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Fredonia enforces limits on speakers

Submitted photo EvaDawn Bashaw, in this photo from Fredonia Public Access, gestures while debating the three-minute rule for speakers.

Fredonia’s Board of Trustees opted to strictly enforce a three-minute time limit for speakers from the public this week, a move that irked Mayor Douglas Essek.

Trustees EvaDawn Bashaw and Scott Johnston backed the limit, which is mentioned at the start of each public comments session by Clerk AnneMarie Johnston. The limit is supposed to be three minutes if someone is speaking on behalf of themselves but five minutes if they are speaking for a group.

The limit was enforced against Susan Parker, who was presenting the board with information on marijuana legalization, and former village attorney Sam Drayo and ex-mayor Athanasia Landis, who were criticizing proposed changes to local government.

Trustee Johnston noted with a public hearing coming up on cannabis dispensaries, it was a good time to enforce the limit, as that event Oct. 13 is expected to have a lot of speakers.

Essek was having none of that. “Unless there’s a big group of 50 people here, I just don’t understand that need,” he said.

“It shouldn’t be at the discretion of whenever it’s convenient,” said Trustee Evadawn Bashaw. “We’re either going to adhere to it or not … we have a public hearing coming up where we know there’s going to be quite a few people here.”

Essek asked her if she thought speakers at the hearing should follow the three-minute rule. Bashaw said she thought they should.

“I don’t agree with that,” the mayor replied. “I believe when there’s important issues, the public needs to be allowed to say their piece.”

Speaking after Parker and Landis were cut off, Drayo began, “The three-minute rule has to be flexible. There are important things that need to be said … you can take a 45-minute executive session, and we can sit up here and wait and wait and wait, but we have some important things to say. We’re not going to talk for half an hour. If we go four minutes or five minutes, you should be willing to hear from your citizens.”

When AnneMarie Johnston tried to stop Drayo after three minutes, he got into an argument with Bashaw. “This is a point of order, we stopped everybody else,” he said. “We need to stop you.”

“I’m a citizen of this village. You are the servant of the village. You are not the dictator of the village,” Drayo retorted.

“You don’t represent the village. You represent yourself. We represent the village,” Bashaw said. Essek soon banged his gavel several times but the argument continued a few more seconds.

Scott Johnston and Bashaw continued to back enforcing the rule, and Essek told them it should be changed. The trustees said they had no problem with longer time limits, but emphasized that some limit must be enforced.

Drayo’s sparring with trustees over the three-minute rule is nothing new for him.

In an Aug. 27, 2019, OBSERVER article, Drayo criticized local laws up for a vote in a meeting run by Trustee James Lynden as deputy mayor, with Landis absent. Trustee Michael Barris, who did not run for re-election that year but is back on the ballot this November, called for limiting his time to three minutes.

Lynden said Drayo’s time went past three minutes and, after another citizen then spoke about unrelated issues, tried to close the public comments. Drayo said he let that man proceed so he didn’t hold him up, but that his own comments weren’t done.

Essek, who was then a trustee, thought Drayo should be allowed to speak as long as he wanted.

Lynden said he wanted to hold to the rules of order allowing three minutes a person. When several members of the audience each offered to give Drayo the microphone for three minutes, Lynden allowed him five minutes as he was then speaking on behalf of a group.

Clerk Johnston cut Drayo off after five minutes, 38 seconds, and he asked to continue.

“You’ve had your personal time, you’ve had time apportioned for a group. Thank you very much,” said Lynden, who then firmly closed the public comments.

Drayo retorted, “That’s not being open-minded, Mr. Chair.”

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