Following another meeting in which the Village’s actions were criticized, some Northfield trustees are voicing support for space in public sessions to respond to residents.
The discussions started at the regular meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 10.
During the meeting, resident Gavin Blunt, who has spoken at public meetings for the past several months, continued to criticize the Village on a number of issues, including his allegations that staff and elected officials are “stonewalling” his Freedom of Information Act requests.
Amid leadership turnover and turmoil this year, the Village has faced regular scrutiny from residents during government meetings. Trustees and Village staff members have traditionally declined to respond to Blunt and other residents. But on Tuesday, following Blunt’s comments, Trustee Barnaby Dinges suggested that the board add a section to its agendas dedicated to responding to what the public has to say.
“I don’t like the public perception that this board is not responsive and it’s not listening; that we don’t have things to say,” Dinges said.
He added that he doesn’t like the idea of the board trying to respond to public comment during the period designated for that purpose.
“I think the concept of everyone here having the chance to talk is obviously and important one,” he said. “And when we get into the back-and-forth, occasionally that doesn’t happen.”
He suggested that the board refer to the section as “board comments.”
“I think it would be a productive addition to what we’re trying to do here, so that the public knows we’re listening. We can respond,” Dinges said. “But this idea that, somehow, we’re walking away without having heard, I think, is not right.”
About five people in the audience of 30 applauded Dinges’ idea.
Village President Greg Lungmus said he believes the board already does this and suggested that there are reasons the board doesn’t always respond to the comments.
“We have been responsive,” he said. “There are times when there’s some statements that are so factually incorrect, it’s difficult to do a back-and-forth.”
But Dinges said it would be a good idea to create an agenda item dedicated solely to responding to the public.
“Everyone is here. Everyone is busy,” he said. “Some people might want to make their comment and leave, but some people might want to stick around, and then we could have a little more (response).”
His proposal was supported by Trustee Charles Orth, who shared that he’s felt the same way after talking with residents after the meetings.
Orth also suggested that there are times where a public response may not be necessary, but that the Village should at least respond to that person individually.
“There are times in the past when public comment was out there to let people vent and express their comments and concerns about an issue,” he said. “But we also have to make sure we get their name, address, phone number, whatever, so we can respond to them.”
He also cautioned trustees that they shouldn’t respond without knowing all the facts of the situation first, and suggested that they consult with Village staff before making a reply.
Additionally, he requested patience from the public, saying that a response may not always be immediate.
“We must be given time in certain situations to research and get the proper answer so that it’s factually correct,” Orth said, “so we don’t leave the Village in a situation that leaves a bigger liability about what a board member or trustee may answer.”
From the audience, two meeting attendees said, “We deserve it,” and “Thank you.”
Trustee Tom Whittaker also voiced support for the idea, but said it would also require both the cooperation of trustees and the public.
“As long as we as a board and residents agree that it’s not going to turn into a back-and-forth argument disagreement,” he said, “and that the residents accept the fact that if I or any other board member says, ‘I don’t have an answer,’ we will get back to you with an answer.”
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.