Handling Hard Topics at Town/Village Board Meetings

Town/village boards sometimes must address controversial issues. Meetings on such topics can cause larger than normal attendance and passionate feedback from attendees. This newsletter sets out the rights of the public, the reasonable restrictions a board may impose on attendees, and some tips for preparing for a meeting so that you and your board will be prepared when it has to handle a controversial topic.

Public Rights

Article 7 of NY Public Officer's Law, known as the Open Meetings Law, gives the public certain rights when it comes to meetings of public bodies such as a town/village board. These rights include being able to attend meetings, speak if public comment is allowed, hear what the meeting is about, record the meetings, and to bring signs or wear shirts that address topics being discussed.

Attendance and Speaking

Under the Open Meetings law, individuals have the right to attend and observe meetings of public bodies. There is no public comment requirement, but if public comment is allowed, any restrictions must be reasonable and consistently applied to all individuals attending. For example, everyone must have the same amount of time to speak. Another example is if positive commentary regarding the board or action is allowed, then negative commentary must be allowed as well. Additionally, both residents and non-resident may attend and speak at meetings.

Hearing

The public has a right to hear the meeting, meaning the average attendee must be able to hear the officers speaking. Typically, in a smaller room, a normal speaking voice will be sufficient, but if the meeting is taking place in a larger space, such as an auditorium, then microphones may be required. Officers may not intentionally speak softly or muffle their voices to avoid being heard by the public.

Apparel and Signs

No law prohibits individuals from bringing signs or wearing apparel, such as shirts, pins or hats, in support or opposition of any issue. However, similar to speech, a board may place reasonable restrictions on shirts and signs provided that they are applied consistently. For example, if there is a size restriction on signs, then it must be applied to everyone. Additionally, the movement of those with signs could be restricted to prevent interference with the meeting or the audience's ability to hear and observe the meeting.

Recording

The public has the right to audio or video record the meeting. A board may adopt reasonable rules governing audio or video recording if conspicuously posted. For example, designating an area for those audio or video recording to sit/stand is allowed, provided recording is not impaired.

Reasonable Restrictions

Town/village boards may impose reasonable restrictions and, if necessary, enforce those restrictions with the help of law enforcement. While not required, a board should distribute its rules and announce the rules prior to each meeting at which there will be public comment. Distributing or announcing the rules at the start of meetings will prevent an attendee from later claiming that they were not aware of what the rules were.

A board may restrict how long an individual may speak for public comment; the recommended length is three (3) minutes. A board may also prohibit verbal interruptions, shouting or other outbursts, as well as slanderous, abusive, or obscene language through its rules. These rules would extend to apparel or signs that contain slanderous, obscene, or abusive language as well. Furthermore, a board may restrict comments to the topic being addressed.

If an individual violates the rules, then a board should remind the individual of the rules and warn that repeated violations will result in their removal. If the individual continues violating the rules after repeated warnings, then a board may have the individual removed by law enforcement. There is no magic number of warnings required before removal, but a board should consider the amount of disruption caused. For example, an individual going off topic will likely require more warnings than if the individual is shouting expletives because going off topic is less disruptive.

Planning And Preparation

Planning ahead for a meeting on a controversial topic can help avoid disruptions and potential legal consequences. If your board is having a meeting on a controversial topic or action consider taking the following steps:

  1. Create and publish an agenda. Having an agenda helps attendees keep their comments relevant by informing them when a particular topic will be addressed.
  2. Adopt and publish rules of decorum for the meeting. Examples of these rules include limits on how long an individual may speak (3 minutes is recommended) and prohibitions on the use of abusive language or shouting. A board may include these in the published agenda and should read the rules aloud at the start of the meeting.
  3. If you adopt any other rules, such as those restricting the size of signs or where people may sit if they have a sign or intend to record the meeting, post the rules ahead of time and have them conspicuously posted at the meeting site.
  4. Move the meeting to a larger space. This will ensure that everyone who would like to attend will be able to. Find a space that is handicap accessible.
  5. Use a sound system, particularly if the meeting is in a larger space such as a school gym, so that everyone can hear.
  6. Have a uniformed police officer at the meeting or on standby, their presence may give more weight to the rules of decorum and dissuade attendees from becoming aggressive. Also, having them at the meeting or on standby allows for a quick response if an attendee needs to be removed.
  7. Finally, controversy can cause people to speak without thinking. To the best of a board's ability, it should avoid responding to attacks. Instead, focus on the issue at hand and any relevant facts. This type of situation can be difficult and uncomfortable, but keeping your cool will help maintain order.

This does not constitute legal advice. Make sure to contact your attorney for specific legal advice whenever necessary.