03/21/12 — Meeting concern splits votes

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Meeting concern splits votes

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 21, 2012 1:46 PM

Three party-line votes Tuesday morning preserved not only Wayne County commissioners' morning meeting time, but their policy limiting public comment speakers to three minutes once a month during board meetings.

The votes brought to a head issues that had been festering for the past two months.

Democrat Jack Best sought to portray the basis for the time limits as practical not political, while Republican Steve Keen cast the board as being partisan.

Best said that he, like his father, is a Democrat, but added, "I am probably the best Republican on this whole commission. I am probably the best one up here.

"However, the truth of the matter is I vote my conscience. I vote for what I think is right for the county. It doesn't have a thing to do with whether I am a Republican or Democrat."

The Democratic majority by 5-2 votes turned back Republican-backed efforts to change the board's meeting times from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of the month and to eliminate the limits on speakers.

Rather than change the meeting time, another 5-2 vote approved Best's motion to hold three evening public meetings between now and mid-June. Best argued the meeting would allow people to comment on whatever they wanted while providing an indication of how well-received evening meetings might be.

Best said that someone had written in the newspaper in 2007 that the limits were a political move by Democrats.

"It was no such thing," he said. "These were voted on by all seven members at the time. The reason we voted for it is we had people coming up here with their political agendas wanting to talk about their political agendas."

Best said he had no problem listening to anyone on any issue that could help the county, or something that people would like for the board to consider. He said he was sure all board members felt the same.

Keen said he had been told by a "reliable sources in this room" that the limitations came about because of the actions of one person who had become belligerent and verbally threatening at the podium.

He lamented that the work session devoted to the issues was not being televised or broadcast on the radio.

"Here again it is just another part of a partisan board, which we are," he said. "We are partisan. There are two Republicans and five Democrats on this board. But it is our choice if we want to make it partisan or not. But it is not our choice to tell an individual they cannot speak."

Every citizen has a right to speak as long as they are not abusive, he said.

"Commissioner Best you can go back to 20007, but this is 2012. There is a lot going on in this country," Keen said.

Keen, who said it was his job to listen to citizens, tried to make a motion, but board Chairman John Bell allowed discussion to continue.

Commissioner Sandra McCullen asked County Attorney Borden Parker if her understanding was correct that the county policy exceeded what is required by state law. Parker said that was correct.

She then asked if it would be possible for the board to conduct its business in a single monthly session.

Keen said that would be impossible because of all of the issues facing the county.

He again attempted to make a motion only to be stopped by Bell.

"As I stated before we are not through discussing it yet," Bell said. "You guys wanted this thing discussed and that is what we are going to do. We are going to discuss this until everybody has had a say."

Bell reiterated comments from last month that commissioners need to be out in the community talking with citizens and making themselves available to the public.

"I hope none of us are just waiting to come up to a meeting to have somebody just come up and talk to us for three minutes," he said. "How about all of the other days of the week? Maybe it is the (TV) camera. Maybe we should cut the camera off. Maybe we should stop televising our meetings.

"If we are going to get bent out of shape over three minutes of time at that podium and we are talking about all of the business that we have to do. I had rather be talking about how we can get some additional funds for the schools, get new industry in here to create new jobs. I don't think these people out here are worried about three minutes."

"You can't get any closer to the public than I am," Keen said.

Commissioner Ray Mayo said that being out in the community did not give the people the opportunity to speak before commissioners.

"Participation, I believe, is critical," Mayo said. "Three minutes is not a big issue. What I would like to see is us lift that once-a-month deal. We need to have more access to our citizens. Let our citizens have more access to us.

"Why wouldn't we want to do that? We already have spent way too much time on this."

Mayo said commissioners should lift the limit on how many times a person could speak during meeting. People should be allowed to speak as many times as possible as long as they talk about a new topic each time, he said.

He told Bell that as chairman he has the gavel to keep the meeting in control.

When Mayo began talking about changing the meeting times, Bell told him that 75 percent of people in the county do shift work. That means that no matter what time the meeting is held there will still be people who cannot attend, he said.

Keen was finally able to offer up his motion to eliminate the limits.

Before the vote, Best said he recalled other evening meetings that required 15 staff members and only four or five people showed up. He offered up an amendment to Keen's motion that commissioners hold two or three evening public meeting by the middle of June.

If that doesn't work, the county would revisit Keen's motion, Best said.

But after additional discussion Best withdrew his amended motion allowing Keen's motion proceed. It was defeated by a 2-5 vote. Keen and Mayo voted for the motion. Best, Bell, Mrs. McCullen, J.D. Evans and Bud Gray voted no.

Best then remade his motion to hold the evening meetings.

However, Mayo questioned holding the meetings in different areas of the county instead of the commissioners' meeting room. That is where people are familiar with the meetings being held and that not many people would attend in the county, he said.

Keen also noted that it could be an issue for radio and television to have to set up at a different location.

County Manager Lee Smith said the county has a contract with the radio station to broadcast the meetings live. Night meetings would have to be recorded and broadcast at a later time because the radio station is committed to broadcasting national programming in the evening, he said.

The motion passed 5-2, with Mayo and Keen voting no.

Mayo then made a motion that beginning April 3 that all board meetings start at 7 p.m. The motion failed 2-5 with Keen and Mayo voting for the motion.