September 25, 2013 —
The “Town Law Manual” published by the New York State Association of Towns states: “When a town board member votes on a proposal before a town board, he or she is representing, through that vote, the views of all of the residents of the town. Thus, a high personal responsibility rests on individual town board members. It requires that they exercise careful consideration in making important decisions which will affect the lives of town residents and businesses.”
Over the past several years, controversial issues have dramatically illustrated that the town’s various boards have not always represented “…the views of all of the residents of the town.” Because serious communications problems have occasionally occurred between the board and its constituents, I offer some suggestions to make it easier for board members to represent all of their constituents accurately and fairly.
First, let me give you an example of one of the barriers to effective communication between the board and the average citizen: when trying to communicate with my representatives on the town board, I’ve found it awkward because there is no set time or place to meet with a representative. Because I respect your right to privacy, I am not comfortable knocking on your door, or phoning you at home in the evening, or leaving an email in your personal inbox. I once interrupted a private phone conversation between a board member and his wife, and felt like I was intruding. I could be wrong, but I imagine that you don’t appreciate it when a constituent pulls into your driveway, or calls you at home, or sends an email to your private e-mail address.
I suppose I could send you a letter, submit a letter to the editor like this one, sign a petition, or even speak out during public comment period at one of your meetings, but I’ve tried all these and my letters or comments have generally been ignored or not answered.
So, how could you improve this situation? Here are two easy solutions:
1) First, provide email addresses for individual board members (Planning Board Chairperson).
a) The system should include a “read receipt” feature to indicate that the message was received.
b) The system should automatically indicate when the recipient is unavailable and forward the message to the town clerk or an alternate board member.
2) Second, establish office hours for board members to be available to meet with constituents at the town hall.
a) Perhaps two board members could be available for an hour or two every week on a rotating basis, which would yield the following benefits:
i) Citizens who otherwise would be unable to visit town hall during regular hours, would be able to confer with their representatives at an appropriate time and place.
ii) During quiet periods, the pairs of representatives could discuss town business in compliance with the State Open Meetings Law (which prohibits more than two board members from discussing town business privately).
Communications between the board and its constituents could also be improved by changes to the town’s website:
1) Include a Supervisor’s Message describing current and future board matters and concerns, and soliciting comments and suggestions from the town’s stakeholders.
2) Add a public electronic forum where any stakeholder (i.e. resident, taxpayer, landowner, registered voter, or business owner) can express concerns or opinions regarding any town issue; to avoid abuse, anyone posting to this site would have to sign on using their true identity (no screen names or anonymous posts).
3) Add a link to the video recordings of town meetings that are now available for viewing at youtube.com/community film watch.
[Steve Lundgren is a resident of Hortonville, NY.]