EDITORIAL: Public deserves 5 minutes

Exterior of the Niskayuna Town Hall at Niskayuna Circle.

Exterior of the Niskayuna Town Hall at Niskayuna Circle.

Five minutes. That’s all they’re asking for.

Five measly minutes.

Is it really that big of a deal to provide five minutes of face time to the people who put you in office and who pay the local taxes that support government services like upkeep of roads and sidewalks, life-saving emergency services, parks and recreational facilities, and any of the many other vital services local governments provide?

Will the extra two minutes you save by cutting the time limit for public comments from five minutes to three minutes really save that much time at the end of a public meeting and get people home that much sooner?

If the answer to each of these questions is “no” (Hint: It is.), then the Niskayuna Town Board should restore the policy it set just 15 months ago and allow residents to once again address the board for five minutes instead of three.

First of all, reducing the time limit for speakers will do little to keep the length of most meetings in check. If the board lets five speakers go two minutes longer, that’s just another 10 minutes. Big deal. If, on the other hand, there are 10 or 15 people concerned enough to get up and speak at a meeting, then maybe the board has a bigger problem beyond the time its meetings end.

While the board is at it, it should get rid of the requirement that speakers have to register ahead of time before speaking.

What difference does it make to the length of the meeting if officials learn the number of speakers before the comment period or during it?

The requirement is nothing more than an attempt to discourage people from speaking by forcing them to put their names on a government list and to give town officials justification for maintaining a catalog of potential malcontents.

The board could provide residents with a sign-up sheet to voluntarily provide their contact info in case they want more information from the board. But don’t associate any registration with whether people choose to speak or not.

For residents, keep in mind that 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, with a few exceptions. It’s the board’s right to set reasonable limits on time and conduct.

Commenters at meetings should realize they’re taking up time desired by other members of the public to speak. They should try to prepare their remarks in advance if possible, get to the point of their statements quickly and not ramble on, be respectful of board members and fellow citizens, and honor requests from the board to step down when their allotted time is up. Citizens should also consider other ways to communicate with officials, such as by emailing board members, calling town hall, writing letters to the editor and saving their lengthier comments for another time.

We understand the Niskayuna board does exercise some flexibility in the time limit and allows speakers to return to the microphone if all other speakers have spoken and there’s time.

But why cut off the citizens after only three minutes and discourage people from speaking their minds when there’s little benefit of the practice to the operation of government?

Five minutes for speakers is reasonable. Go back to it.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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