Whether the public can comment on an agenda item at a village meeting has sparked heated exchanges between the Great Neck Village Board of Trustees and residents over the mayor’s decision to bar discussion after a development plan was presented at a December meeting.
A group of residents who regularly attend board meetings criticized Mayor Pedram Bral for not allowing the public to comment Dec. 17 on a developer’s proposal to build a four-story mixed-use building with retail stores and 25 apartments at 733 Middle Neck Rd.
A few critics equated the mayor’s action to imposing a “gag order.” Bral has called such characterization “ridiculous” misinformation aimed at vilifying the board and sowing discord in the community.
“If people come to the meeting and they can add something, then you should listen to them,” David Zielenziger, a longtime resident, said in a phone interview. "Sometimes we know things they don’t.”
Critics also said the process is unfair when elected officials shut down public discourse on a potential development project that could have real impact on their lives.
“We can’t have any input on this [project] that’s going to affect us?” Jean Pierce, a resident and regular at village meetings, asked the board in December. “It’s not right.”
Unless it’s a public hearing, local municipalities typically are not required to hear public comments during board meetings, though many choose to allow it, including the Village of Great Neck.
Given that the application is incomplete and subject to changes, officials said a comment period was barred for the sake of time and fairness to others who were waiting for their item to be called.
“We did not want to just continue discussing something that may be dead in the water,” Bral said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a waste of the board's time, and it's a waste of the time of the people that are already on the agenda.”
Opponents disagreed, calling it a lost opportunity when officials declined to hear community input that could lend residents’ institutional knowledge to help the board make decisions.
“When we stand up here, we offer to you the things you didn’t think of,” Rebecca Rosenblatt Gilliar, who ran against Bral in 2017, told him, the deputy mayor and the three trustees last month. “The five of you do not constitute the entire brain power of this village. And you are not treating the rest of us as if we are assets.”
Village officials said attendees can speak at the end of a meeting on any item during a scheduled comment period, though critics said some attendees couldn’t stay that late. Meetings in Great Neck Village tend to run long, at times not ending until midnight or later. By that time, the applicant might have left as well.
Trustee Anne Mendelson said in an interview this week that the board needs to establish order to run a meeting.
“It’s a matter of protocol,” Mendelson said, noting the board has an agenda to go through and other people are waiting to speak as well. “We want to be fair to everybody.”
THEY SAID, THEY SAID
- Officials said the village policy is that residents can ask questions following the presentation of an agenda item. But when it comes to proposals that need major revisions, the public can comment at the end of the meeting.
- Critics said such practice inhibits public engagement, which prevents the village board from benefiting from the institutional knowledge of longtime residents and addressing the concerns of the community early in the process.