A majority on the Gloversville Common Council was clearly offended this fall when local activist Robert Castiglione accused officials of conflicts of interest.
After briefly suspending the public comment period at meetings, the majority devised and last month adopted a new rule prohibiting any public comments deemed “personally offensive, abusive, slanderous, boisterous or [presenting] impertinent remarks.”
The rule also reduced the individual speaking time from five to three minutes.
Castiglione, a constant adversary of Mayor Tim Hughes (who has accused Castiglione of harassing and stalking him), said Tuesday the rule is vague and therefore, under federal law, unconstitutional. The federal law he cited, however, applies to laws, not rules.
Though Robert Freeman, executive director of the State Committee on Open Government, notes that municipal bodies are not obligated by law to even provide a public comment period at meetings, he said the language in the new council rule is “unnecessarily vague.”
Former Councilwoman Cynthia Morey, R-1st Ward, said portions of the new rule are “totally unacceptable” and she expressed surprise that council members would react with such apparent emotion to Castiglione’s remarks.
During her time on the council, Morey said she occasionally had to endure personal criticism. “But,” she said, “we didn’t try to trample on the public’s right to free speech.”
She said Castiglione’s accusations of conflicts were not slanderous, though they offended some city officials. “They had nothing to be outraged about,” she said. “The conflicts mentioned were factual. Even though [the council majority] didn’t like it, that’s too bad, live with it folks,” Morey said, asserting public officials have to accept criticism, fair or not.
Though the word “slanderous” is a legal term and appropriate as part of the language of the new rule, Morey said, “personally offensive” and “impertinent” are subjective terms. “By whose judgment,” she asks, will public remarks be evaluated on those terms? “Those words cannot be measured,” she said.
Councilman-at-Large James Handy said he supported the new rule but did not draft the language.
Handy said there has been an excess of negativity at recent council meetings and the council set out to adopt a rule that would “clean it up a little bit. We didn’t want to shut down anyone,” he said of the new rule.
“We have to see how it plays out,” he said.
Council rules are readopted annually with a vote at the Jan. 1 organizational meeting, so council members will have a chance to revisit the measure in a few weeks if they like.
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Categories: Schenectady County