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New policy regulates public comment at MFPD meetings


July 13, 2005 - The Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Direc-tors has a new open meeting policy regulating who can speak and when and how they can comment.

The new policy places public comments near the end of board meetings and speakers must fill out a speaker's card and present it to the board chairman before the meeting begins. Speakers will be allowed three minutes to comment. Questions must be submitted in writing, and employees cannot comment during the meeting, but must submit questions and comments to the board through the chain of command.

Board Chairman Aaron Hilmer introduced the proposal at the July 5 meeting and the board adopted the new policy, 2-0. Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. was absent.

Hilmer said he formulated the policy after the board's June 20 meeting that was interrupted several times by people who yelled at the board or requested to speak. The room often broke out in applause after anyone spoke in opposition to changes to the district's disability plan or the board's recent actions. During the public comment section of that meeting several speakers personally attacked board members.

Hilmer told the Call he introduced the policy "to put an end to the barbarous and juvenile behavior exhibited by the crowd at the previous meeting."

After the new open meeting policy was approved July 5, the room broke out in laughter. No one interrupted the meeting by trying to comment after that, but the room broke out in applause twice with people yelling at the board, after Chief Jim Silvernail's report and comments by Chris Francis, president of Local 1889 of the International Association Fire Fighters. But when the board reached the public comment period on the agenda, Hilmer announced no speakers would be heard because the audience did not follow the new policy, which does not allow outbursts.

"It was based on the failure of the audience to not follow the open meeting rules we've instituted. They lost the privilege of open comment," Hilmer said. "You have to have proper decorum to attend these meetings. This is a meeting for the public to watch the government in action, not a meeting for the public to come and yell around."

After board adjourned and left the room for a closed session, most of those in attendance stayed and spoke out in anger against the new policy, essentially continuing the public comment period without the board members.

"They keep talking about representing the taxpayers but part of representing the taxpayer is that you listen to input from the taxpayers, you may not agree with us, but you at least listen to input from the people who elected you," said Mary McGinnis of Oakville.

No law exists in Missouri that requires fire protection district boards or any governmental entity to provide for public comment at meetings. Governmental entities also are not required to respond to written comments or questions, unless they come in the form of a Sunshine Law request for information or open records.

The new open meeting policy states that questions must be submitted in writing to the district and they will be answered within 72 hours.

Hilmer, however, said this guideline is in reference the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law. Under the law, people may request copies of public documents and public meeting records, which are provided by the custodian of records.

Hilmer said that when letters requesting information are sent to the district, it is the district's clerk responsibility as the custodian of records to provide the requested information. If the letter pertains to board members, then the district clerk may show the letter to board members, but the district clerk would reply to the letter.

"We're not going to answer ambiguous questions," he said. "... It does not cover personal remarks at the directors."

Under the Sunshine Law, a request for public records should be acted on as soon as possible, but no later than the third business day following the day the request was received by the custodian of records.

If access to a public record is not granted within that time frame for reasonable cause, the custodian must give an explanation for the delay and provide a date when the records will be made available.

If a request is denied, the custodian of records must provide, upon request, a written statement of the grounds for the denial within that three-business-day period.

Under the new policy, those who wish to address the board must fill out a speaker's comment at the beginning of the meeting, listing the topic they will discuss. Topics must be related to the fire district and no personal remarks may be made to the board. The cards will be filed and become public record.

"We're going to have comment cards up at the table. They can get them from me. They have to submit them back to me before the meeting, and that way if a person wants to make a comment, they could write: 'I want to make a comment on your drug policy.' This way they just can't stand up and start blathering about whatever," Hilmer said.

The policy also states that employees of the district cannot make comments at the board meetings, but must submit questions and comments to the board through their chain of command. Any employee who does not follow the policy will be expelled from the meeting.

Francis said the policy is unfair to employees and inefficient because any comment would have to go through a long chain of command before reaching the board.

"I don't see how they can keep any employees, especially if they are residents of the district, from speaking, especially at the open forum," Francis said.

The district also has asked St. Louis County Police De-partment officers to help maintain order and safety at the meetings. The policy states that the police will be notified if the policy is ignored.

The next board meeting will be at 7 p.m. Monday, July 18, at the district's training facility, 11020 Mueller Road.

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