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Community Board 12 Considers Limiting Number of Public Speakers at Meetings

By Lindsay Armstrong | June 12, 2015 10:32am | Updated on June 15, 2015 9:02am
 George Fernandez addresses Community Board 12 in 2011.
George Fernandez addresses Community Board 12 in 2011.
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DNAinfo/Victoria Bekiempis

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — After a marathon May meeting that went until almost 1 a.m., Community Board 12’s executive committee is considering changes to the format of its full board meetings, including limiting the number of people who can speak during the public session.

Under the current procedure, members of the public are allowed to sign up to speak between 7 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Individuals are each allotted three minutes to speak, while groups are given five minutes.

The public session generally follows reports by the board’s chair, the district leader and a report from a Manhattan Borough President representative. It is the only time of the meeting when members of the public are allowed to speak.

During last month's full board meeting, at least 17 people spoke during the public session.

On Tuesday, the board's executive committee discussed ways to streamline the meetings, according to members of the board and the public.

Community Board 12 chair George Fernandez assured that the public session would never be eliminated, and that he's only suggesting that the number of speakers be limited.

“Are we not including the public session? Of course not,” he said. “People come to make announcements and discuss quality of life issues. But the general meeting is not just for the public… it’s for the board to discuss its business and pass resolutions.”

Fernandez said that some other boards already limit the number of speakers allowed per public session.

According to a guide produced by the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, there must be a public session at every public meeting a community board holds. However, the rules do not specify how much time must be allotted for the session.

The proposal is in preliminary discussions and the board is looking to streamline other parts of the meeting as well, Fernandez said.

“I am taking a closer look at how we run our meetings, how we process our business, what is acceptable and unacceptable,” he said.

For instance, the board may move reports from committee chairs to an earlier point in the meeting because these reports are rushed when they come at the end of the meeting, he said.

They are also considering working with people like the City Council’s sergeant-at-arms, who would help keep order during the meetings and retrieve council members for sessions when needed, among other duties.

Sara Fisher, an Inwood resident and community activist who attended the executive meeting, said she was opposed to limiting the number of people who can make a public comment.

“In a democratic process, especially one where part of the population is already alienated [because meetings are run in English] they should be encouraging more participation, not less” Fisher said.

But Fisher was not opposed to the idea of reducing the amount of time per speaker in order to make the meetings more efficient.

“To me, I can say in two minutes what [I'd] say in three minutes, if time’s a real concern,” she said.

Fernandez said the board would consider that option.

“We still want to continue working with the community,” he said. “But we need to find a way to run a tighter ship for the general board meeting.”