Schenectady

Editorial: Let citizens criticize public officials at meetings

Elected officials shouldn't shy away from citizen criticism at public meetings
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PHOTOGRAPHER:

So let’s get this straight.

Residents can speak at Schenectady City Council meetings, as long as they don’t criticize any members of the council.

That sounds about right for members of a government body that don’t want to take public responsibility for their actions. But it doesn’t sound right for the people they serve.

At Monday night’s council meeting, City Council President Ed Kosiur appointed himself “Protector of Hurt Feelings” for his fellow council members by cutting off a resident attempting to criticize one of those council members.

At several points during the citizen’s public statements, Kosiur interrupted him, at one time saying he was “completely out of order” and making a “personal attack” on a council member.

Kosiur stated later that he would jump to the defense of any council member who was being so chastised.

[Resident silenced while criticizing council member]

The state Open Meetings Law doesn’t require government bodies to allow citizens to speak at meetings. It only requires that they let the public observe, except under the limited circumstances for closed-door executive sessions. 

For those boards that allow public comments, the courts have upheld a government body’s right to set rules such as reasonable time limits and requiring citizens to stick to matters related to government business, according to an advisory opinion written by Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.

Those presiding over meetings also generally have the authority to keep order in a “fair and impartial manner.”

But Freeman disagrees that that authority extends to giving the presiding officer unilateral power to determine what constitutes government business.

In this case, Kosiur stated that the citizen’s comments extended into personal attacks on members, and therefore strayed from the allowance for public discussion of city business.

That’s clearly debatable.

Given the relationship between an elected council member’s official duties and his or her personal conduct, it’s unclear whether a line between personal statements and city business can even legitimately be drawn.

[Foss: The city needs an anti-bullying policy]

When in doubt, government bodies should open themselves up for criticism in public forums. That is the citizens’  opportunity to share their views with other members of the council, with their fellow citizens, and to solicit a response.

Rather than cut people off, it would make better public policy for council members to either address the concerns with the citizen directly right then or later individually.

Shutting down criticism only makes the public suspicious and helps breed distrust and distance between public officials and the citizens they were elected to represent.

Elected officials who feel they need to be protected from public criticism might want to consider another way to serve.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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