By Scott Robertson
“It’s a smaller story, but I know you’ve been following it.” -Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher, as written by Gregory McDonald
While most of the headlines from last week’s Washington County Commission meeting regarded the formation of a subcommittee of the Budget Committee with the mission of prioritizing capital projects (if you infer from that fact the meeting was kind of a snoozer, we won’t waste the space to contradict you), a smaller story from the meeting gave many commission-watchers cause to celebrate.
The commission voted unanimously to adopt Resolution 15-10-10, changing its rules regarding public comment at meetings of the full commission and its committees. It may not be cause for all God’s children to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,” but it’s a small step in the direction of freedom. And it’s a small step toward responsible and responsive government. And in my book, those things are always worth celebrating.
Almost two years ago to the week in this space, we ran a column entitled, “I hope I’m not speaking out of turn here,” in which we pointed out the fact that the standing rules on public comment in commission and committee meetings were written in such a way as to make it easy for elected officials to quell dissenting public comment.
Old rule 4A stated that for a non-commission member who resided in the county to speak before the commission, the commission chair had to first ask if any commissioner objected to that individual speaking. If there were an objection, even from just one member, the entire commission had to vote on whether the individual would be allowed to speak, with the majority deciding. So, if you, as a citizen, had made it clear you planned to speak against a position the majority of the commission held, the possibility existed they could deny you that right. Rule 9C codified the same procedure for committee meetings, but worse. To be recognized in committee, a citizen had to be invited to speak by a committee member. The rules essentially stated, as we wrote in that Oct. 26, 2013 column, “If you don’t stand in good favor with a majority of the members present, then you may feel free to just sit down and shut up.”
Happily, in most instances, the commission and its committees ignored the rules and allowed public comment at the discretion of the chair, but there were times when the rules were invoked.
On January 20 of this year, Commissioner Robbie Tester brought before the rules committee a proposed resolution that would have allowed more public comment. In fact, it would have allowed massive public comment, including comment periods every time the commission moved from one item of business to another, and demanding commissioners give “good faith” responses to all public comments. It was classic over-reach, but it had the desired effect. Once the committee agreed with the contention that the rules needed to be changed, it put Tester’s resolution aside and set out to improve the rules in a deliberate, legally-defensible way.
Are the new rules perfect? Sadly, no.
It is still very easy for a majority to quell discussion it doesn’t wish to hear. But at least the commission and its committees now recognize the right of citizens to begin making their comments.
The new rules are published online at Washingtoncountytn.org/government/county_commission at the bottom of the page, by clicking the link entitled rules_of_procedures_10.26.15.pdf.
They state that a public sign-in sheet for requesting an opportunity to address the board of commissioners be made available to the public at least 15 minutes prior to the start of each commission meeting. Individuals are asked to provide their name, their address (to prove they are county citizens) and a brief description of the subject of their comments. The chair will, during the meeting, open the floor for public comment and allow three minutes for each individual to address the commission. The chair has the right to extend that time, subject to the approval of the commission. At any time during the three-minute period, though, any single commissioner may move that the individual’s time be cut short and his or her comments immediately cut off. The chair will call for a full commission vote, and we’re right back where we started.
Frankly, there may be no perfect solution. This is a multi-faceted issue dealing with power, emotion, opinion and a host of subjective factors, each of which must be weighed with common sense on a case-by-case basis.
There will always be gadflies who want to argue everything. There will be citizens who don’t understand the issues, but want to rage at the machine. There will be former or future office holders who want to take the time to grandstand and campaign for office. All of these must be managed for the body to do its work efficiently and effectively.
But the right of citizens to address the workings of their government is paramount. And the commission has taken a small step, at least, in the right direction.