DERRY — Designed to allow comment on local matters, the public forum became the subject of heated discussion at last week’s council meeting after one councilor called it “a joke.”
Councilor Neil Wetherbee made the remark as councilors were discussing whether to even hold the forum at the close of the long meeting and on the same night a snowstorm had descended on the area.
The council had spent a large portion of the meeting discussing a proposed contract between the town and 29 employees. It wasn’t until the end, about two hours later, when the public forum finally came up.
“The public forum is a joke,” Wetherbee said.
The council later voted, 4-2, with Wetherbee and Councilor Brad Benson voting against, to hold the forum.
During the public forum, several speakers rose to question Wetherbee and defend public comment on local issues.
Reached by phone Monday, Wetherbee said he made the comment mainly because he felt the council, in recent meetings, hasn’t been able to complete its business in time to hold the public forum.
“My primary feeling is the Town Council meetings are business meetings of the Town Council and if we are getting our business done on a regular basis, then I have no problem opening up the public forum,” Wetherbee said.
Wetherbee, who has served on the council for six years, said he doesn’t oppose the public forum and once voted in favor of holding a second public forum during meetings.
Wetherbee said he doesn’t mind if the public forum is held at the end of meetings, as long as the councilors can get through their regular business.
Wetherbee said he didn’t want his comments about the public forum to be taken out of context. And like every current councilor, he said, he cares about what the public has to say.
“To come in with these notions of ‘you don’t care about the taxpayers, you don’t care about the public,’ that’s nonsense. Everybody does and that absolutely goes with the job,” he said.
Some councilors have taken a different stance on public forums and when they should be held. Councilor Al Dimmock said he doesn’t favor limiting public forums or restricting when members of the public can speak. He said public forums shouldn’t be removed from the agenda but held at each meeting.
Dimmock said councilors should always keep in mind that they were elected by the people and should always allow for the public to be heard.
“It is my firm belief that this town belongs to the people, not those seven people sitting up there of which I am one of them,” Dimmock said.