Rountree questions board policy

Published 10:48 am Wednesday, January 12, 2011

GATESVILLE – Earl Rountree vowed that Jan. 5 would be the last time he would stand behind the podium at a Gates County Commissioners’ meeting.

While those close to Rountree know that has as much chance of taking place as a Gates County snowstorm on July 4th, if he was serious then the Sunbury native did go out with a bang.

Rountree, a self-proclaimed “involved citizen” of the county and a past candidate for the board of commissioners where he was the second-leading vote-getter in a three-man race during the 2008 Primary, lobbied his elected leaders last week to change the rules regarding how county citizens are able to be placed on the board’s meeting agenda.

“Ya’ll are aware that I thought I had a legitimate reason to be on the agenda,” Rountree said while speaking during the “Public Comments” portion of the Jan. 5 meeting. “I felt like it was important and I felt like I had some knowledge of what was going on. I asked to be on the agenda just to discuss what I’ve been hearing.”

He continued, “I don’t know why the County Manager, Mr. (Toby) Chappell, only he knows, decided that what I had to say was unimportant. I will say, and I don’t mean this as a personal attack, but I had several people to tell me, 100 percent of the people I asked, that it was (the denial of being placed on the agenda) because you’re Earl Rountree. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I will say that I don’t know of anything I’ve ever done, other than being up here talking too much, (that would cause a personal conflict). We never had that good of a relationship over the past few months, a year, or what have you.”

Rountree said he wanted to be placed on the regular agenda to share information he had regarding how the impending North Carolina legislative redistricting would affect Gates County. He added he had knowledge of that issue based on his connections in Raleigh and in other parts of the state.

“In my final act I would hope that ya’ll would revisit, vote and put in the minutes a procedure that needs to be followed for citizen comments,” Rountree suggested. “This is not Mecklenburg County; this is not Wake County; this is Gates County. We have 12,000 citizens; how many people ever call up and want to be on the agenda? We don’t have that many people. Most of the time when a person wants to be on the agenda, it may not be important to ya’ll, but it’s important to that individual.

“Maybe I was spoiled,” he continued. “Part of this may be due to J.S. Pierce (the former Commissioners Board Chairman who passed away last year). J.S. would talk to me. If there was something about what was going on in the state, he would tell me that I knew more about that stuff; you follow this; what do you think of this. When we got to (commissioner) meetings, he would ask me to interject what I knew (about state issues); it was all kind of informal.”

Rountree closed by saying, “All of my old friends are dying off. What I guess I need to realize is that we have a county manager that is 33 or 34. Younger people are looking at us older people and think we’re not up to date; that we may not know how to use a Blackberry or an I-Phone. I’m not done; I will sit back and fight guerilla warfare.”

His appeal to the board prompted a response from newly seated Commissioner John Hora.

“Freedom of speech is an important thing to me,” Hora stated. “It’s the most basic right we have as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. When a person exercises their ability to speak and takes that option, you shouldn’t look at that lightly.

“It takes a lot of guts for people to stand up,” Hora added. We saw that across this country in this last year at town hall meetings. I told you last year there was a revolution going on in this country, and it is and it’s not done. People are tired and fed up with not being listened to. It’s important for us as individuals to listen to what other people have to say. Sometimes they say what we don’t want to hear. If they’re willing to talk then it’s important to them. They need to be heard.”

Hora closed by saying, “We have rules and regulations that we have to follow, but the opportunity to speak should not be suppressed of any citizen. I welcome any voice; I want to hear what they have to say; that is the voice of knowledge that may help our county grow.”

Board Chairman Graham Twine said the current rules regarding public comment do need to be revisited.

“Gates County is open to freedom of speech, but I do take offense that freedom of speech is being used as a weapon against things being said or against the rules we have set up,” Twine said. “We have a few rules that we probably need to adjust. It may have been set too stringent. It was set at a time when we were experiencing some problems.  I think we need to look at the agenda items to see if citizens can get on the agenda a bit easier. Part of that is being able to abide by the regulations once they are set up.”

Twine defended Chappell’s decision not to allow Rountree to be placed on the regular agenda.

“Our county manager has orders given to him by the commissioners that he has to abide by,” Twine stressed. “We also have some safeguards when it comes to public comment, one where the chairman has the right to extend time (to a speaker). I don’t feel like anyone’s freedom of speech has been questioned in our meetings. If you do feel that your freedom of speech has been questioned, I’d like to hear from you personally.”

While the board did not take any action on the matter at last week’s meeting, Twine did encourage his fellow commissioners to look at the existing public comment/agenda listing policy and bring before the board any changes or adjustments they would like to see made.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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