Editorial: The public has a right to speak, good or bad

Posted 5/27/21

Public bodies can meet behind closed doors if they’re discussing someone’s job performance or negotiating terms of a contract. They can add things to their agenda if a majority agree to …

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Editorial: The public has a right to speak, good or bad

Posted

Public bodies can meet behind closed doors if they’re discussing someone’s job performance or negotiating terms of a contract. They can add things to their agenda if a majority agree to do so.

They can limit public discussion if they choose. They can enact their own rules for how long someone is allowed to speak.

All these are delineated in a tidy state law known as the Open Meetings Act, which says nothing about silencing critics — or not listening to someone who might say something mean.

Yet that’s what happened during Monday night’s Bristol Warren Regional School Committee meeting. Warren resident Daryl Gould, a frequent agitator for this district, began to read a letter that had already been published (May 20) in this newspaper. He was being critical of committee member Carly Reich, who sarcastically thanked fellow board member Victor Cabral for “mansplaining” something to her during a prior public meeting.

For those not familiar, “mansplaining” is a slang description for when a man allegedly talks down to a woman.

On Monday night, Mr. Gould got one sentence into his statement before school district legal counsel Mary Ann Carroll interjected and said, “Public comments are not to in any way criticize members of the school committee … They’re for comments that might have to do with the public.” She recommended that the public comment section be closed, and Chairwoman Marjorie McBride immediately agreed. Mr. Gould was done talking, as was anyone else for that matter.

Setting aside the gross misrepresentation of state law, it’s startling that committee leaders consider criticism of public actions which took place in public meetings to be out of bounds for members of the public speaking in public forums.

Furthermore, this is the latest example of the power given to hired attorneys to help manage public bodies. Throughout local government, the solicitor or legal counsel often wields enormous power in day to day affairs. The attorneys — all of them hired contractors — shape and sometimes control agendas, decisions, communication and meetings for bodies like town councils, school committees, planning boards and zoning boards.

There are good reasons for having these attorneys present. They protect public bodies from running afoul and exposing themselves, and by extension taxpayers, to legitimate lawsuits.

However, these “advisors” are often over-protective, obsessively risk-averse, and working subtly against the best interests of the public.

Nothing prevents government officials from reading and understanding the Open Meetings Act or Access to Public Records Act themselves and making their own decisions. Private citizens do. Journalists do. Far too often, government leaders do not.

On Monday night, both the attorney and the school committee overzealously stifled public comment. It’s not a good look for a board that professes it wants to be open and transparent with the public.

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.