Exactly when should the public speak at town meetings? It’s a question that cropped up as newly elected Ocean Ridge commissioners took their places on the dais in April. The immediate answer: the status quo.
Commissioner Zoanne Hennigan noted the audience would like to have public comment at the end of the meeting in addition to the current comment period at the start. The change would give “people the opportunity to ask a question or comment on something we’ve discussed in the meeting,” said Hennigan, who is new to the panel, as is Commissioner Edward Brookes.
The two replaced Terry Brown, who resigned prior to the election, and Betty Bingham.
“We used to have something like this,” said Ken Kaleel, who was re-elected mayor by his peers. “It didn’t end well, that’s why we stopped. Generally speaking, we hear from people as the meeting goes along. In the past, it’s been problematic. It just seems like there are items that never get finished. It becomes more antagonistic than productive.”
Ocean Ridge has set public comment for the beginning of the meeting, but allows spontaneous as well as scheduled public comment throughout the meeting. Other cities and towns have differing procedures.
Delray Beach, for instance, has a set public comment period at 7 p.m. and, later on the agenda, has another period set for public comment on subjects not on the agenda.
Lantana has its public comment period near the end of the meeting, but allows comment throughout the meeting. All have the requisite public hearings scheduled on proposed ordinances.
The public should have a say on issues that commissioners have discussed during the meeting, said resident Mark Hanna, who took the opportunity to comment at length on the issue of shark fishing, which commissioners earlier had tabled to request the possibility of a county-created ordinance. “In the end, there are ideas and possible suggestions that the public be heard on.”
Brookes, however, said, “I think you’re making the whole point of not having comments. You’re making an agenda. There’s a structure in place that if someone wants to get something on the agenda they can.  I can just see these meetings going on for hours.” Brookes added that if Hanna had a comment while commissioners debated shark fishing, he was welcome to raise his hand.
The public comments in the beginning of the meeting often address issues the commissioners are planning to deal with later in the meeting, said Commissioner Lynn Allison. “I think these meetings have tremendous public interaction.”
Commissioners are elected to conduct business at the town meeting, Kaleel said. 
“I feel confident of the abilities of the people up here to make informed decisions,” he said, adding, “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we closed down the
public.”
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