The Otsego County Board of Representatives’ privilege of the floor section of its monthly meetings at 197 Main St. in Cooperstown has always been an odd experience for me, and I suspect, many others.
For an average of an hour every month, people get up and tell a room full of quiet legislators and observers about, well, pretty much anything.
In the past few years, I have heard about chemtrails, transgender children “stealing” parts in a school play, maybe, and the cabal that controls gas prices in Oneonta. There are monthly protests against the county’s seizure of properties because of delinquent tax debts. And there is almost always a hot-button topic of the moment for people to speak about, or a project being considered somewhere that someone doesn’t want in his or her backyard.
And when I say speak, sometimes I mean yell. It is weird to watch people get yelled at.
Usually I wait through comments to get to the meat of a meeting, but occasionally the comments themselves are the biggest story. I remember about two years ago when Milford Central School Superintendent Mark Place dropped a huge story on everyone, some board members included, when he appeared at the meeting and said no officials called to tell him of a potential threat against his school. Instead, he learned of the threat by reading the newspaper.
Otsego County Board meetings, I should note, are grueling affairs. The monthly meeting averages between three and four hours, and comments from the floor can take as long as an hour.
Sometimes I am impatient to get to the business of the day. Other days I remind myself how important it is to allow free speech, even when it is about chemtrails. Once I even spoke to the board myself, defending the state’s film tax credits after a representative made an offhanded remark the month before about how the state was “sending money to Hollywood.”
Wednesday, at my first monthly meeting in nearly a year, I learned there was a new system.
There was an overflow crowd that day, with many people there to protest a potential RSS project in Oneonta’s Sixth Ward. Board Chair Dave Bliss told the crowd municipalities such as the village of Cooperstown use timers to enforce a speaking time limit and make sure everyone has the same opportunity to comment. Bliss noted the county had never had the set-up to enforce a time limit until recently.
One of the county clerks then turned on a digital clock projected onto the front wall of the chamber. Speakers would be limited to three minutes, Bliss said.
The countdown was on!
To skip to the punchline, privilege of the floor took 90 minutes Wednesday, and the April meeting clocked in at nearly four and a half hours. More than 20 people spoke. Some mocked the countdown clock, some ignored it, some joked about it. One woman explained, or exclaimed, she had taken off work to attend the midday meeting, and she would not stop speaking. A couple of people got up to speak twice, although Bliss tried to allow everyone an opportunity to speak once first.
I can’t imagine how long that meeting would have lasted without the time limits. Speaking freely is a privilege we all deserve. Listening, on the other hand, is sometimes not such a privilege, but it is still our responsibility.
This seems like the perfect space to tell our readers I sometimes lobby for a local or regional film office, which would work to bring film business to the area. My lobbying began by accident after the aforementioned privilege of the floor speech, and the project grew substantially during my hiatus from reporting on government agencies.
When I was put back on the county beat last month, I spoke to my supervisors about my desire to build a Cooperstown and Otsego County film commission office, including noting I often speak to and spitball plans with government officials about how to start the office. I offered to not return to covering local governments, but my supervisors decided until the film office was an actual thing, there is no conflict.
I believe disclosure is the best policy, so I have written this one, and our readers can view whatever else I write about the county with this information available.