Letters spur new Naples policy

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

NAPLES — Interim Naples Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz did not get winded while reading the three lengthy letters aloud.

However, after he was finished, a selectman asked if he needed a glass of water.

It was the topic of the Bay of Naples Inn cupola that inspired three citizens to sit down at their keyboards and express their desire to see the historical structure saved.

The letters, which became part of public record, prompted the Naples Board of Selectmen to discuss how such letters should be handled in the future.

It was discovered that there is no town policy regarding how letters that are written by citizens who are not present should be treated during the board’s regular meeting.

Certainly, letters — which citizens have requested to have read as part of public participation — will be acknowledged and made part of public record.

In particular, letters that address an agenda item will be made part of that night’s meeting.

On Monday, after some discussion, the board decided to: 1.) summarize the content of similar letters rather than reading them in their entirety, 2.) make available to the public copies of the letters before and after the meetings, 3.) limit the length of the letters to a word count that equals three minutes of speaking, and 4.) pass the letters on to the appropriate committees or boards.

Berkowitz said he would draft a public participation letter policy and send the draft to the selectmen for their comments and approval. An important aspect of the policy is that it could evolve during the first quarter of the year — something suggested by Chairman Jim Grattelo.

This is how the discussion unfolded.

Selectman Kevin Rogers wanted to uphold this form of communication with residents while Chairman Grattelo expressed concerns about a number of letters becoming part of public participation.

Grattelo said it was the first time to his knowledge that during a selectmen’s meeting, three letters were read by someone who had not authored them. He said if there were more than three letters, the board would have to take turns reading them.

“Everyone should be entitled to have their voice heard even if they cannot make it,” Rogers said.

Turpin backed Rogers’ point of view.

“I am inclined to agree with Kevin. I don’t see the downside,” Turpin said.

“The only downside is if 20 letters” were asked to be read by citizens, Grattelo said.

Selectman Bob Caron II went along the same lines.

“You cannot get the feedback from a letter if the person isn’t there,” Caron said.

Turpin said, “They have chosen to make a formal communication with the board.”

Berkowitz spoke.

“The question is: The person who comes out and braves the cold is told, ‘You have three minutes.’ The person who writes a letter that may take 10 minutes to read — that becomes a one-way communication. They cannot be challenged,” he said, asking, “How can this be reconciled?”

Grattelo as well as Rich Cebra talked about the one-sidedness of the letter versus in-person public participation.

“If they choose not to show up and someone on this table offers their opposing opinion, they have lost their [chance to respond and interact.] The selectboard will have the last say,” Grattelo said.

Selectman Cebra said it would be all too easy for people to become “keyboard lawyers,” writing long letters to be read instead of filling up seats in the meeting room.

Caron advocated for all methods of citizen participation in local politics.

“We have been encouraging for years for people to come to meetings and speak,” Caron said.

Grattelo commented on Cebra’s remarks.

“There has to be a balance between people coming in here and everyone shooting off letters from home,” he said.

Cebra asked if any topic could be broached in a letter, adding personnel matters are definitely off the table.

Grattelo said he thought any letters read into the record should address agenda items.

Berkowitz said he agreed with Cebra’s earlier comments.

“It is easy to be a keyboard attorney. You may get handwritten letters, too. You may get letters all on the same subject,” he said, suggesting the board compile like letters and paraphrase them for the listening audience.

“In final analysis, when you get to the point [in time] that you are doing strategic planning, hand over the letters to a committee” or when the town updates it Comprehensive Plan, he said.

“These letters are trying to set keystones into the vision of the community,” he said.

“In many elected bodies, they will not challenge the speaker and bring it to another committee. Otherwise, you will spend time doing strategic planning instead of the other judiciary business,” Berkowitz said.

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