Under the state’s Open Meeting Law, the chairwoman of the Bourne Board of Selectmen, Judith M. Froman, had the right at a January 7 meeting to constrain comment on an agenda item about marijuana.
But whether Ms. Froman was right to do so is another matter.
Marijuana, of course, has been and continues to be a contentious issue in Bourne.
For those who have just returned from a lengthy stay in Bora Bora, here’s the update: Town Meeting last fall again rejected allowing the sale of recreational marijuana in the town.
Meanwhile, a marijuana-related lawsuit brought against the selectmen and the Town of Bourne remains active in Massachusetts Land Court.
In the lawsuit the plaintiff, the Haven Center of Orleans, contends that a prior Town Meeting vote in the town to ban recreational sales was not done legally.
The Haven Center wants to sell recreational as well as medical marijuana at a facility on MacArthur Boulevard.
The selectmen previously negotiated an agreement through which the Haven Center could sell medical marijuana in the town. The Orleans-based company, however, has declined so far to move forward on those sales.
Fast forward to the selectmen’s January 7 meeting.
A Pocasset resident, Donald C. Hayward, had been given a spot on the agenda to ask the selectmen to rescind letters previous boards had written showing support of the Haven Center.
More Bourne residents—George A. Seaver and Linda M. Zuern—also wanted to speak on the issue.
Ms. Froman, the chairwoman, told them that they couldn’t bring the matter up in the public comment section of the meeting, given that it was a specific agenda item. Discussion would take place, she said, when the agenda item was reached.
When the agenda item rolled around, however, Ms. Froman shut down public input after Mr. Hayward made his comments. She had not indicated she would do so when she initially denied public comment on the topic at the start of the meeting.
The town, she said, was in litigation with the Haven Center, so the board could not comment and have a discussion. The appropriate time to have others speak on the topic, she said, was when the town and the Haven Center no longer were in court.
Mr. Seaver felt she had misled him.
If all this seems confusing, well, that’s because it’s confusing.
A reading of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law does make one point clear: an individual may not address the public body without permission of the chairman or chairwoman.
Further, participation by the public at a meeting is entirely within the discretion of the individual chairing that meeting.
After Mr. Hayward filed an Open Meeting Law complaint with the selectmen about Ms. Froman’s decision, the selectmen stood their ground, citing the above section of the law.
Even if Mr. Hayward appeals the matter to the attorney general’s office, the selectmen likely will prevail.
But why have the tussle in the first place?
Let’s picture an alternate scenario:
At the January 7 meeting, Mr. Hayward stands and addresses the board. The board sits and listens but, as is only proper in the light of the litigation, says nothing.
Mr. Seaver and Ms. Zuern rise to address the issue. Ms. Froman informs them they each have up to three minutes. They speak within the prescribed limits. The board listens and again says nothing. The meeting moves on.
That’s the end of it. No further discussion about open meetings, no likely appeal to the attorney general, no further time devoted to the incident.
But that’s not what happened.
In making her decision to shut down comment January 7, Ms. Froman alluded to the full agenda that the board faced that evening. You can understand why she wouldn’t want to allow the meeting to go on even longer.
As chairwoman, however, Ms. Froman has been cutting back on how often the board meets, which has the unsurprising effect of lengthening the duration of the meetings that the board does hold.
On at least one occasion, a meeting extended past the 9 PM cutoff for Bourne Community Television’s live feed on Channel 15.
This leaves aside the issue of giving members of the public the impression on January 7 that they would be able to speak on a topic, only to subsequently inform them that they wouldn’t.
At the end of the day, the January 7 episode raises the issue of the chairwoman’s judgment.
According to the state guide to the Open Meeting Law, the attorney general “encourages as much public participation as time permits.”
If a resident or two of Bourne care enough about a issue to turn out and address it at a public meeting, they should be given a few minutes to do so.
Town government in Bourne needs more public participation, not less.