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Norwell

Town leaders drafting public meeting conduct policy

Please mind your P’s and Q’s, Norwell leaders are asking of townsfolk attending local public meetings.

Board of Selectmen chairwoman Ellen Allen says she doesn’t like what she’s been seeing — or, more specifically, hearing — lately, so she and others on the board are drafting a code of conduct policy outlining proper etiquette during public meetings, similar to what was approved by selectmen in the town of Kingston recently.

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“Over the past couple of months, I’ve seen people before committees and on committees speak to others in a way that is not appropriate,” Allen said in an interview. “We understand that some people feel strongly and get emotional about issues, but they need to keep it civil and professional.”

Allen said there wasn’t a specific incident that triggered the board’s action, but rather an ongoing lack of respect some individuals have displayed. She said that once the policy is approved, selectmen will share it with committees and boards that report to them and expect them to adopt it.

While acting in a civil manner should be a matter of common sense, Allen said that is simply not the case. “What I have been seeing more and more recently is people getting angry and sometimes nasty,” she said.

And Norwell isn’t alone in the mind-your-manners reminder department.

Kingston is on the verge of adopting what will be called a “Code of Civility,” approved in concept at a selectmen’s meeting on Oct. 22 and expected to be officially adopted at the board’s meeting on Nov. 5, said Kingston Town Administrator Robert Fennessy.

“We want to put town employees and people who attend town meetings on notice that this is what’s expected of them,” said Fennessy. “It’s important that everyone treats each other with respect, professional behavior, and civil speech.”

In Middleborough, many people wanted to go further, with Town Meeting voting in June 2012 to enforce a hardly-ever-used 1968 bylaw against swearing in public. The swearing bylaw, as it became known, was initiated in large part because of loud, inappropriate language by youths congregated in the town’s central business area.

But Selectman Ben Quelle said recently he does not think it will be used often.

“It would be scrutinized very closely if it was,” he said. “It can only be enforced if a law enforcement officer saw it, and usually it would be attached to something else where there were other charges involved.”

After Town Meeting approved enforcing the old ordinance and several others having to do with public behavior, the measure came under scrutiny by the state attorney general’s office. Emalie Gainey, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Martha Coakley, said some of the language in the antiquated bylaws needed to be altered or repealed, as they would not hold up in court.

In Norwell, some point out that there is already a municipal handbook that contains a section addressing appropriate behavior for appointed and elected board, commission, and committee members. But Allen said that adopting a separate civil conduct code will give everyone something in writing to which they can refer should conflicts arise.

“I’m hoping we won’t need it, but if we do, it’s there,” she said. She said there will be no penalties or sanctions as part of the policy, expected to be drafted in the next couple of weeks.

Not everyone is pleased about the new policy being devised. Resident Marie Molla, 72, a retired payroll and benefits manager, said she believes there’s more to the initiative than meets the eye.

“There is already a handbook for conduct that I worked on with the town administrator and updated fairly recently,” she said. “There doesn’t need to be a separate one for the Board of Selectmen and the groups they oversee.”

Molla, who has volunteered on town projects, told selectmen at a recent meeting that they should focus on more important matters, such as making appointments to fill vacancies on town boards, rather than creating another layer of bureaucracy that she said could discourage residents from volunteering on local boards and committees.

“Differences of opinion are OK,” Molla said in an interview. “What they are doing here is trying to get all bobble-heads to apply for volunteer positions . . . ‘yes’ people who don’t have their own opinions but who will go along with whatever position selectmen hold.”

Molla told selectmen that recent board discussions on this topic have focused on “how to remove someone from a board, commission, or committee if you, as individuals of this board or as a whole, don’t like how and what they say at their meetings or what they say when attending another meeting.”

“Your mission is how to remove them because what they say and the manner [in which they say it] doesn’t agree with your opinion,” she said.

Allen said that is not the case.

“This is not a mechanism to take people off boards. There are no other motives or agendas,” she said. “We would sincerely like to see discussions be more civil.”

Allen said the handbook to which Molla referred is more a synopsis of state ethics and Open Meeting laws.

“This is going to be very brief and on point. It’s not about what people say, it’s how they say it,” she said. “Many people have come up to me and told me that they’re really glad we’re doing this.”

Juliet Pennington can be reached at writeonjuliet@comcast.net.

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