By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — The gloves are coming off in Amesbury, as councilor at-large candidate Eric Bezanson is accusing his opponent, Anne Ferguson, of abusing her powers as council president by preventing him from speaking at Tuesday night’s meeting.
At issue is a statement Ferguson made prior to the public comment portion of the meeting in which she asked that candidates for office in the upcoming elections refrain from using the time as a forum for a campaign speech and instead keep all remarks focused on the meeting itself.
Bezanson said he had planned on making some campaign-related remarks during public comment, but left after Ferguson issued her ruling. He said he felt bullied and intimidated by Ferguson’s move; and after speaking to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance and reviewing the City Charter, he felt confident that Ferguson was out of line and said he intends to file a complaint against her.
“What they did, they’re not allowed to do it,” Bezanson said. “They’re making up their own rules. It’s not in the charter and they cannot dictate what you say up there.”
According to the City Charter and the council’s rules and procedures, all public comments are to be addressed directly to the council as a whole, and people addressing the council must do so in an orderly manner and not make repetitious, slanderous or irrelevant remarks.
The rules also say that the council president can limit how long someone may speak during public comment, but there is no mention of whether the council president can restrict what is actually said.
Ferguson said she felt comfortable with her decision to prohibit campaigning during public comment because the purpose of the meeting is to accomplish City Council business, not to provide a forum for campaign speeches.
“We are not there for them to talk to the camera,” Ferguson said. “We have a lot of business to get done, and I say that for every candidate.”
Ferguson countered Bezanson’s assertion that she was trying to bully and intimidate him by saying she wasn’t trying to single him or any other candidate out and that she had planned her statement in advance without knowing who would actually be at the meeting.
She added that Bezanson would have still been welcome to speak, as mayoral candidate Jim Thivierge did following Ferguson’s remarks, as long as he stuck to topics on the agenda.
As far as whether Ferguson was acting appropriately, City Clerk Bonnijo Kitchin said Ferguson was well within her rights to prohibit campaigning during public comment because it’s her responsibility to conduct the meeting and ensure that all business on the agenda is attended to.
“It’s a council meeting, and it’s public comment, but public comment means you can bring up an issue that you want discussed,” Kitchin said. “Otherwise, they could spend two hours letting all of the candidates stand up there talking about themselves.”
Kitchin said campaigning from the podium has been prohibited ever since she first arrived in Amesbury in the late 1990s, and whether to allow it has always been up to the council president ever since then.
“The council president is the one who runs the meeting,” Kitchin said. “On the whole it’s been the standard ever since I’ve been here.”
Not all of the city councilors were on board with Ferguson’s decision, however. District 3 Councilor Donna McClure, who is also a candidate for councilor at-large, argued that there is nothing in writing saying candidates can’t campaign during public comment and Bezanson should have been allowed to speak his mind.
“Should you choose, you can read ‘War and Peace’ during public comment or stand in silent protest,” McClure said. “They are your three minutes.”
Regardless, Ferguson said she doesn’t believe she committed any ethics violations and plans on enforcing the no campaigning rule for future meetings as well.
“If I get an ethics ruling saying I need to let him speak, I will follow that,” Ferguson said. “But I talked to enough people before the meeting to feel comfortable with my decision.”