Early Public Comment Still Nixed from Sag Harbor Trustees’ Agenda

Sag Harbor Village Mayor Sandra Schroeder responds during the public hearing portion of a discussion late last year. Michael Heller photo

Want to speak or ask a question at a Sag Harbor Village Board meeting? It’s simple — just raise your hand.

That is Sag Harbor Village Mayor Sandra Schroeder’s directive to those who want to comment on resolutions before the board votes on them, now that the meeting’s first public comment session has been eliminated. The second public comment session remains, coming after the board has voted on its resolutions and has concluded its other business.

As mayor, Ms. Schroeder has the authority to establish or remove public comment sessions from meetings, but she and trustee Aidan Corish clashed politely last Wednesday over her recent decision to relegate public comments to the end of village board meeting only.

Ms. Schroeder kicked off last Wednesday’s board meeting by saying that “no one has ever been denied” the ability to speak.

“The only thing that happened is public input for anything other than agenda items is now at the end of the meeting. That’s it,” she said.

The meeting did not include an earlier public comment portion to allow people to speak specifically about agenda items. On Monday, when asked to clarify her comments, Ms. Schroeder said an agenda-item-only public comment period would not be added, and that people should raise their hand if they wished to ask a question about an agenda item the board is discussing.

“You’re going to wait your turn,” she said Monday. “Why would we have comments on the agenda before we address it? That’s when you raise your hand, when we’re discussing it, and that’s how it’s always been done.”

After the board concluded its regular business last Wednesday, and before the public comment portion was to begin, Mr. Corish openly stated his disagreement with Ms. Schroeder’s decision, which took effect in February.

“I miss the earlier public comment session,” he said. “I know that it’s the mayor’s prerogative to have it or not have it. I like the idea of having earlier public comments. I think it raises the level of discourse in the room, but most importantly it allows parents with children with extracurricular activities after school to be here early or late.”

Mr. Corish said he didn’t feel having an early public comment period in addition to a later one was a burden on the board.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to take the same amount of time anyway,” he said.

Mayor Schroeder said she disagreed with him.

“We have a number of people here who are volunteers who have seven o’clock meetings,” she said, “and the people on the agenda who come forward and have applications — I don’t think they should have to wait.”

Their conclusion was to “agree to disagree,” as Mr. Corish put it.

During the lone public comment period, resident Jeff Peters asked a question about additional engineering for the Long Wharf renovation project — an item that had already been approved by the village board during its routine business earlier in the meeting. Mr. Peters said, “this is a perfect example” of why people should be allowed to make comments and ask questions at the beginning of the meetings.

Mayor Schroeder responded to him by saying, “Why didn’t you ask? Nobody stopped you. You didn’t raise your hand.”

On Monday, Mr. Peters said, “I didn’t know” it was possible to ask a question during the board’s discussion of that specific agenda item because when he had tried to do so in the past at meetings, he was not always acknowledged.

“It would be easier to have ‘public input one’ on the agenda,” Mr. Peters said Monday.

During the meeting last Wednesday, he asked the mayor to explain why she had changed the structure of the public comment periods.

The move was made “to make the meetings go smoother, more orderly,” Ms. Schroeder said. “We take care of business and then we have plenty of time to listen.”

New York State’s open meetings law does not require municipal boards to allow public comment periods during meetings. However, the majority of local town, village and school boards allow public comments at both the beginning and end of their meetings and generally do not allow people to raise their hands to speak during the course of their regular proceedings.

In a 1997 opinion offered to the Sharon Springs Village Planning Board pertaining to public comment sessions, Robert J. Freeman, executive director of New York’s Committee on Open Government, wrote the following: “A public body’s rules pertaining to public participation typically indicate when, during a meeting (i.e., at the beginning or end of a meeting, for a limited period of time before or after an agenda item or other matter is discussed by a public body, etc.). Most rules also limit the amount of time during which a member of the body may speak (i.e., no more than three minutes). If you choose to adopt the kinds of rules described above, it is suggested that they be read or distributed to those in attendance at meeting.”