Proposed APA comment policy changes draw criticism
Public invited to weigh in; board members split on proposed changes
A version of this story was first published by AdirondackExplorer.org.
The Adirondack Park Agency may scrap its public comments at the start of meetings and shorten the time required to review proposed policies. The agency is seeking feedback on these notions through April 21.
The proposals created division among APA commissioners earlier this month. Some questioned whether they discouraged public participation, while others thought the changes better streamlined the monthly meetings.
The first proposed revision is to the Policy and Guidance System, a set of rules for developing or revising policies. To edit or create a new policy, commissioners must consider the action over three monthly board meetings. APA attorneys are proposing to remove that time clock.
Proposed revisions to the comment policy include ending public comments at the start of a monthly meeting and pushing the public’s time toward the end for a total of 20 minutes. Commenters will be limited to three minutes each. No commenter may give their time to another.
The agency is also proposing a deadline of three business days for considering any written comments prior to its monthly meetings.
The agency originally denied the public from speaking on “any permit which is before the agency for action at the meeting in question,” about “any enforcement case which is before the agency for action at the meeting in question,” or about “any matter for which an adjudicatory public hearing has been convened.” Those stipulations have been removed from the draft policy.
APA Counsel Chris Cooper said if the public comment period is moved to the end of the meeting, there would no longer be a worry about the public bringing up ex parte issues where an applicant or respondent did not have the chance to address the comments.
Environmental advocates protested the comment policy changes during the APA’s March 16 meeting.
David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said comments made at the top of the APA’s meetings are better remembered and received than at the end, when commissioners have had a full day.
“I didn’t find the argument that public comment would interfere with the agency very compelling,” Gibson said. “I think the chair is very capable of cutting off public comments.”
Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, said he dislikes the proposed new deadline for comment submissions. When the agenda and meeting packets are released on Thursday, it gives the public Friday and the weekend to review and submit comments. Bauer said the change would be a “hardship” and if the agency was going to impose such a deadline that it should publish its agenda and packet sooner.
Originally, APA counsel had suggested the board vote on the changes without a public comment period. But after several minutes of discussion where commissioners aired confusion over some of the language in the policies, they voted unanimously to set a 30-day public comment period on proposed changes.
“If I don’t understand it, how does the public understand it?” said Commissioner Benita Law-Diao.
Cooper said he would provide more definitions and show them on the APA’s website.
Commissioner Art Lussi said he disagreed with Gibson’s concerns and that public comments made at the beginning of meetings “totally disrupt the entire meeting schedule.” The APA used to have two-day meetings, and Lussi said he hoped that the agency would go back to that.
“I think it’s much more respectful to a board to have these comments at the end of the meeting, and I think we certainly have always taken them seriously and to heart,” Lussi said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to have comments again, where you have two, to six, to 10 presenters, and then all of a sudden we have our regular presenters an hour later. … That’s not professional as an organization, and that’s not professional as human beings.”
Chairman John Ernst said he had never seen a meeting disrupted with “an inordinate number of commenters.”
Commissioner Zoe Smith said she would vote to keep the comment period at the start of the meeting. She thought the comment period was important for public access to the board. She thought pushing it to the end of the day would make the agency less accessible.
“I see it more as a respect for the public and allowing them to have access to the board members,” Smith said. Law-Diao agreed.
Executive Director Barbara Rice said there were occasions where meetings went off-schedule and there was more flexibility in having comments at the end of meetings. Rice also felt more people may be able to make the comment period at the end of meetings rather than at the beginning, because it would be closer to the end of a traditional work day.
Commissioners also discussed the issue of ex parte comments about projects up for a vote during the board’s meeting. Commissioner Mark Hall said there were times working on the town of Fine’s board that he regretted a vote he cast after hearing public comments later in a meeting.
“It’s very hard to go back and correct something,” Hall said. “I think we have some extremely intelligent people sitting at the table, but we don’t think of everything.”
Cooper said he agreed about the importance of comments. Public comments made before a vote, however, denies the applicant the ability to respond, he said.