Free speech: how, when and where

Published 11:05 am Wednesday, February 16, 2011

GATESVILLE – As guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, American citizens enjoy freedom of speech.

But in what form is that free speech allowed within a public meeting of elected officials. That was the subject of discussion undertaken by the Gates County Board of Commissioners at their Feb. 2 meeting.

The topic of allowing or disallowing local citizens to address the Commissioners as part of the board’s meeting agenda was first discussed at their Jan. 19 night meeting. There, board members all promoted freedom of speech, but added there were specific rules in place that governs whether or not a citizen can be placed on the meeting’s agenda.

That decision now rests with Gates County Manager Toby Chappell. The process for a citizen to be placed on the new business portion of a meeting’s agenda is to notify the Clerk to the Board at least two weeks in advance of the board’s next scheduled meeting. It is noted within the existing policy that, “New and old business sections are strictly for county business. This is for information that needs to be brought to the attention of the Board of Commissioners for their deliberation and resolution.”

“We discussed at our last meeting about making some adjustments to our board of commissioners’ agenda policy for citizens to get on the agenda. It seems to be a hot issue in our public,” said Commission Chairman Graham Twine.

He continued, “What I have found being a commissioner for the past two years is we put policies in place and then blame people for following our policies; we don’t take ownership in doing these policies.

“I feel we’re taking the heat on this because our county manager is following our policy,” Twine added. “I have learned over the years that our past county managers made their own policies as they went along, they didn’t follow board policy. If we put one in place, we should expect our manager to follow it. We don’t need to condemn him for not following it.”

Twine then presented his fellow board members with a copy of the policy, one containing a few changes that are listed as follows:

If a citizen requests to be placed on the Board of Commissioners agenda and the County Manager does not believe that the topic meets the “deliberation and resolution” test (used by private citizens for the sole purpose of evading the time limit – three minutes – of the Citizen Comments section), the following process will be followed. The citizen will be required to have two Commissioners agree to approve the item being placed on the agenda prior to the meeting. The two Commissioners will need to convey the fact that they have agreed to sponsor this topic on the agenda to the County Manager and/or to the Clerk to the Board of Commissioners. If the above listed process is followed, the item will then be placed on the agenda.

“I like this part of the policy; it gives the commissioners ownership in the policy,” Twine said. “If it’s important enough to a citizen to sit up here and rant and rave (about an issue), then it should important enough for them to go to a commissioner and talk to them upfront about a particular issue.

“A lot of the issues that come in here we find out after the problem has happened and then we get blamed for someone not following our policy,” Twine continued. “This is a good policy, it gives everybody an option to get on the agenda and gives the commissioners the opportunity to be part of that process, and not having the county manager taking the heat for things we put in place for him to follow.”

Twine urged his board colleagues to closely study the policy as presented, complete with the changes, and revisit the policy at their next regularly scheduled meeting (March 2).

Commissioner Henry Jordan asked what the thinking was about having two board members endorsing a citizen to be placed on the agenda in the event the county manager denies that request.

“My thought was if a citizen has an issue, they need to first take it to the commissioner representing their district,” Twine said. “I don’t have a problem with just one commissioner sponsoring a citizen’s comments to become part of our meeting agenda; two was just a number that came up so that more than one commissioner would be involved in the decision.”

“At some point we have to set some boundaries or we’ll be in here (at meetings) indefinitely,” Chappell said.

“I like having two commissioners; there’s an added benefit to it…not to try and keep things from coming in, but what if a citizen is just coming here to try and embarrass someone in the room, this will help eliminate that,” Commissioner Jack Owens noted. “If they ask me (to be placed on the agenda), I’m not automatically going to answer yes or no; I’m going to ask for details from them so I can give a valid response. As it turns out, I might be able to legally share some information with that citizen, information they may have missed, that answers their questions or solves their issue; they may drop their request to be heard in an open meeting of the board. We may can help a citizen that way before it advances to a point where they ask to be placed on the agenda.”

Jordan suggested another alternative.

“The county manager says, based on the criteria of our policy, that a citizen does not need to be placed on the agenda,” Jordan stated. “However, he can say he can hold the request, complete with information provided by the citizen, and bring it before the board where a majority vote could move that citizen’s issue to an agenda item.”

“As a general rule, that would be fine; the issue would be if that was the determining factor whether they come to the meeting or not,” Chappell responded. “If you tell them their request is in limbo until the meeting starts, then they have to come.”

“Maybe having (approval) from two commissioners is a good idea,” Jordan said. “Just having one makes it a little too polarized, too political; one commissioner may just let it go and let them on the agenda. If two weigh in on it then there has to be a consensus.”

“The number one thing I do not want conveyed to anyone is that we don’t want to hear what a citizen has to say,” Commissioner John Hora stressed. “All public officials when they sit behind a desk like we do know going in that we are subject to criticism. That’s what open communication is all about, listening to what other people have to say. We don’t need to suppress that, not unless it’s way over the deep end. If they take the time to come here and talk to us, we need to listen, but they need to go through our process to do so.”

Jordan added he would like to see an addition to the policy that says if a citizen is denied being placed on the agenda, they need to be aware their statement (limited to three minutes) can be heard during the public comments portion of each meeting.

With the absence of Commission Vice-Chairman Kenneth Jernigan from the Feb. 2 meeting, Twine suggested the board re-address this policy at their next scheduled meeting. The board approved that suggestion.

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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