I read with interest your account of Town of North Hempstead's Town Board meeting of Nov. 17. I too was present at that meeting, in my capacity as president of the Highfield Estates Homeowner's Association. I find it increasingly difficult to attend such meetings, however, due to the torturous length of the meetings, and due to the accusations, bitterness and recriminations that pass for public discourse. There has to be a better way to conduct town business.
The meetings start at 7:30 p.m. This gives working individuals a chance to attend and participate. Yet routinely, there are anywhere from 30 to 40 items on the agenda that need to be addressed, some of these items momentous, some not. On many of the items, individuals from the audience want to be heard. This means that meetings typically last five hours or more, as was the case on Nov. 17. How can a civically minded individual last in a meeting from 7:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. (or beyond) after putting in 10-12 hours a day at work? How can the town board be expected to make rational decisions in such an atmosphere? How can people be heard?
I found the Nov. 17 meeting particularly difficult to bear. Many individuals were there to either support or oppose the town's proposed sale of part of the Morewood property to a developer intending to build an ice skating rink. The item did not even come up until well into the evening. And when it did, many of the speakers accused the town of having a secret agenda, surreptitiousy placing this matter on the calendar at the last minute so that others would not have the chance to submit alternate bids. There were many charges and counterchargers. There was almost no discussion of the MERITS of the issue. That is not a good way to conduct the business of the people.
There is plenty of blame to go around. The town board, the press and the public all share in the blame. However, I believe that, by making some minor changes, these three parties can restore civility and rationality to town politics. Here's how:
The Town: I recommend that the town limit speakers to five minutes or less. It is my experience that many of the speakers lose track of their own presentations as they speak. As a result, they end up repeating themselves many times. This not only takes up valuable time, but also does their own cause a disservice, because rambling discourse actually detracts from the point they are trying to make. I respectfully submit that a limit of five minutes per speaker is reasonable. Such a limit would give speakers ample time to make their point, while forcing them to be clear and concise. Such a simple limit would be easily enforced, and would ensure that each and every member of the public would have the opportunity to speak at a reasonable hour.
The Press: Much of the acrimony at the Nov. 17 meeting involved accusations by members of the public that the town had somehow hidden from public scrutiny its negotiations for the sale of a part of the Morewood property to the owners of an ice skating rink. I routinely receive the town board agenda because I am on the town's mailing list. But for those not on the town's mailing list, I propose that the agenda be posted in advance in the newspapers. This will guarantee that interested parties will have actual as well as constructive notice of the items to be discussed. Such a move would go a long way toward dispelling the notion that there is some evil conspiracy lurking around every bureacratic corner. It might also invite greater public trust and participation as well.
Instead, I propose that members of the public wishing to address the town ascribe to the same principles that we strive to impart upon our children; namely, that public speakers can be emphatic without being rude; and that political debate can and should be something more than merely name calling. We would not accept such behavior from our children. Why do we accept it from each other?
Let's keep our focus on the issues, not on each other. Maybe, just maybe, we can restore civility and rationality to our badly divided town.
Daniel D. Donatelli, Esq.