EDITORIAL: Five-minute time limit for speakers is reasonable

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PHOTOGRAPHER:

The average human being speaks about 125 to 150 words per minute.

That works out to between 625 and 750 words in 5 minutes, which should be plenty of time for speakers at public government meetings to get their points across.

Some residents in Niskayuna are upset over a 5-minute time limit set by the new town board for public comments during the “privilege of the floor” portion of town board meetings. They shouldn’t be.

First off, 625 to 750 words is a lot of words. Most newspaper columns are in that range.

In terms of time at a meeting, 5 minutes is a long time for someone to speak.

If you have 10 people who want to address the board in one night, you’re talking a good hour by the time they all get up, speak and sit down for the next person. For meetings with long agendas, even a handful of speakers dominating the microphone can push meetings late into the evening and actually discourage other citizens from attending, staying or participating.

Also, 5 minutes isn’t unreasonable or unusual. Boards that do set limits often limit speakers to anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes.

And remember, boards aren’t legally obligated to let the public speak at all during regular meetings under the state Open Meetings Law. Board members have to let you observe the meeting, but they don’t have to open up the meeting to your comments.

We’ve editorialized in favor of changing the law to require that boards allow speakers at all meetings, as meetings are a good opportunity for regular citizens to directly engage their representatives and fellow citizens. But boards can set reasonable limits.

It’s true some individuals might need more time to go into detail about certain issues. But there are other ways besides speaking at a public meeting to go about it.

In almost every government, public officials post their email addresses or phone numbers on the government website. The good ones will call or email you back.

A citizens could articulate their concerns in detail in writing, and then summarize their concerns for the entire board and the public during the public comment period.

In small communities especially, government officials often make themselves available before or after meetings and at local events and community gatherings.

Citizens also can raise concerns about issues through letters to the editor and social media, such as community Facebook forums. Many public officials read those.

Boards also have some options to accommodate those who wish to address them.

They can schedule privilege of the floor sessions before and after the regular meeting agenda, with time limits on each session. And if there are just one or two people in attendance wishing to speak, they can waive the time limit and let the speaker talk longer.

A reasonable time limit on speakers allows boards to hear from as many citizens as possible and helps move meetings along.

No one should be bothered by this change.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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