My Point and Some Counterpoint in the Tri-Town Today

A gentleman by the name of Jorge Mesa-Tejada from Hampstead wrote a letter to the editor in the Tri-Town stating that people who feel they have a right to comment at public meetings have “a runaway sense of entitlement,” given that the state laws regulating public meetings do not require chairmen to open most meetings to public comment. He had obviously read my letter posted here before it appeared in the paper, which is rather gratifying.

I would like to see the SAU board by-laws, which do not seem to be publicly available, to see if conducting meetings is among the items addressed. In any event, Mr. Mesa-Tejada is legally correct but completely missing the point.

“Can” does not mean “should.” The law may allow the limitation of public comment and non-public meetings, but this doesn’t mean this is the way meetings should be conducted — or have been in the history of our state. The person with the runaway sense of entitlement is the chairman who is using his authority to thwart uncomfortable public comment and scrutiny. I worry that the high-handedness it reveals will lead to worse behavior to come.

I’ll put a link to the letters when they are available from the paper’s website next week.

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1 Comment

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One response to “My Point and Some Counterpoint in the Tri-Town Today

  1. Jorge Mesa-Tejada

    Donna,

    1. I wrote my letter on June 14th to address the acrimonious testimony at the Hampstead School Board meeting on June 12th. It had nothing to do with your letter, which I had not seen. That they appeared in the same edition was pure coincidence, although I got a chuckle when I saw the publication sequence.

    2. The SAU Policies (By-laws) that you seek can be found here https://public.timberlane.net/sau/board/SAU%20Policies/Forms/AllItems.aspx

    3. Your visceral aversion to the limitations on public participation at meetings does not change or nullify the requirements of RSA91-A. In fact, they are binding on all public officials as part of their oath of office–you know, that pesty part about “…and the laws of the state of New Hampshire, so help me God.” (NH Const. Part 2nd, Art. 84; and RSA 42.)

    4. Please quote me correctly. Nowhere in my letter did I say “a runaway sense of entitlement.” Those are your words.

    See for yourself. This is the text of my letter:

    To the editor,

    Most people believe that the public is absolutely entitled to speak and participate at public meetings, period. Otherwise, they claim infringement of their First Amendment’s right to free speech.

    That pervasive misconception runs counter to the provisions of RSA91-A, the Right-to-Know law.

    RSA91-A:2,II prescribes that any legally convened public meeting “…shall be open to the public, and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meetings of those bodies or agencies.”

    Notice that the privilege is just to “attend” any meeting. There is no mention of the right to speak in that provision or elsewhere.

    Thus, while the law mandates that the meeting be held in public, the meeting is not a public meeting.

    This apparent contradiction of terms is what gives the presiding officer, and/or the members of the entity holding the meeting, the authority to set limits and conditions on any testimony offered during the meeting.

    The limitations are clearly explained on page 11 of the NH Attorney General’s Right-to-Know Memorandum, http://doj.nh.gov/civil/documents/right-to-know.pdf

    “D. Meeting Procedures
    Meetings of public bodies subject to the Right-to-Know law are open to the public unless the body is authorized to hold a non-public session. RSA 91-A:2. Any person may attend an open meeting. The public’s right to attend a meeting established by the Right-to-Know law does not convey a right to speak or participate. Other laws may require that the public be afforded a regulated opportunity to speak at public hearings or certain other meetings of public bodies. Many public bodies voluntarily establish appropriate regulated public comment periods at some meetings; however, this is not required by the Right-to-Know law.”

    The key phrases are“…Right-to-Know law does not convey a right to speak or participate…” and “…Many public bodies voluntarily establish appropriate regulated public comment periods.”

    These restrictions are the antithesis of the radical entitlement mentality that is sweeping the country, exemplified by the Occupy Whatever movements and other similar initiatives that justify any actions under the mantra of exercising Free Speech rights, social justice, etc.

    Reality is that society has to operate under a set of common laws, binding on everyone, to insure orderly peace, prosperity and the pursuit of happiness for all.
    .
    Therefore, when you feel aggrieved and violated by public officials because you were not allowed to participate or were held to time limits, do not fret but understand that the restrictions were based on rules designed to produce shorter, meaningful, respectful meetings and limit your complaints to wishing it were otherwise.

    Above all, recognize and accept that the public officials acted precisely within their authority and their restrictions were entirely lawful.

    Jorge Mesa-Tejada
    Hampstead

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