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Commissioners object to rush for decision

County Commissioner Joe Wise was not pleased with how a resolution proposing public comments during commission meetings was introduced to the Rules Committee.
“I got the email after I read the front page of the paper,” Wise said during the Jan. 20 committee meeting, referring to a story outlining the proposal in an interview with Commissioner Robbie Tester who emailed a draft to the commission and local media over the holiday weekend.
“I am disappointed this important question was raised in such a careless manner,” he said. “Those proposing this resolution chose conflict over consensus building. They chose grandstanding over working toward shared goals.”
Wise also questioned the need for legislation to ensure citizens are provided an opportunity to address the commission. “I suspect I can speak for all of us gathered here in saying we value public comment about the business before us,” he said.
Noting the size and informality of committee meetings already offer occasions for citizens to participate in the dialogue at the level the work is actually done, Wise said the resolution appears to be a solution in search of a problem.
Tester disagreed, saying he has heard from citizens who ask what the point of being at the meetings is if they can’t comment.
The resolution proposes the chair be required to ask the audience for comment at the beginning and end of all full commission and committee meetings. County residents would be allowed to speak for up to three minutes, and a good faith response must be given to each.
In addition, the chair must request public comment prior to any vote or move to the next agenda item. Comments must be relevant and limited to one minute per resident, and a good faith response must be given to each.
“The public doesn’t know our rules on when they can comment,” Tester said. “The key to (the resolution), in my opinion, is the chair actually asks for comments.”
Tester also referred to the current rule of procedure regarding who may address the full board, which requires a majority vote if any commissioner objects to a request to speak from a non-commission individual.
“The biggest difference in what I’m proposing is you wouldn’t have to vote,” he said, meaning no requests could be refused.
Because the resolution seeks a fundamental change in the rules, Wise said the deserved time and deliberation on the proposed changes should have been offered rather than expecting legislation to be acted upon during the next business day.
“I find it offensive that it will be perceived that if I don’t vote for this, I’m against public comment,” he said. “I also want to make sure what we do is sustainable.”
Commissioner Bryan Davenport also noted the short turnaround allowed for a decision. “I thought this was quick,” he said. “I’m all for public comment, but I’m not sure about this.”
Wise made a motion to table the resolution until the next committee meeting so members might consider the question of public comment, with the ultimate goal being to provide citizens the most efficient, effective and responsive means of engagement and participation.
“Certainly we can all agree on that,” he said.
Commissioner Mitch Meredith seconded the motion, which passed with unanimous approval.
Wise also moved to have the county attorney review the proposed resolution, which was seconded by Meredith and passed.
Commission Chair Greg Matherly said making space on the commission agenda for public comment is not a novel idea. “This issue has been in committee for three years, but if you can’t hear, it’s not the time for (agenda-appointed) public comment.”
Matherly was referring to the former meeting space on the second floor of the downtown courthouse, which had many of the commissioners seated with their backs to the audience.
“There was no chance until we remodeled to even know what your representative was saying,” he noted.
Commissioners have since voted to designate the George P. Jaynes Justice Center as the permanent meeting site, which would require different considerations.
“The Justice Center isn’t much better, but we’re on our way,” Matherly said.