Agenda policy amended

Published 10:33 am Monday, March 7, 2011

GATESVILLE – At their regularly scheduled meeting here last week, the Gates County Board of Commissioners spent 31 minutes listening to five county residents and one guest address various issues/topics as part of the Citizens’ Comments portion of the agenda.

Later in the March 2 meeting, the board spent an equal amount of time discussing among themselves how to broaden the scope of allowing citizens to be placed on the agenda to address a particular topic.

By the end of that half-hour discussion, the board voted unanimously to modify its existing meeting agenda policy in an effort to allow citizens to address a particular issue as part of the agenda.

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.”

At the board’s Feb. 2 meeting, Chairman Graham Twine introduced a measure that would supersede the county manager’s decision not to have a citizen added to the agenda for specific comments. Twine suggested that a citizen denied that opportunity due to a perceived lack of “deliberation and resolution” could solicit the approval of two Commissioners 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.

That suggestion went one step further at the March 2 meeting.

“I do not want to suppress anyone from speaking,” Commissioner Johnny Hora said as he led off the discussion. “When it (a request to be placed on the agenda) comes in to the County Manager’s office, the person is immediately placed on the agenda. If there is a question about the deliberation and resolution (of the subject matter), that could be determined by a majority vote of this board.”

Twine asked for clarification, stating it was possible that a person may come to the meeting thinking their comments were part of the agenda, but could perhaps be denied by a majority vote of the board.

“They may not make it,” Hora confirmed.

“If they come to the meeting and their request to be on the agenda is denied, they do have the option to still be on the Citizens’ Comments (limited to 3-to-5 minutes),” Commissioner Henry Jordan noted. “They need to be made aware of that up front when they make their initial request to be on the agenda.”

Hora addressed the state’s General Statues governing public comments at a meeting of a public entity, saying boards are allowed to adopt reasonable regulations governing the conduct of public comment periods, including but not limited to, time limits granted to speakers.

“The way I look at it, you can use the public comments period or use the agenda item; I think the thing that is stated in here (the General Statues) is not to circumvent public comments,” Hora said. “It says quite clearly you may limit time periods, but you don’t have to do that.”

In regards to a person asking to be placed on the agenda (which would carry a longer time period to speak), Hora suggested that individual would need to call each member of the board in an effort to lobby for their vote of approval to place he or she on the agenda.

“They need to try and sell their topic,” Hora said.

“I never want to quiet anyone; in Citizens’ Comments, one of you could stand up and eloquently state your case, but it’s hard to do so in just three minutes, it’s hard to get all your points out,” Commissioner Jack Owens said. “The chairman has the burden of treating everyone equally. When it gets to three minutes, it’s proper for him to say that the time is up. He goes beyond that; I think he gives too much leeway. He should have a clock up there and at three minutes, so that everyone is treated fairly, should say that the time is up and to please wrap it up within two more minutes.”

If an individual is placed on the agenda, Owens said the board needs some avenue to help guide them as far as the deliberation and resolution of the issue is concerned.

Jordan suggested that if one commissioner was aware of a particular topic that an individual wanted to address the board over, then that commissioner should make that presentation to the board.

“The county manager has been given his charge to evaluate the merits of an agenda item, but we need to make the decision as a board,” Jordan stressed. “That doesn’t change how the county manager evaluates the agenda topic, it’s just up to us to say yes or no.”

“I don’t have a problem with this…us making the final decision,” Commission Vice-Chairman Kenneth Jernigan said.

In regards to Citizens’ Comments, Jernigan said he has been in previous meetings where an individual exceeded the three-to-five minutes and a commissioner had asked the chairman to extend the time due to wanting to hear more about the subject matter.

“We, as commissioners, have that right to want to hear more,” Jernigan noted. “We have that option to request the added time from the chairman.”

“So, what I’m hearing is that we have an (existing) policy that we want to change,” Twine said. “What I’m hearing is if a topic does not meet the deliberation and resolution test, as determined by the county manager, it comes to the board.”

“If I were in Toby’s shoes, I would rather place that burden upon the county commissioners,” Hora said.

“I agree,” Twine responded. “Before, everyone was upset with him (Chappell) for doing his job. We were the ones that voted on this policy which gave the county manager the rules to work with.”

Owens used the six individuals that spoke earlier as part of the Citizens’ Comments as an example. He said if those six were all on the agenda, none knowing if they would be approved, and each bringing two to three individuals with them for support, there possibility could be numerous “unhappy campers” if those six were denied a chance to address the board as part of the meeting’s agenda.

“We’re setting ourselves up for a volatile situation,” Owens stated. “I think it’s a formula for disaster.”

Twine said another way to look at it would be to extend the time limit for Citizens’ Comments.

“We could dedicate 10 minutes for each speaker for a period of an hour for public comments,” Twine suggested.

“We do like to have our questions answered the day we ask them,” Owens added. “But a lot of time we need to do research to provide answers that are adequate.”

Jordan made the motion to amend the commissioners’ agenda policy, modifying it to the point where a citizen’s topic, although refused by the county manager in regards to failing the deliberation and resolution test, will be placed on the agenda pending majority approval of the commissioners at the time of the meeting and increase from three minutes to five minutes for each speaker during Citizens’ Comments. Hora offered a second and the motion was approved by a 5-0 vote.

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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