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Russell policy on public comment aimed at park district commission

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Posted: Wednesday, August 24, 2016 11:45 pm

RUSSELL – Township Trustees approved a resolution last week stating that all public bodies using the Town Hall must agree to permit public comments at their meetings.

The addendum to the policy for use of township property comes after comments from the public were not permitted at recent meetings held by Russell Park District Commissioners at Town Hall.

 The policy passed by trustees on Aug. 17 covers all public bodies using any township facilities that are paid for by taxpayers. All other groups are exempt.

The resolution adopted by trustees notes that they wish to acknowledge and reinforce the rights and desires of residents to increase transparency, improve communication and permit public input when conducting sessions.

Any and all public bodies wishing to use township property for meetings “shall understand, agree to and must conform with the Ohio Sunshine laws,” according to the resolution.

The resolution also states, “Any and all public bodies wishing to use township property for meetings shall offer and afford the attending persons (the public) the ability to offer comments, ask questions, or provide recommendations in a peaceful, respectful manner.” The comments may be limited in duration.

“The township facilities are owned by residents and public comment should be permitted,” Trustee Justin Madden said.  If they do not wish to allow public comments, they can then use other facilities in the township, not owned by Russell, he added.

Mr. Madden said he wanted the park commissioners to return the keys to Town Hall if they do not agree to the new policy.

Park Commissioner Charlie Butters who was present at the trustees Aug. 17 meeting noted that after the last commissioners meeting, he made mention to Commissioner Linda O’Brien that public comment should be permitted at future meetings.

 Mr. Madden said he does not believe the commissioners discussed allowing public comments or made a formal decision on the matter.

“People have complained that they have gone to the park commissioners’ meetings and have not been allowed to speak,” Mr. Madden said. “People are angry and we have forced the issue.”

Park commissioners won’t be permitted to use township facilities until they agree to the new policy in writing, Russell officials said.

“We believe our Town Hall should be a citadel of speech and open communications,” Trustee Jim Mueller said.

Russell Fiscal Officer Chuck Walder said he wondered when the park commission members met after the last meeting and whether there was a vote. That would be a violation of the Ohio Sunshine law, he said. An emergency meeting should have been called to discuss the issue.

If they did, he added, “they didn’t sunshine it and didn’t do it in a public session.”

He hasn’t seen any meeting minutes addressing the issues of allowing open communications at park commission meetings.

To deny people the ability to speak is not right, he said. “We’ve passed that point,” Mr. Walder said. Since the 1990s, there has been a huge initiative to promote public comment.

He noted that several residents who have attended the park commission meetings have voiced complaints about not being permitted to express their concerns and comments.  They are in taxpayer supported buildings and have the right to speak, Mr. Walder said.

Resident Barbara Berkeley has been a regular at the park commission meetings, urging, along with others, the purchase of the Modroo Farm property for a park. “I’m grateful the township trustees see the importance of public comment,” she said. “And one of the prime ways is by attending meetings and speaking directly to them.”

Mr. Butters said he had mentioned to Mrs. O’Brien as they left their last meeting that public comment should be permitted, “And we will have it.

“It’s a decision on the part of the park commission,” Mr. Butters said. “Legally, we don’t have to allow public comment, but I think that’s wrong. I’m all for as many public comments as possible. I think dialogue is good.”

There will be public comment at the park commission’s next meeting on Sept. 11, Mr. Butters said. “I will continue to voice that there is a public comment section in the meeting. I strongly support it.”

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