September 19, 1997
Mr. Matthew G. Knight
Village Planning Board
RD1 Box 341
Sharon Springs, NY 13459
Dear Mr. Knight;
I have received your letter of August 19. In your capacity as the chairperson of the Planning board of the Village of Sharon Springs, you wrote that the Board's "deliberations are constantly interrupted by the public, and asked what may "be done to restore order."
In this regard, I believe that the Board has the ability to adopt rules to govern conduct at its proceedings.
By way of background, the Open Meetings Law clearly provides the public with the right "to observe the performance of public officials and attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy" (see Open Meetings Law, §100). However, the Law is silent with respect to the issue of public participation. Consequently, by means of example, if a public body does not want to answer questions or permit the public to speak or otherwise participate at its meetings, I do not believe that it would be obliged to do so. On the other hand, a public body may choose to answer questions and permit public participation, and many do so. When a public body does permit the public to speak, I believe that it should do so based upon reasonable rules that treat members of the public equally.
From my perspective, any such rules could serve as a basis for preventing verbal interruptions, shouting or other outbursts, as well as slanderous or obscene language or signs; similarly, I believe that the Board could regulate movement on the part of those carrying signs or posters so as not to interfere with meetings or prevent those in attendance from observing or hearing the deliberative process.
A public body's rules pertaining to public participation typically indicate when, during a meeting (i.e., at the beginning or end of a meeting, for a limited period of time before or after an agenda item or other matter is discussed by a public body, etc.). Most rules also limit the amount of time during which a member of the body may speak (i.e., no more than three minutes).
If you choose to adopt the kinds of rules described above, it is suggested that they be read or distributed to those in attendance at meeting. If the rules are not heeded, it is suggested that you contact a local law enforcement agency. Often the presence or possibility of the presence of an officer will encourage decorum. If a person continues to interrupt, I believe that you could ask the officer to remove the person or persons from the meeting.
I hope that I have been of assistance.
Robert J. Freeman