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Ridgefielders For A More Open Local Government

Recently, residents and town officials have discussed the possibility of opening Board of Selectmen meetings to further public comments.

Do you think there should be more time for residents to speak at Board of Selectmen meetings? Start your own discussion now by telling us in the comments.

Recently, Ridgefield residents and the Board of Selectmen have discussed the possibility of including more time during meetings for public comment.

Possible solutions have ranged the spectrum, the more conservative of which would allow time only for members of the board to address private concerns at the end of the meeting. The more liberal solution would open the floor to any and all public comment in an "open-mic" fashioned part of the meeting.

As it now stands, the Board is set to discuss a compromise that would allow for a more open government without letting meetings devolve or slip into the midnight hours.

Jan Rifkinson, who is getting ready to run for a spot on the Board of Selectmen in November on an unaffiliated ticket, first brought up the idea with a request for "Old Business" and "New Business" items on each meeting's agenda to allow for meetings to address issues off the set agenda.

"I understand there's an agenda," Rifkinson said. "But people do come with ideas. Right now there's very little audience participation."

For Rifkinson, the more open the better.

"My point of view is that you encourage people to step up with ideas who may not come otherwise," Rifkinson said. "You allow people to say, 'Sometime down the road, I'd like you to look at X, Y and Z.'"

Both times the subject has come up, the Board has generally agreed with the sentiment, but when it came to logistics, there were some apparent drawbacks, one of which addressed the primary reason for having an agenda in the first place.

"When we have items on the agenda, such as a blight ordinance, for instance, a specific group of people show up," First Selectmen Rudy Maroni said. "People get upset when we talk about things not on the agenda -- that's the reason we have one."

Selectwoman Barbara Manners said that residents are welcome to call Marconi's office beforehand to secure a spot on the agenda, and they are often included.

"We make it clear that people can call the office and put something on the agenda," Manners said. "And I've never known Rudy to turn it down."

The Board of Education currently allows time before meetings for public comment, which draws a large crowd at times. Having been a member of the school board, Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark chimed in on that experience.

"I liked having it on the agenda," Kozlark said. "We don't necessarily want to make it a free-for-all for the public, but we want people to have the opportunity to speak their minds."

Selectman Andrew Bodner suggested opening it up to the members of the board for a "Board of Selectmen's Report," borrowing from the "First Selectman's Report" item currently on the agenda.

"We wouldn't want someone to use it as a pulpit for issues not relevant to the Board of Selectmen," Bodner said, addressing the "open mic" solution.

Currently, Bodner said, the board is "pretty gracious" in allowing people to speak.

"I don't think there's been any meetings that no one's been able to speak," Bodner said.

Rifkinson wants the process to be formalized, though.

The subject is still up for discussion, and the board was open to the compromise of permitting a short time at the beginning of each meeting for comment but without allowing a free-for-all kind of atmosphere.

"The bottom line is to have another conduit for people to comment," Rifkinson said. "Anything we can do to encourage a dialogue should be looked at in a positive way."

Jan Rifkinson August 10, 2011 at 10:59 PM
I suggested this modification because we have a very smart & varied community whom we rarely hear from at the regular BoS mtgs. Yes, I know everyone is busy. That's understandable but even for those who are less busy, have the time or who could make the time every once in a while, there was only one way for a resident to introduce a new subject to the BoS, i.e. the agenda set by the 1st Selectman's office. The adjustment I was seeking would permit a more immediate communication between resident & administration @ any regularly scheduled mtg. And although this does not mean the subject will be taken up right there, it will be in the official record, i.e. the minutes & would have to be handled one way or another going forward. I hope I wasn't wasting my breath. ;-)
John McNicholas August 18, 2011 at 12:36 PM
I believe this is a good suggestion but the more troubling issue I have noticed is that of the use of "Executive Sessions" at town boards and the BOS Meetings. Executive sessions should only be used on matters relating to empoyment issues and those that relate to town purchasing or leasing property. The property issue relates only to property the town will purchase and use and not purchase and later sell. This has been used in the past and I think it violates the law. Check out the minutes of boards and notice how many times they go into "executive session" there are not minutes for these sessions. The public never knows what is going on.

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