LETTER: Public comment: Your right to speak, but not to be heard

Editor, The Spotlight:

On Wednesday, March 13, during the public comment section of the Bethlehem Town Board meeting, I along with eight or nine other citizens, spoke on the number of voting sites and the date of the public referendum on eliminating the elected position of highway superintendent. All of the speakers had some reservations about the resolution put forth by Town Supervisor John Clarkson, to hold the referendum vote on April 30, and limit the voting sites to just the Town Hall.

Not a single person, with the exception of Supervisor Clarkson and Board Member Reinhardt, spoke in favor of this resolution. Public sentiment was overwhelmingly opposed, yet on a vote of 3-to-1 the resolution was adopted. Were there other alternatives to this resolution? Yes, one alternative proposed by speakers included holding the referendum vote during the general election in November. This would have saved the cost of a special election and allowed all 21 voting sites to be open, thereby maximizing voter participation. This idea is the true measure of public comment.

This futile exercise in open government begs the question, “Why have public comment in a representative government?” Isn’t it to obtain the opinions of the citizens you represent on a particular issue and allow their input into the decision making process? If not, then why have public comment?

Admittedly, our elected officials, and I include myself as an Albany County legislator, are faced with difficult, often complex issues, which can have a dramatic effect on the people we serve. Recognizing this responsibility, shouldn’t public input be considered in our decisions? Clearly when there are equally compelling arguments on both sides of an issue, the decision is difficult and often comes down to a judgment call. However, that was not the situation at Wednesday’s Town Board meeting. The citizens who spoke were solidly against the idea. In the face of such strong opposition, shouldn’t the supervisor and Town Board have tabled their preconceived idea and rethought the concept?

It is unfortunate, while our town officials talk about “participation in government,” it has become a hollow catch phrase. At the Feb. 26 Town Board Meeting, Town Board Member Jeffery Kuhn attempted to push through a resolution in support of the Governor’s “SAFE Act” without any public comment. Now the Town Board has passed a resolution with overwhelming citizen opposition.

If public comment is nothing more than a sham to make the citizens feel good about participatory government, but is not a basis for making decisions, then why go through the charade?

Richard Mendick, Albany County legislator, Selkirk

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