By Scott Robertson
The Rules Committee of the Washington County Commission has asked the county attorney to draft a resolution to greatly ease the strict rules governing public comment at meetings of the commission and all its committees. Most commissioners at the March 17 rules committee meeting agreed that the rules as currently written are designed to limit or restrict public comment, which, they say, is not the current commission’s goal.
“I want people to engage us in the most efficient way possible,” said Commissioner Joe Wise. “I would very much like to see some mechanism for (addressing) agenda items. If there’s a big ticket item, we have a resolution in front of us, we know what we’re voting on, and citizens want to speak out for or against – I want to hear that.”
The current rules for public comment state as found on the county commission’s website (washingtoncountytn.org/government/county_commission), state, “It may be permissible for non-commission individuals to address the board (of commissioners). The chair shall first request if there is any member objection to the request. If there is an objection by any member of the board, the chair shall immediately take a vote to approve or disapprove the objection, with the majority vote of the members present and voting for a decision. If the objection is not approved, the non-commission individual shall be allowed to address the board; however, in their respective discretion, the chair or board may set a limit on time allowed.”
In shorter terms, if any Washington County citizen who isn’t on the commission wishes to speak at a meeting, and even one commissioner objects to hearing that person, then the entire commission must vote on whether the citizen will be heard. If the citizen’s right to speak does not meet with the approval of a majority of commissioners present, then the citizen is denied the right to speak to the commission. Should the citizen try to speak out in the meeting without being recognized by the chair, he or she may be removed.
Commissioner Robbie Tester first brought forth a draft resolution to open meetings for much more public comment at the January meeting of the committee. That resolution was tabled until the county attorney could review it. February’s meeting was cancelled because of winter storms.
The county attorney was not in attendance at the March meeting of the committee, but members decided to move forward in addressing the issue rather than wait another month.
“Rather than talk about the resolution,” said Wise, “let’s talk about what the resolution attempts to do and then have this committee task the county attorney to turn (our) points into a resolution that passes muster…to proceed on to the full commission.”
Tester opened the discussion by sharing with the committee how public comment is handled in surrounding county commission meetings.
“In Greene County, they do three minutes that can be extended at the request of one commissioner,” Tester said. “They ask to be on the agenda ahead of time or one commissioner at the meeting can allow them to speak. Unicoi County does two or three minutes at the beginning of the meeting but it’s not a rigid set time. They do not have to be on the agenda beforehand, and the mayor said if it was a hot topic later on in the meeting they could allow for more comments later in the meeting at the discretion of the chair. Carter County’s mayor is their chair and he allows five minutes to anyone at the beginning of the meeting. During the meeting, if a commissioner recognizes someone, they can have two or three minutes on a specific item. Sullivan County’s mayor is their chair. He does three minutes at the beginning of the meeting.”
After more than half an hour of discussion of options, the committee voted to ask the county attorney to draft a resolution that would replace the old rules with a new system modeled on those used by surrounding counties.
In the new system, the commission would ask citizens who wish to speak to the commission to sign in before full commission meetings, telling what issue or issues they wish to address. When that item comes up on the agenda, citizens who have signed in will be asked to come forward and address the commission. The chair may recognize other citizens wishing to speak at that time as well. There is no provision in the new resolution under which a citizen may be denied the right to speak, though time limits may be enforced, to protect what Wise called, “the right of the commission to move on.”
The process of allowing public comment at meetings of the commission’s committees will also be eased if the full commission votes into place a proposed resolution from the rules committee.
As currently written, the rules for public comment at committee meetings are even more restrictive than the rules for public comment at commission meetings, barring not only citizens, but even county commissioners who are not committee members from speaking without a positive vote of the committee first.
The rules committee unanimously approved asking the county attorney to draft a resolution striking the following sentence, which Committee Chair Lee Chase read aloud at the meeting, from the current rules: “Only duly elected members of the committee may be recognized by the committee; however, non-members of the committee, upon request of a committee member and a majority vote of the committee members present, may address the committee – in no manner shall anyone interfere with the proceedings of the committee.”
Perhaps ironically, several county citizens spoke out during the rules committee meeting, with their comments welcomed by the committee. In fact, the rules on committees have been almost universally ignored in recent years, but rules committee members agreed with Tester’s assertion, “If you’re not going to follow the rules, why have them?”
After the meeting, Tester said he was happy with the outcome. “I feel pretty good about that. I think it accomplished what I was trying to do, which was to make it easier for the public to comment and understand what the process is.”
The full commission must still approve the resolutions changing the rules.