County weighs lifting limits
By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 23, 2012 1:46 PM
For the second time this month, Wayne County commissioners have confronted their five-year-old policy that spells out how the public comments section of their meetings will be conducted.
For Commissioner Steve Keen, who raised the issue at the board's Tuesday session, there are two sticking points: limiting speakers to three minutes once a month and requiring a group of people speaking for or against the same topic to choose one person to speak for the group.
However, Keen failed to win over his fellow commissioners, who tabled his motion to eliminate those two requirements.
Instead the board voted 5-2 to allow an amended motion offered by Commissioner Sandra McCullen to study the issue and review it at the board's March 20 session. The amended motion was approved 5-2. Keen and fellow Republican Ray Mayo voted no both times.
The rules governing the public comment period were adopted by a unanimous vote on May 1, 2007.
Chairman John Bell, who reminded the board of the rules earlier this month, cautioned commissioners not to make such "a big issue" of the three-minute time limit.
Instead, every commissioner should be more concerned about making themselves available to county residents at all times, something that he said he does regularly.
Keen countered that the limits on speaking had nothing to do with being available to county residents at other times.
As he did at the board's Feb. 7 session, Keen said he had been unaware of some of the limits and had asked County Attorney Borden Parker for a copy of the rules. Keen read all of the rules and said he understands the first rule limiting speakers to three minutes, but that he wanted to speak on two of the other limitations:
* No. 2: "If there is a group of individuals supporting or opposing the same proposition, the group shall elect a delegate who will be allowed to speak for the entire group."
"I want to use this example, if I am a builder and I have a plumber, a heating and air, ceramic tile, electrician and we are building this huge facility and there are questions about this area or questions about this area," he said. "If there are questions then how is one person supposed to represent all of that at one time in three minutes?"
* No. 5: "No individual shall be allowed to address the commissioners in public comment session more than once per month."
"Of course, No. 5 is that each time that podium is open to the public when we meet, I have an issue with an individual not being allowed to come for his three minutes to speak to us," he said. "We are only open twice a month and three minutes each time is certainly appropriate to me.
"I know we have had in the past, I had witnessed those who would get excited and emotional and might say or body language might express they are getting a little overly excited and I understand that. But still the citizens of Wayne County, I think, have a right to be heard for three minutes each time we are open for session."
Part of the second rule also is used at public hearings, Parker said.
"You have two opportunities for people to address you," he said. "One is at your regular time of meeting and you can't control the content of whatever someone wants to come up and say to you. Everybody under the current policy has three minutes once a month.
"Anytime you have a public hearing anybody can come up who wants to speak at the public hearing. At the public hearing, the content is limited to whatever it is that is before you. At a public hearing they are speaking about a specific thing."
Parker said it was his understanding that at the time the rules were adopted commissioners wanted to ensure that everyone had the opportunity to speak.
"The board of commissioners of Wayne County, as far as I can remember, always allowed and accepted public comment," Parker said. "The state Legislature some years ago changed it so that some places that would not allow public comment now are required to.
"It is the city and town councils, boards of commissioners and the school boards that have to have some opportunity. You have the right to limit time that anybody wants to speak and, as I believed was mentioned, if you had 50 people that wanted to speak to you this morning, and you had something that you couldn't spend time for each one of them to have it, you could say today we are going to have one hour for public comment."
If that was the case it would be advisable to provide advance notice of the limit, he said. Another way would be to require people to sign up to speak, Parker said.
At some public hearings, the county has tried to have sign-ups where people could sign up if they were for or against the issue, he said.
Mrs. McCullen said she thought there might be other aspects of the issue to consider and she made a motion to amend Keen's motion in order to study the issue and bring it back up at the board's March 20 session.
Before discussion on the amended motion, Keen reminded his fellow commissioners that they often had said they wanted people to attend the meetings, be a part of the meeting and speak so members would know what they want.
"In the same breath we are telling them that you don't get but three minutes a month," he said. "To me there is no discussion. They are due that process.
"Certainly if it gets out of hand you are the chairman. You (Bell) have the gavel to sit that person down."