Last night, the Abington Public Affairs Committee approved a motion that would revise the rules of procedure for full board meetings. Instead of providing for public comments prior to the vote on each agenda item, and allowing general comments on any matter toward the end of the meeting, residents would be given three minutes to speak on agenda items, and three minutes to speak on non-agenda items, in the beginning of the meeting, following the approval of the minutes and any scheduled ceremonial presentations.
There would be no public comment on agenda items later in the meeting.
The motion, which was last on the agenda, seemed to come out of left field for committee chairman Robert Wachter.
“Is there anyone who would like to make that motion? Because I certainly wouldn’t,” he said.
Abington Township Manager Michael LeFevre chimed in by saying, “Can I explain?”
“What I’m suggesting, after observing the meetings for the past 16 months, there’s probably a more efficient way to operate, and what I’m recommending is that we move all public comment to the beginning of the meeting,” LeFevre said. “I’m suggesting that by moving it to the beginning of the meeting, immediately after the approval of the minutes, and any ceremony or presentations that may have been scheduled, it will afford more opportunity, and encourage more participation from our residents and provide better access to our board.”
LeFevre went on to say that the current procedure forces residents to wait through an entire meeting should they want to address the board.
“I suspect that most residents have other obligations or other interests that really prevent them from dedicating an entire night to the opportunity to speak for three minutes to the board of commissioners,” LeFevre said.
Residents would be able to speak for a total of six minutes.
Commissioner Les Benzak cast the sole “no” vote.
Should it pass, the revised public comment period would not apply to committee meetings or public hearings. And if an agenda item were modified during the course of the meeting, more comments from the public would be taken. There would also be a “trial period” for the new system. LeFevre said he spoke with Abington Solicitor Rex Herder regarding the motion; Herder said it’s in full compliance with the Sunshine Laws.
The Abington School Board has a similar system in place; the board asks for public comments in the beginning of the meeting following its “orientation” and “awards” segments. Public comments are capped at 30 minutes.
After LeFevre explained the motion, it seemed to be well received by the committee and other commissioners. Commissioner John Spiegelman said a revision to the rules of procedure might help those who are new to the process of coming to meetings. Commissioner Thomas Bowman said he liked the idea as well.
“I think Michael [LeFevre] has a good point,” Bowman said. “I don’t think the residents should have to come out to our committee meetings if they just want to make a point to us about something that’s either on the agenda or not. Residents shouldn’t have to follow our organizational flow if they want to make a comment.”
Commissioner Lori Schreiber said she has seen this type of system in place in other municipalities; she said those meetings appear to be more efficient, but added that jumping from topic to topic could get confusing. Schreiber also said that she is not comfortable with residents not being given the opportunity to ask questions during the meeting.
The Abington Board of Commissioners will meet May 10 at 8 p.m.