Glen Cove Mayor Reginald Spinello is proposing limits on public comments at City Council meetings, to better control sometimes raucous sessions sprinkled with personal attacks.
Opponents say the move would undermine residents’ free-speech rights.
Raised voices from speakers, cheers and boos from audience members and sharp exchanges among speakers and elected officials have been regular features at council meetings, which sometimes last for several hours, with public comments taking up most of the time.
“Meetings have become unruly, and we’re trying to restore order,” Spinello said.
The mayor and city attorney Charles McQuair presented possible rules of decorum at the Dec. 15 pre-council meeting. They include a 3-minute time limit on comments, unless the mayor or presiding officer extends the time, and restricting comments to city business.
Spinello, who in May suggested similar limitations, said they are only “items for discussion” for members for the new City Council to consider after they take office Jan. 1.
The two newly elected council members, Nicholas DiLeo Jr. and Roderick Watson, each declined to comment at length until a detailed written proposal is released.
“I support some time limit,” Watson said.
Mayoral critic Philip Pidot, an unsuccessful council candidate on Nov. 3, agreed some meetings are unruly. But limiting residents’ speech is worse than enduring some disruptions, he said. “Democracy is messy sometimes,” he said.
Pidot said he was particularly concerned about proposals to allow the mayor to decide when residents can speak longer than three minutes and which issues are city business.
“That gives the mayor very broad discretionary power to squelch dissenting opinion,” he said.
But Spinello said long, sometimes rancorous diatribes that push meetings well into the night may deter some residents from speaking. “Some people get turned off and don’t even want to come because people are hogging the mic,” he said.
A number of municipalities across Long Island have time limits, typically three or five minutes.
The Town of Smithtown and Village of Asharoken recently adopted 3-minute time limits and other rules after complaints about disorderly meetings. Other jurisdictions, such as the Town of Huntington, have had time limits on the books for years.
Some municipalities, such as the Town of Oyster Bay, which borders Glen Cove, have no limits, although Supervisor John Venditto has raised the possibility of imposing them.
Glen Cove Councilman Joseph Capobianco supports new guidelines but opposes a specific time limit, instead preferring a term such as “reasonable time” and allowing the mayor to decide what is reasonable.
Resident Grace Slezak, who often speaks at council meetings, said the mayor should not determine what people speak about or for how long, because that lets him cut off his critics.
“There are certain topics that can be taken care of in a 3-minute period of time,” she said. “But there are topics of such depth and that involve such complicated issues that you definitely need much more than three minutes.”