By. Neil Williamson, President
Recently, Greene County’s Board of Supervisors have encountered challenges with their regularly scheduled ‘Matters from the Public’ agenda item in their Board meetings. It got so bad that last meeting, Chair David Cox pulled public comment off the agenda entirely. At that meeting, the BOS hastily approved a new set of rules regarding ‘matters from the public’.
As the Free Enterprise Forum has attended over three thousand hours of public meetings, we find ‘Matters from the Public’ to be a critically important concept that must be managed in order to preserve civility and the ability for ALL to speak. We believe Greene County and all local governments should regularly examine and refine their rules of engagement.
Over the past twelve years, we have seen a great deal of important public comment during the ‘matters from the public’, including our own. Some have been enlightening, some have been confrontational and some have been downright amusing:
- A six foot woodchuck protesting the Meadowcreek Parkway
- A series of lectures regarding Climate Change Falsehoods
- A series of counter lectures on Climate Change
- A citizen providing each member of the Board a bag of groceries
- The call for legal action on a variety of local government issues
- Concerns regarding the plight of unsheltered dogs
- Calls for Supervisor resignation in light of criminal charges
- Highlights regarding Conservation Easements attained
- Invitations to attend County Fairs and School functions
- Accolades for local sports teams
- And much much more.
Regardless of any particular political persuasion, the concept of the citizenry publicly engaging with their elected officials is a good one – that does need some level of management.
There is a responsibility on the elected board to listen and a responsibility on the speakers to be civil, direct and respectful with their comments.
#1 Unlimited topics – Public Comment should only be limited to include anything EXCEPT those items on the agenda for public hearing. This allows the elected officials to hear from the public on those issues that will come before them as a part of the meeting.
#2 Citizens come First – Public Comment should come at the front of the meeting, prior to the consent agenda – This goes with #1 having all public comment at the end of the meeting really does not allow the public to engage in the work that is before the elected body
#3 Beauty in Brevity -Individual Public Comment should be limited by time – Speakers should have a predetermined time limit to provide their remarks. The Chair must be fair and equitable in his/her application of the time clock across all speakers.
#4 Aretha Franklin was right – All voices must be respected. Audience and members of the elected body should provide their undivided attention to the speaker during their allotted time. This would preclude side conversations that are disruptive on the dais AND in the audience. Applause, cheering, booing and other audible responses to comments from the public should be banned. Such activity creates a “football game” mentality and may hinder those with opposing views from speaking. It is incumbent on the chair AND the elected body to maintain a level of civility in the meeting. Speakers may ask those who agree to stand or raise their hands in support of their position.
#5 Delayed Engagement – Dialog with the elected body should be prohibited. This agenda item is to allow the public to speak to the elected body not to have a conversation with its members. If elected officials wish to discuss items raised in the ‘matters from the public’ section, they should add an agenda item, as some have, ‘responses to matters from the public’
#6 Get Rid of The Game Clock – Public Comment period should not be limited by time. While this concept creates havoc with board meetings staying on time, several localities have determined that splitting public comment to the beginning (for a set period) and then to the end (for as many who wish to speak) has resulted in higher quality public input.
#7 Mom Knows Best – Citizens providing pubic comment should use the Mom rule regarding language choice – if you would not say it to your mother, don’t say it to the elected body. While some might consider this a hindrance on free speech, the Courts are not so clear.
#8 Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk – Public Comments should be directed to the entire elected body not to any individual member, staff member nor to the audience.
#9 Any Topic is Fair Game – All comments should be heard – Greene County’s new rules indicate the Chair will determine if the topic is appropriate. The Free Enterprise Forum believes this is the opportunity for citizens to speak in a public forum and should not be limited by anyone regarding subject matter.
#10 Promote Citizen Connectivity – Public should be routinely reminded of all of the ways to reach their local elected officials and local government employees, including phone, e-mail, snail mail and other public outreach.
Matters from the Public has recently been under attack. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) US29 Project Delivery Advisory Panel (PDAP) deemed such an agenda item to be superfluous to their discussions and only take comments via their website. This may be the start of a disturbing trend where citizens can’t directly engage.
The Free Enterprise Forum believes that citizens have a right to be heard by their elected (and appointed) officials. We also believe public officials have a right to a certain level of decorum to their meetings.
Only if citizens and elected officials respect each other will this important agenda item be able to be maintained.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County.