A Right to be Heard

We just have to wonder – what are public officials afraid of hearing?
Someone who disagrees with their consensus? A viewpoint different from their own?
In recent years, we’ve heard more and more efforts to stifle public comments, whether it’s limiting public forum, moving it to the end of the meeting when most everyone has gone home, or, as the Londonderry Planning Board has done, deciding that letters will not be read publicly but will be attached to the minutes in a file available to those who care to visit Town Hall or go online.
And to back that up, they cite all the comments sent in about Woodmont. Would they have preferred the townspeople sat quietly while a proposal for a 600-plus-acre development was presented?
While we’d like to think that anyone with an opinion on a matter under discussion would attend a meeting, we should look at demographics. Many residents have long commutes, making it impossible to get home in time to attend a meeting. Should they be disenfranchised?
Planning Board meetings are at night. Especially in winter, many seniors – and Londonderry has many seniors – don’t drive at night, and can’t find rides. Should their views be discounted?
The Planning Board’s rules and procedures allow public comment either in person or via letters. But with the board’s latest “non decision” – no vote was taken, and the chairman’s plan to read letters relating to a public hearing was altered by the end of the meeting to merely attach them to the minutes – those letters no longer bear equal weight to comments made from the floor. Avoiding rude letters is not a valid reason to shove them aside.
Maybe every board member will carefully read every letter and weigh its merits before making a decision. But how do we know that, or that the letters have even been received, when they aren’t presented publicly.
That’s a risk we don’t think the Planning Board should take.
Board chair Art Rugg stated, “In our rules and procedures, number 6.5 says any applicant, any abutter or any person with an interest in the matter may testify in person or in writing.” Board member Mary Wing Soares agreed. How is a letter the public doesn’t know about part of testimony?
Council chair John Farrell has read constituents’’ letters at Town Council meetings. What’s the difference, particularly when at the Planning Board, Council liaison Tom Freda was the most vocal in arguing against reading letters publicly?
There’s a way to solve this. Read the letters into the record when the writer asks for that. It may take time. But the public has a right to be heard, even if its words are in writing.

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