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Hidy under fire for limiting public comment

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MASSENA - Mayor James F. Hidy has come under fire again for the limitations he puts on the public comment period at village Board of Trustees meetings.

Massena resident and former County Legislator R. Shawn Gray raised concern about the policy at this week’s meeting after Mr. Hidy told former Town Supervisor Duane Hazelton the public comment period was not designed for addressing questions to the board.

Mr. Gray said feels Mr. Hidy’s rules on public comment discourage residents from attending the board meetings and from voicing their opinions. “People feel there’s no sense coming to the meetings if they can’t express their opinion,” Mr. Gray said. “There are usually only three or four people in attendance. People have questions about what’s going on, and I don’t see why (Mr. Hidy) won’t let people ask questions.”

Mr. Gray also accused Mr. Hidy of stifling opinions he doesn’t agree with, by limiting the speaking time of those who criticize him and allowing more time to those whose positions he agrees with. “If they disagree with (Mr. Hidy) they’re usually cut off,” Mr. Gray said. “People are very concerned. People are making choices between (buying) food and medicine, and when people come to address those issues, they shouldn’t be stymied from doing that.”

He had questioned the mayor about telling Mr. Hazelton he couldn’t ask the board a question and then allowing the next speaker during the public comment session to ask a question.

Mr. Hidy maintained that his limitations on public comment - including limiting individuals to five minutes and barring questions from being asked directly to the board - are needed to keep order and allow the meetings to run smooth and efficiently.

“We give every citizen the right to comment on any village matter. This procedure is implemented to keep the meeting moving in a timely fashion, and is not designed to single out any village board member or employee,” Mr. Hidy said.

“The meetings are not a debate period.”

Mr. Hidy also encouraged Mr. Gray to send a letter or email voicing his grievances or to stop into the mayor’s office directly. He feels the board of trustees meetings are not the right forum for Mr. Gray to share his questions and concerns on village policies. “We have some residents that feel the need to use this time as their own personal or political pulpit, but that’s not the intent of this comment session.”

Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said Mr. Hidy is not obligated to allow questions, nor is he obligated to even allow public comment in the meetings at all. Mr. Freeman said the open meetings law guarantees citizens the right to sit in on government meetings, and that it’s encouraged for municipal boards to allow some public comment, though with reasonable limitations to maintain order.

Mr. Gray, a former chairman of the St. Lawrence County Legislature, said Mr. Hidy’s handling of the public comment session differs from the other boards he has seen in action during his three decades of public service.

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