Commissioners adopt new resolution on public participation

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

With a new group looking down from the dais at Henry County Board of Commissioners meetings starting this month, the makeup of the citizens addressing them from the audience may or may not change, but the process by which they speak will definitely be different.

The board adopted a resolution Jan. 3 that alters the public participation procedure at regular meetings. The most visible change is the elimination of 15-minute comment periods previously allowed for citizens who requested in advance to be placed on the agenda.

Citizens can speak for up to five minutes during the regular public comment period of a meeting if they sign up in advance of that meeting.

The board took the stance that the new rules would make meetings more efficient while giving everyone who wishes to speak the chance to do so.

Two citizens in the audience that day who were on the agenda for 15-minute slots used at least part of their time to ask the board not to take this action.

“I value my First Amendment right. I pay enough taxes that I have a right to speak,” said Bill Toney, who made several references to “back-room deals” made by the board over the past few years and his own desire to make the public aware of them.

Toney at one point addressed new Chair June Wood directly, saying that he did not vote for her in part because he was sure things like this would happen once she was elected. He also challenged the board to consider the American flag and what it stands for, and he asked each commissioner individually to vote no.

“I hope you don’t go the coward’s way out. I hope you vote no and leave it just like it is,” said Toney. “This is not going to make any of us go away. We are done with back-room deals.”

Larry Morey, speaking immediately after Toney, warned the board that this action would motivate a number of citizens to examine the county’s actions even more closely and would lead to direct opposition in future elections.

“If you vote to take away our right to speak, it will come back to you,” said Morey.

County attorney Patrick Jaugstetter outlined the provisions in the new proposal, which does not impact public hearings with separate legal requirements. Still in place are rules regarding personal attacks and other inappropriate comments.

The board can vote to open public comment on any specific agenda item or, if deemed appropriate, move a citizen’s comment time from the regular public comment period to the discussion of an agenda item. The commissioners can also vote to extend the five-minute limit on a case-by-case basis.

Citizens are no longer allowed to use video or multimedia presentations during public comment.

Jaugstetter summed up the new ordinance by saying it would ensure the board can oversee the entire agenda..

“This does not allow someone to demand to be placed on the agenda,” he said. “It leaves the agenda under the control of the board.”

Wood noted that the original proposal limited comment time to three minutes per person but was expanded. She made a brief statement before the vote, saying that she had received a number of complaints about the 15-minute comment periods that “in some cases have bordered on slanderous or at the very least inappropriate speech.”

“We want to be respectful to everyone’s right to speak while being mindful of the public’s right to see county business conducted in an efficient and productive manner,” said Wood. “In no way is this action an attempt to silence citizens. In fact, it is meant to do the opposite. It is intended to give all citizens an equal voice in our public meetings.”

Commissioner Blake Prince echoed Wood’s comments, saying that he has tracked every complaint he has received while in office and the public comment procedure has been among the top five topics garnering complaints.

“This has been a theme for the past two years,” he said. “It’s a complaint that just keeps coming up. I think this is the right move and it’s what the citizens asked for."