Citizens Participation

By September McCarthy | Nov 20, 2011

At the Board of Selectmen meeting last Tuesday, November  15, Chairman Cruz declared that the Citizens Participation portion was for announcements only, and that if citizens had questions then they should see the Town Administrator on Thursdays between 3 and 5 p.m. While Chairman Cruz is certainly within his rights to chair the Board of Selectmen meeting as he sees fit, this decision raises several concerns.


First, there are many citizens of Wareham who cannot visit the Town Administrator on Thursdays between 3 and 5 p.m.  It is a very limited 2 hour time frame which falls within “normal business hours” when many citizens are working. Forcing them to endanger their employment by taking time off to ask questions of their town government is unfair at the least. Many towns, particularly those with limited Friday or Monday operating hours, have implemented open hours one evening per week to accomodate those townspeople who work at full-time 9-5 jobs. Perhaps Wareham might consider this, and the Town Administrator might also offer an open-door time during these extended hours.


Secondly, there is an assumption that the question pertains to the day-to-day matters of the town, which is the Town Administrator’s responsibility. In the cases where the question does not pertain to the day-to-day administration of the town, what is a citizen to do? If the answer is that all questions should be presented to the Town Administrator who will then determine if it is something that should be brought to the attention of the Board of Selectmen, then who is working for whom? This is not a duty of the Town Administrator’s position as set out in the Charter or the By-Laws. Is it a wise idea to put that power into the hands of someone who works for the Board? How then will the Board be able to fairly judge the job performance of the Town Administrator? And what are the options to the citizen whose question is not answered by the Town Administrator?


Thirdly, the relegation of the Citizens Participation portion of the Board of Selectmen meeting to simply announcements may be a violation of the constitutional right of free speech. By denying citizens the opportunity to ask questions of the Board of Selectmen in a public, open-meeting forum, the Board of Selectmen may be stifling the democratic process and denying citizens their rights of participation and free speech. Yes, at times the Board may feel some embarassment in the case where they do not have an immediate answer to a question. It is those very questions that are the most valuable because they often point out a matter that has escaped the attention of the Board.


The recent question regarding the pending Board of Sewer Commissioners is a perfect example. It has been over a year since the voters approved the formation of a separate Board of Sewer Commissioners and nothing has been heard about it since. The warrant article was sent to the appropriate state personnel for approval, but little or no follow-up was conducted by the town. This raises other questions about who is responsible for seeing that warrant articles approved at Town Meeting are implemented, but that is not the topic of this article.


The point is that the question raised by a citizen and posed to the Board of Selectmen was entirely appropriate, and even necessary to draw attention to an ignored issue. The Board may have felt a bit of embarassment about this but that is an emotional reaction to a failure in their process. As in business, decisions should not be made based on emotional reactions. Decisions by the Board of Selectmen should be made based on facts and fair, unemotional judgement. Rather than simply denying citizens the right to ask questions directly to the Board, the Board should be examining their process to determine when, where, and how they “dropped the ball” on this warrant article. They may find that the source of the problem is also the source of many other problems . . . information tracking. They may also find that the solution to this problem . . . a database of decisions/votes both by Town Meeting and by the Board itself.  . . would help not only themselves in the exercise of their duties, but also the citizens who might find the answers to their questions in such a database, as well as future Boards who otherwise are destined to struggle under the same handicap of having to dig through piles of paper and years of history to answer their own questions.


We are all bound by decisions that have been made in the past. It is important to know and understand those decisions as part of the process of making good decisions today. And good decisions today will lead to a better future. Stifling the democratic process by denying citizens the right to ask questions directly of the Board of Selectmen in an open meeting setting is not a good decision, in my opinion. It leads to apathy and non-participation. A democracy is made stronger by having more people participate and that participation is encouraged by respect for the opinions of others and allowing them to speak, and the overall result is improved by being able to leverage the skills and abilities of those who participate. If the Board would reconsider their decision to limit Citizens Participation to simple announcements, then they will be taking a step in the direction of positive change and a better future.

Comments (10)
Posted by: P-SPAN | Nov 20, 2011 18:57
Posted by: KAREN SPINKS | Nov 21, 2011 01:19

I imagine that the people who voted overwhelmingly for this type of government anticipated that they would be given the opportunity to actively participate on occasions such as Citizen Participation.  The editing/discouragement of Citizen Participation  surely then defeats the whole purpose.

Posted by: justin beiber | Nov 21, 2011 07:31

When Mr. Cruz made that statement during last week's meeting, I did not give it much thought.

Instead, I simply assumed he misspoke out of frustration with that lady who comes before the board every week with so many questions.

Instead of debating what may have been just a simple gaffe on the chairman's part, why not ask Mr. Cruz to clarify his position during citizen's participation next week.

This could eliminate any need for further speculation on the matter.

Posted by: watersprite | Nov 21, 2011 08:21

JB, excellent point.  Let's hope someone asks and he gives the right answer.  I don't believe the Chair has the authority to restrict what kind of information a citizen can request or expect - none of the BOS do.  The BOS can refuse to respond, be evasive, or even disrespectful, and citizens may be forced to use other avenues to get the information they want.  But the Chairman seems clearly outside his authority to tell a citizen that they cannot ask questions of the BOS and the TA during a public meeting.  And I hope that when someone calls him on it, he apologizes and sets the record straight.  But I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: bigbrother | Nov 21, 2011 09:14

Why are so many people picking on Mrs. Slavin. Yes, she keeps asking questions. If she got some answers, maybe she wouldn't have to keep coming back. You can't say CP is so that people can ask questions and then be critical when people have the nerve to do it. Many people won't go to CP because they would be torn apart by certain people. If there was more transparency, the questions would be answered the first time or wouldn't need to be asked. It also shows to me how dysfunctional the town is that simple questions have to be asked over and over again. She pays her taxes. She has a right to ask questions. Lay off the lady, she does a lot of work for her committees and the town. Wheres the civility everyone keeps talking about?


The BOS didn't always have CP,. this board could do away with it, but I don't think that says much about transparency. Telling people to see Andrews during his open office hours is a joke. One person gets in there with a big problem and the time is up and others don't get the time they need. They can come back next week but its not a good way to do town business. Send an email to the bos chair and see if you get a response. Don't hold your breath for that either.

Posted by: OTFritz | Nov 21, 2011 10:02

Beiber wrote:

Instead of debating what may have been just a simple gaffe on the chairman's part, why not ask Mr. Cruz to clarify his position during citizen's participation next week.

This hardly sounds like a simple misstatement:

At the Board of Selectmen meeting last Tuesday, November  15, Chairman Cruz declared that the Citizens Participation portion was for announcements only, and that if citizens had questions then they should see the Town Administrator on Thursdays between 3 and 5 p.m.


Doesn't sound like there's much to clarify there.  And ASKING him to clarify seems to run counter to his directive that there will be no questions.  Its like the Chairman has combined the worst parts of Kafka and Catch-22.


Posted by: bigbrother | Nov 21, 2011 11:23

Its almost as bad as when Cruz started making the selectmen raise their hands before they could speak. What is it second grade?  My opinion is that Cruz is not a good chair. This latest rule is wrong too.

Posted by: frightened | Nov 21, 2011 14:45

I think every veteran or family member of someone who has fought for the right of citizen's free speech should go to the next selectman's meeting and set Walter Cruz straight. He let Andrews take away the right of Wareham employees to speak and now he is taking away the citizens right. May God judge him harshly on this. People have died for this right.

This is the very foundation of our country. What are they hiding?

Posted by: Noseyneighbor | Nov 22, 2011 01:17

Nicely said Frightened! Maybe it's time to "Occupy" Town Hall

Posted by: bruce gannon | Dec 09, 2011 11:52

Nosey... hoping you weren't being sarcastic.. that may be the first thing you've said that I agree with...

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