members are, from left, Trevor McDaniel, Chair David Wolfram and Carolyn Shores Ness. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2021 4:15:45 PM

DEERFIELD — Following a July complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Selectboard has adopted a revised public comment policy that may be updated following future executive sessions.

Members of the public, however, were unable to discuss the policy because Selectboard member Carolyn Shores Ness said the board needs to maintain the ability to enter executive sessions with town counsel.

The policy, which can be viewed in Wednesday’s meeting packet, sets a designated public comment period in each meeting and allows all residents to have an equal amount of time to voice their opinions, regardless of whether those thoughts pertain to agenda items. It forbids threats, incitement to imminent lawless conduct, and defamatory or sexually explicit statements. However, the Selectboard amended the policy to allow obscenities and personal attacks because those are constitutionally protected, according to town counsel Michael Kennefick, an attorney from Mead, Talerman & Costa LLC.

“There’s no case law that supports it,” Kennefick said. “Obviously we want to not have any obscenities or personal attacks, but they haven’t been deemed unconstitutional.”

Selectboard member Trevor McDaniel said the policy was born out of several “contentious applications” that have come before town boards in the past year.

“At times in meetings and hearings related to these applications, it appears that discussion and discourse has gone in a direction that feels inappropriate to everyone,” McDaniel said. “Town counsel reviewed our existing public participation policy and advised us to make some changes to it. … The Selectboard looks to this policy as a step forward to productive discussion.”

Some members of the public tried to ask questions about the policy, but Kennefick said board members should not respond for now.

“There’s not a hearing on this matter tonight, it’s just the adoption of the policy. … I would advise against dialogue,” Kennefick said. “They can comment, but really I would advise against answering questions. This is kind of an executive session matter at this point and continues to be.”

During the designated public comment segment of the meeting, Zoning Board of Appeals alternate member Jennifer Remillard said she was displeased with the lack of discussion around the public comment policy.

“One of the main reasons I tuned in this evening was because of the fact that you had on (the agenda) the public comment policy for review and approval,” Remillard said. “It’s really disheartening to see that there was absolutely no public comment on this. … If this is in response to the ACLU complaint that was filed by other residents, then I feel like there should have been a lot more transparency.”

Wednesday’s policy adoption follows several weeks of talks with town counsel about a July 22 letter from the ACLU stating it had “serious concerns” regarding the suspension of public comments at several meetings in June.

The letter — signed by ACLU attorneys William Newman, Ruth Bourquin and Alan Seewald — addresses Selectboard meetings held June 16, 22, 29 and 30 that featured public comment regarding the reappointment of Deerfield Police Detective Sgt. Adam Sokoloski to the Zoning Board of Appeals. At these meetings, some members of the public raised concerns about the appointment of a police officer to a regulatory board in town, citing barriers of “power” and “privilege.”

After two weeks of deliberation, the Selectboard appointed Sokoloski to the ZBA at its June 30 meeting with a 2-0 vote — Shores Ness abstained — on the condition the board develops a best practices policy for appointment to town regulatory boards.

Planning Board Chair Analee Wulfkuhle asked the Selectboard about the best practices policy and if there had been any progress on it.

“In the theme of transparency, what is happening with the policy and/or discussions about appointments to boards and committees?” Wulfkuhle inquired. “My understanding is there is going to be some work done on this.”

The Selectboard signed an $8,000 contract Wednesday night to begin a “Respectful Workplace” workshop that will be mandatory for all town employees. Shores Ness said there hasn’t been substantial progress on a specific best practices policy, but the mandatory workshop can be one of the first steps in developing further town policies.

“Whether selected, volunteer or appointed, the Selectboard has the authority to make it mandatory,” Shores Ness said by phone on Thursday. “We’re making progress.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.




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