Niskayuna town board receives pushback for three-minute public comment limit

Niskayuna town hall

NISKAYUNA — The Niskayuna Town Board received pushback from residents regarding a new three-minute time limit for public comments during the board’s meeting on Tuesday night.

The Tuesday meeting marked the first session under the board’s new policy, which requires residents to register ahead of time for the privilege of the floor portion of the meeting and to limit their comments to three minutes per speaker.

The policy supersedes a previous rule implemented in January 2022 limiting public comments to five minutes per resident.

During the Tuesday meeting, Niskayuna Town Historian Denis Brennan told the board that he understood the logic in imposing time limits even if he disagreed with their decision.

“When I became the Niskayuna Town Historian in 2018, I began attending the monthly town board meetings regularly and I can honestly admit that often during privilege of the floor I was troubled by residents who spoke too long, repeated themselves and seemed to ramble without making a clear argument,” Brennan told the board. “I also found a few whose vitriol tested the boundaries of polite speech. Members of the town board earned my respect for willingly and silently listening to what, on some occasions, bordered on verbal abuse.”

Brennan told the board that while access to privilege of the floor comments at meetings could reasonably be limited by towns, the rules must be seen as fair and necessary to residents.

“The new public comment policy does not meet that requirement,” he said. “Lincoln’s Gettysburg address may have been less than three minutes, but few of us have Lincoln’s rhetorical skill, nor should we be expected to.”

The town’s new policy states that residents must register with Town Clerk Michele Martinelli by phone, email or in-person by 6 p.m. on the day of a 7 p.m. meeting in order to sign up to speak at the meeting.

Town Supervisor Jaime Puccioni announced during the Tuesday meeting that residents who were present at the meeting who had not signed up in advance would be allowed to register to speak after the residents who had signed up in advance had concluded their remarks.

Residents Leslie Gold and Linda Rizzo were afforded second opportunities to address the board after the slate of speakers had concluded. Gold noted that former Niskayuna Supervisor Joe Landry had previously instituted a five-minute limit that was subsequently revised after public backlash. The board reintroduced the five-minute limit in January 2022.

Puccioni said on Thursday that she believes the board should stick with the three-minute time limit.

“I think that the three minutes worked well,” she said. “As you can see from his (Dennis Brennan) remarks, he prepared his remarks and he delivered them in a reasonable amount of time. People who went over three minutes were given additional time and there’s flexibility. I think the meeting was very well-organized and it flowed smoothly.”

Resident Lorraine Zabin criticized the new three-minute rule during Tuesday’s meeting. 

“I’ve been involved in the Town of Niskayuna for years as deputy supervisor, local and county committee person and a statewide committee person,” she told the board. “The town that I have been so happy to be part of is no longer the same town. I think it’s because we’re not necessarily thinking about the people who pay the taxes and live in the town and who have been here.”

Zabin’s comments reached the five-minute mark, one of three residents who surpassed the three-minute limit and who were gently reminded by Puccioni that they had exceeded the limit.

“Supervisor Puccioni and the board have shown a disdain for the residents by implementing a three-minute limit and a need to register for the board meeting,” Zabin told the board. “What are we, New York City, where we don’t have rights? We know each other and live next door to each other.”

Town Board Member Jason Moskowitz, who criticized the new public comment policy prior to its rollout, said on Thursday that he believed the Tuesday meeting demonstrated that the policy was unsustainable.

“I think that Tuesday night clearly showed that it may not be the best policy,” he said. “We had residents that don’t normally come to speak there to speak out against it, which I respect. I think all of the speakers went over their three-minute limit and I think we saw that it’s going to be hard to enforce and maybe not the best choice.”

Moskowitz said that he would like to see the new policy rescinded and potentially return to the previous five-minute limit.

“I think that the supervisor has to keep things moving during the meeting and she has to make sure there’s time to conduct town business,” he said on Thursday. “I wasn’t a huge fan of the five-minute (limit) but I understand the reasoning for it. I think Tuesday night proved that three minutes is not nearly enough time for residents to voice their concerns.”

Town Board Member Jessica Brennan said on Thursday that the town wants to make the public comment process accessible to every resident who wants to participate.

“I think we’re always open to learning and nothing ever has to be in stone,” she said. “But at this point, if this is what’s helping us to be organized and on target and to keep the meeting moving in a timely manner and respectful to everyone’s time, then we’ll do it. If we find that there’s big problems, we can always be flexible.”

Contact Ted Remsnyder at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @TedRemsnyder.

Categories: -News-, Schenectady County, Your Niskayuna

One Comment

So why institute a 3 minute policy only to not enforce it on night 1…makes no sense and answers the question, is it the right thing to do. Even in Saratoga Springs, as dysfunctional as that City Council is, where BLM representatives shut down a public council meeting, they ultimately made no changes to the public comment rules. If Puccioni cannot take the heat, then get out of the kitchen.

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