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Ashland selectmen curb public from last word at meetings

Union Leader Correspondent

December 16. 2012 8:37PM

ASHLAND - In what town officials say is a move to bring more order to selectmen's meetings, the board will no longer allow public comment at the end of its sessions.

Instead, the board of selectmen will accept questions and comments in writing two weeks before each meeting and address them at the end of each session, Town Administrator Paul Branscombe said.

The selectmen made the change after the Dec. 3 meeting in which six to eight residents kept the meeting going late into a Monday night with questions and accusations that were at times personal and vindictive, said Jeannette Stewart, board chairman.

A video of the meeting shows two residents criticizing the work of town officials and the board, which prompted Selectmen Dan Golden to offer his resignation on the spot. He did not resign, as the matter was dropped. The video is available to the public at the town's website.

After that meeting, at Branscombe's suggestion, the board made the change. Stewart said the members did so knowing that answering residents' written questions at the end of each meeting may end up making the meetings last as long or longer.

"We were losing civility," Branscombe said. "The selectmen's meetings are not designed to be public hearings, and it's reached the point where people are just taking potshots and being personally vindictive."

Branscombe said the town's attorney, Walter Mitchell, has said the change is legal and other town governments in the state have made similar changes.

Stewart said the residents who have caused the change are regulars at board meetings, and some are former town officeholders.

They have formed a group called the Ashland Coalition for Action, which has a website with a news page and blog page on which residents can express opinions, according to the site.

The coalition site does not list full names or phone numbers of its members. Its mission is "to work together to ensure transparency and accountability in town government, to educate and engage the townspeople in the issues and decisions that affect their lives and tax dollars and to call for action when the voice of the people needs to be heard."

A post on the site addresses the selectmen's decision directly.

"If you watch Monday night's meeting . you will see how the board treats the taxpayers in the town of Ashland. They do not set a good example for civil discourse and are often rude and dismissive. Sometimes they erupt in anger, make false claims and accusations, provide incorrect information, and goad the public to anger. Their decision to exclude public comments is an example of their negative attitude toward the public."

The blog's writer, who does not identify himself, adds, "Ironically, I agree that some of the meetings get overly contentious. Part of this is simply the nature of the democratic process. ... Solving the problem by excluding public comments only exacerbates the underlying tensions that are at the heart of problem. Ashland, like many towns, is in the position of having to face serious economic problems that can only be solved by facing the issues, and working together to solve them."

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