By. Brent Wilson, Field Officer
The agenda for the August 11th meeting for the Greene County Board of Supervisors meeting had several public hearings and an appropriation first reading The last item on the agenda was – #8 Matters from the public.
The hearing of comments (or not hearing comments) from the public has been a work in progress the past several weeks in Greene County. The year started with all comments being allowed at BOS meetings with very little guidelines or restrictions. Several weeks ago, the Chairman decided to eliminate all comments from the public from the July 28th agenda. The Board discussed the issue at the July 28th meeting and adopted (4-1 Deane opposed) a very restrictive procedure in place to allow public comment at the July 28th meeting
Under rule 4.2 there is to be one public comment period per night at the end of the session. Each speaker is to take up to three minutes and a total of 15 minutes are allocated to this session. All comments are to be made to the chairman, there is to be no debate and time cannot be yielded to another. And finally, the speaker cannot be disrespectful nor profanity cannot be used. If someone cannot follow these rules they will be prohibited from commenting at the next Board meeting.
This takes us to the most recent Board of Supervisor meeting. Chairman David Cox, Monroe District, started the meeting stating that it is critical to hear comments from the public. He has not been trying to silence the public but trying to control rude and confrontational behavior.
Supervisor Bill Martin, Stanardsville District, stated he believes that Cox has an impeccable record in allowing all comments – sometimes to a fault. Cox would never disallow the public to speak and he believes that Cox will be fair to all citizens and not infringe their freedom of speech.
The revisions Cox proposed to comments from the public were to eliminate the exclusion of a citizen from the next meeting and no cursing. Supervisor Eddie Deane, At Large, said he felt that the revised policy looks a lot better but he was not comfortable with the changes. Supervisor Davis Lamb, Ruckersville District, referred to the Rutherford Institute comments about Greene’s comments from the public and their recommendation to revert back to the January, 2015 method of addressing comments from the public.
Supervisor Jim Frydl, Midway District, stated that no one intended to restrict free speech.
Cox stated he intended to be fair to the taxpayers of Greene County. Lamb asked that the Board consider moving Matters from the public to the beginning of the agenda so that residents don’t have to wait until the end of the meeting to speak.
Martin stated that the Chairman should manage as he sees fit and he asked Cox how he would prefer to manage comments from the public so that the proper motion could be made. Cox stated that he was not trying to control content and he would be agreeable to either the proposed revised rules or reverting back to what was in place in January.
Frydl made a motion to revise the comments from the public and the timing of the comments from the public would be discussed further at a future meeting. Specifically these items were proposed to be deleted from matters from the public:
- Citizens may only speak once per meeting during the citizen comment period.
- No citizen shall speak on any matter of business that is a subject on the board’s agenda for that meeting.
- Each citizen comment period will end after 15 minutes unless the Chair extends the time allotted for public comments.
- Comments must be directly related to the services, programs or policies of the County.
- Address pending litigation or County personnel-related matters, or other matters exempted from public discussion under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
- Any person who does not follow the rules listed above will be directed by the Chair to end their comments immediately and will not be allowed to comment at the next scheduled meeting of the Board of Supervisors. If necessary, speakers may be removed from the room if violations of the rule above persist.
Cox, Martin and Frydl voted in favor while Lamb and Deane vote against the proposal as they wanted to refer to the procedure that was in place the first of the year – having significantly little controls on comments from the public.
The Free Enterprise Forum wrote about public comment earlier this month. While the rules themselves are important, how they are implemented is even more important. Absent objective uniform enforcement by the chair, Greene County’s public comment sessions will likely again become unruly.
Brent Wilson is the Greene County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization. The Free Enterprise Forum Field Officer program is funded by a generous grant from the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® (CAAR) and by readers like you. To support this important work please donate online at www.freeenterpriseforum.org