Public Forum Discussion Ends With Two Councilors Walking Out

The June 9 Town Council meeting ended in discord, despite recent pleas for civility from Chairman Michael Fairbanks. Councilors Brad Benson and Neil Wetherbee left the meeting before it was adjourned, after Benson’s motion to adjourn was not voted on.

Tensions did not surface until the “open discussion” portion of the meeting, at the end, when Councilor Mark Osborne brought up the concept of public forums. The Council has had several discussions this year on whether or not to respond immediately to the citizens who bring their concerns to the microphone.

Osborne’s theory is that everyone deserves a voice. “When we at the dais are uncomfortable with what’s being said, we don’t have the right to interfere,” he said. “If it’s not violent or profane, we should take our lumps.”

Osborne, an attorney, said he’d had experiences in court where he would ask a question, and the judge would say, “Sorry, Mr. Osborne, now you’ve opened a door.” Osborne advocated for a direct response to the speakers. “I promise I’ll make eye contact with them, and if I agree or disagree, I will look at them,” he said. “I won’t wait till they take their seat, or till they leave the room.”

He concluded, “We are not inviting the dialogue that a ‘public forum’ asks for.”
The philosophy behind “public forum” became the topic, with Wetherbee saying, “The issues are to be decided by the seven of us. The seven members of the board set the policies.”
Personally, Wetherbee said, he hasn’t seen a lot of productive discussion coming from the public forums.

Councilor Al Dimmock, who often spoke at public forum before he was elected to the Council, disagreed. The decisions should be made by the majority of the people, he said, adding, “And if you’re in the minority, too bad.”

Wetherbee also told Osborne, “This is not a courtroom.” Osborne said he had been doing research on what’s allowed in a public forum. There are two recent cases that have equal weight in the legal community, he said. In one case it was decided that the Town Council had the right to step in and interfere or stop the content of a speech; in the other, it does not. He leans toward the latter, he said, adding, “I don’t want us to be accused of trying to shut down the First Amendment.”

But Councilor Brad Benson had a different philosophy of the Council and public participation. “This is a business meeting,” he said. “It’s not a public meeting. We let them speak at our discretion.” Benson didn’t have a high opinion of some of the content, noting, “People do not tell the truth – it’s what they interpret it to be. Once it’s out there, people believe it.” That hurts the community and the Council’s credibility, he said.

Also, he said, the guests at the microphone are usually the same five, six or eight people.
Benson summed up, “I believe this is our business meeting. People can bring issues to the Council that they need to get resolved.”

Dimmock said, “This is town business. The people have a right to speak.” When Benson called for a motion to adjourn, Dimmock said, “You said what you had to say. You have no right to shut me up.”
Fairbanks tried to calm them, saying several times, “That’s enough.” “You don’t need to shout and point fingers,” Benson said.

Dimmock responded, “You’re not the man you think you are.” “That’s a real educated and mature statement,” Benson said before leaving with Wetherbee. Osborne made a second motion to adjourn, and Tom Cardon seconded it. The remaining Councilors voted unanimously to adjourn. “I was surprised,” Osborne said in a phone interview after the meeting.

He said he was first surprised at the reaction to his proposal. Councilors need tough skins, he said, noting, “We can’t say something and be shocked when someone has the gall to get up and respond.” Osborne said he had been researching the issue and learned that, “Once you agree to have a public forum, you cannot control the content.”

But he was shocked at how quickly the meeting went downhill. Osborne said when Benson and Wetherbee left, “It occurred to me that they were strangers to the way to behave in a professional setting.” To Wetherbee’s charge that “this is not a court of law,” Osborne observed that “A judge would have held them in contempt for the way they behaved.”

But Wetherbee contended that he and Benson were treated rudely. In a phone interview he said, “Brad made the motion to adjourn, and I seconded it. The chairman did not acknowledge it.”
In his opinion, Wetherbee said, “Al Dimmock was making what I considered threatening statements. I felt threatened.”

Combined with Benson’s motion being ignored, Wetherbee said, “I decided it was time to go.”
Wetherbee has been on the Council for six years, he said, and this is the first time he’s walked out of a meeting.

For his part, Dimmock said he felt like he was being silenced. “You don’t tell me to shut up,” he said in a phone interview after the meeting. “Legally, I have the right to speak.”
Benson did not return calls for comment.