Benches at the Newton County Historic Courthouse were filled with people Tuesday night, many there to protest a controversial resolution placing restrictions on public participation and media presence during the Newton County Board of Commissioners’ meetings.
The resolution, which had been briefly discussed at a board meeting in September, would have moved public comments to the beginning of the BOC meetings; limited the public comment period to 30 minutes; required citizens wanting to address the board to fill out a comment card with their name, address and nature of comments prior to the meeting; limited the comments to items on the evening’s agenda; and requiring citizens to contact commissioners, the chair or county manager with other concerns, comments or questions.
In wake of contentious commentary periods at a number of recent meetings, the resolution also spelled out that citizens could not or make personal, impertinent, slanderous or profane remarks curing the commentary meeting. Violation would lead to the person being ejected from the meeting.
When presenting the resolution, Chairman Keith Ellis, said the proposed change in moving the comments to the beginning of the meeting was something he long favored since it would give citizens a chance to comment on agenda items before commissioners made decisions.
Almost immediately, Commissioner Levie Maddox made a motion to table the resolution, while Commissioner John Douglas offered a substitute motion to kill the resolution, not table it.
“I’m not comfortable telling the people who pay our salary, keep our lights on, that they can’t come up here and talk,” Douglas said.
Commissioner Lanier Sims told those at the meeting that he had read the resolution on Saturday. “The big question is where did this come from?” he asked, seconding Douglas’s motion. “Having a resolution on the agenda to muzzle citizen’s comments is crazy.
“We ask people to be respectful, and for the most part—99 percent of the citizens—are respectful,” he said. “We’re respectful, you’re respectful. We can get through these tough issues if we’re respectful.”
Commissioner Nancy Schulz also shared her concerns about limiting citizen’s commentary to agenda items only. “Communications is essential to good business, and to good government,” she said.
She thought some pieces of the resolution were worth pursuing, specifically those that set out rules for the media and the use and placement of video, recording and photographic equipment were worth pursuing, they should be discussed at an upcoming meeting.
Concerned that County Attorney W. T. “Tommy” Craig had been asked to draft a resolution without the knowledge of the full BOC, she added, “No more secrecy. No more handling these actions [behind closed doors]. It fosters distrust up here. It’s no wonder there’s frustration in the county.”
The motion to kill the resolution passed 5-0.
Despite the vote, many citizens, who’d come to the meeting prepared to criticize the resolution, spoke during the commentary session. Most began by thanking the commissioners for denying the motion.
At least two made comments that suggested the resolution was indicative of a bigger problem.
“While I appreciate you voting [the resolution] down, you need to look at the fundamentals,” said Wesley Dowdy. Criticizing the BOC for “playing politics,” he said someone had put the resolution on the agenda, someone had asked the county attorney to draft it.
“You have to fix what you do,” he said. “Do not be dishonest.”
Resident Larry McSwain was among those praising the commissioners for voting down the resolution, but said it was obvious there was no transparency, “not only with the public, but with each other.”