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Posted: September 30, 2009 12:30 a.m.

Citizens want to speak during city, county meetings

Affect on time, structure concerns some leaders

A democracy is dependent on public participation, and historically public meetings like town halls and public hearings have been the vehicle to gather public input, but there is some disagreement on the role of city council and county commissioner meetings.

While the cities of Covington, Oxford and Porterdale allow residents to speak on agenda items during the meeting before votes are taken, the Board of Commissioners only allows residents to speak at the end of meetings. At the Sept. 15 BOC meeting, Fleeta Drive resident Thomas Buckner said citizens should be allowed to speak during the meeting so their thoughts can be heard and can influence the commissioners.

"There is no sense in giving comments after the meeting when everything has already been decided," Buckner told the commissioners.

At the time, Chairman Kathy Morgan said the board would consider Buckner’s request, but she said later it’s difficult to allow citizens to speak, because of how long it would lengthen the meetings, particularly because the county has more residents than the other municipalities.

"We do want to give citizens the opportunity to speak, but that time is at the end of the meeting. If every time a subject came up we offered the public an opportunity to speak, we would be here all night long," Morgan said. "If citizens see something on the agenda they are concerned about they can call their commissioner or call me or (County Clerk) Jackie (Smith). We’re not trying to not let them have a voice, but this is a business meeting."

And Morgan said a business meeting is different from a public hearing or a town hall, because a business meeting is not interactive. It’s designed to be as efficient as possible, which is why the commissioners are given packets of information ahead of time to study and understand.

"That is the style of agenda recommended by the ACCG, one we’ve used in this county for about 20 years. The board of commissioners agreed at beginning of the year to continue in that style and format," Morgan said.

However, residents have said they often don’t understand an agenda item until after they hear the BOC’s discussion, but they’re still able to call their commissioner for more details.

District 2 Commissioner Earnest Simmons said he understands the time concerns, but he is planning to discuss this issue with the board at their next retreat, which is being planned for the end of this year.

"I kind of agree with that; he has a good point. I feel we should come up with something, maybe where each side gets three minutes or five minutes," Simmons said. "I understood exactly where he was coming from, because by the end of meeting most people are gone or get frustrated that they can’t speak. We will take that into consideration."

As far as the cities, Covington, Oxford and Porterdale allow citizens to speak during the meeting, while Newborn and Mansfield only allow citizens to speak after the meeting.

Covington requires citizens to sign up before the meeting if they want to speak on a certain agenda item. If they want to talk about something not on the agenda, they are given the opportunity both before and after the meeting.

"We’ve been very proactive since the administration came in and decided to move public comments to the first part of the agenda and at the end of the agenda, in case someone did not want to stay for all of the meeting," Mayor Kim Carter said. "Also anyone is welcome to comment and speak about anything on the agenda by signing in."

She said there is no set time limit on speakers, and the time given depends on how full the agenda is and the nature of the topic being discussed. Citizens are required to sign up, so that the mayor can see how many people want to speak and conduct the meeting accordingly.

In Porterdale, citizens are allowed to speak for five minutes before the meeting, and can comment during the meeting in most cases, Mayor Bobby Hamby said. He said citizens can’t speak if a motion has been made, but if the council is discussing an issue, citizens can join in by raising their hands and being called on.

"Most of the time it works out well. We have to keep residents in line sometimes, especially if they’re discussing something emotional," Hamby said. "I remember years ago on the council the city council basically didn’t allow anybody to say anything, because at that time the particular mayor was not able to keep control of the crowd. One spectator would get into an argument with another spectator. We don’t allow that to take place."

Oxford has similar rules to Porterdale, allowing citizens to speak before the meeting on any issue, and during the meeting after all of the council members have completed their discussion a topic. Mayor Jerry Roseberry said work sessions are much more relaxed and the public is allowed to directly speak with council members.

Mansfield allows citizens to speak after the meeting if they sign up but doesn’t allow any comments during the meeting. Assistant Clerk Diana Pringle said most of the agenda items are just legal issues, which residents usually don’t understand, unless they attend every meeting. She said no one has complained about the structure, which moves things along.

"If they were allowed to speak during the meeting, then we wouldn’t get anything done," Pringle said.

In Newborn is the public is allowed to speak at the end of the meeting, and rarely during the meeting.

"The Mayor and Council have had, at times, citizens speaking up and voicing their opinion when items are discussed, but it is not encouraged," Town Clerk Lisa Rowe said.

Rowe said some residents have requested the ability to speak during the meeting, and 2009 Mayoral Candidate Roger Sheridan has said if he’s elected, residents will be able to speak before the council votes on agenda items.

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