Boo at your own risk at Town Board meetings

Sean Walter of Riverhead
NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Supervisor Sean Walter at a Town Board meeting. A new rule banned booing at meetings.

Audience members at Riverhead Town Board meetings can no longer boo — and clapping almost went with it.

A last-minute change to a set of new rules and procedures for board meetings allowed clapping to continue in Town Hall, but banned booing. This came after the head of a local civic organization suggested the new rules infringed on free speech.

But the executive director of the state Committee on Open Government said the ban on booing — which is rare at town meetings — is within the board’s right.

“The town law says the board has the ability to adopt rules to govern its own proceedings,” said Bob Freeman, the committee’s longtime executive director who helped write much of the state’s open meetings and public information laws. “The rules have to be reasonable, but certainly they have the ability to establish rules that are designed to guarantee common courtesy and the avoidance of disruption.”

Mr. Freeman said that under state law, there is no requirement that boards even allow the public to speak at meetings, but when boards do allow it, they can adopt their own rules for doing so.

This issue of the booing ban came up at Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, where the town’s new rules were up for a vote.

“This says ‘no member of the public shall engage in any demonstration, booing, hand clapping or otherwise disrupt the formality of a Town Board meeting,’ ” said Dominique Mendez, the president of Riverhead Neighborhood Preservation Coalition. “I think that goes a little far, to restrict what is free expression and free speech.”

She recalled that there was clapping when the board approved money for preservation of the North Fork Preserve.

“I don’t think you objected to it,” she said.

Councilman George Gabrielsen said the hand-clapping ban could be taken out.

“It’s not a big deal,” he said.

Or is it?

“The problem we have is that for one speaker they clap, and then they clap after the next speaker, it’s a lot,” Councilman John Dunleavy said. “We’re trying to keep some order here.”

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said if people clap in favor of what a speaker is saying, other people may boo as a counter.

“We’re going to have booing and clapping at the same time,” she said. “It doesn’t provide for an orderly meeting.”

Supervisor Sean Walter said he’s OK with taking the clapping out.

Ms. Mendez said the definition of “demonstration” is too broad.

She said her group has had people come with signs written on letter-sized pieces of paper expressing their opinion on issues.

“Not everyone is comfortable coming up to the microphone,” she said, and simply bringing a message on a small sign allows them to express themselves.

Mr. Walter suggested that language be changed to “disruptive demonstration,” which board members agreed with.

Town officials say they aren’t familiar with too many examples of clapping or booing at board meetings.

Mr. Walter said he anticipates the board will take a “common sense” approach toward enforcing the new regulations.

“Three members of the board could decide to suspend these rules at any time,” he said.

The board approved the new rules, with the changes, by a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Jim Wooten casting the sole no vote.

The Town Board had been discussing the new rules for weeks at its work sessions prior to bringing it to a vote last Tuesday.

Most of the rules deal with the procedures for board members proposing and seconding resolutions, and how debate among board members should be handled.

Mr. Walter said the rules were largely taken from the upstate Town of Henrietta.

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