The rules committee of the Washington County Commission is slated to meet Tuesday, and on the agenda is consideration of a resolution to change the public comment rules for both the commission and all its standing committees.
Huzzah, I say, huzzah!
I campaigned for such a change in this space on Oct. 26, 2013, though the previous county commission had no appetite for it.
Now, with a new board of commissioners in place, it looks as though the public will soon be getting its chance to be heard in public meetings.
The move for change began at the last rules committee meeting Jan. 20. Commissioner Robbie Tester brought to the committee a resolution he had written in support of public comment, asking that the committee move it forward to the full commission.
Unfortunately, Tester had not followed the rules for bringing a resolution before a committee, so it was tabled until next Tuesday night. You see, before a committee can consider a resolution, that resolution must be viewed by the county attorney. This prevents committees from wasting time considering resolutions that the attorney would later have to step in and advise the committee (or the full commission) are illegal.
In reviewing the rules, I think you’ll see why I wanted them changed 17 months ago, and why, in principle, I support Tester’s move to change them now.
Rule 4A as stated in the Commission’s “Rules of Procedures” published on the county website, washingtoncountytn.org states, “It may be allowable for non-commission individuals to address the Board. 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 a 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.”
Rule 9C states, “Only duly elected members of (any) committee may be recognized by the committee; however, non-members of the committee, upon request of a committee member and an affirmative majority vote of the committee members present may address the committee – in no manner shall anyone interfere with the proceedings of the committee.”
So in order for you, as a non-member county resident, to speak at a commission or committee meeting, you must first be invited to do so by a member. Then, if there is an objection by a member, the committee must vote on whether or not it will allow you to speak. 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.
Thankfully, in practice, the commission and its committees ignore Rules 4A and 9C on most occasions. But the fact that these are official rules allows for the possibility they will be used and/or abused in the future.
I understand that committees don’t want to have unruly crowds creating chaos and disorder at their meetings, but Rules 4A and 9C go far beyond addressing that issue and, in fact, create more serious issues.
Taken together, they are yet another example of government creating unintended consequences by taking a “Use a howitzer to kill a housefly” approach.
Unfortunately, Tester’s solution, in my opinion, is a howitzer approach as well. The resolution he presented at the last rules committee meeting would create unintended consequences of its own.
Tester’s resolution calls for the chair to ask for public comment at both the beginning and end of every commission meeting and every committee meeting. It states that each member of the public must be allowed no more than three minutes to address the commission or committee, and that the commission or committee be mandated to give a good faith response to each individual. In addition, before the committee or commission may take any vote or move from one item of business to the next, the chair must ask for public comment on the matter at hand, recognizing any individual to speak for up to one minute, and again the body must give a good faith response to the individual.
Do you trust that there are no individuals who would abuse this? That there are no, for instance, disgruntled former commissioners who would raise non-substantive questions on non-controversial issues just to gum up the works? That we wouldn’t end up with left-wing hippie county residents debating Tea Party die-hards with the commission as little more than spectators?
In Tester’s resolution, there is no limit on the number of individuals who may address the body, nor is there any provision for limiting the number of times an individual can get back up and speak again.
The lack of a mechanism to keep gadflies from hijacking meetings with rants that are on-topic but irrelevant to actually doing the county’s business, or are redundant after previous comments, or are merely political posturing for a challenger in the next commission election makes this resolution untenable.
Happily, this commission is unlikely to do what the last one did, which was to ignore the calls for change and go on doing business as usual until being voted out of office. Nor is it likely to over-reach to the extent Tester proposes.
This commission has, so far, shown willingness to seriously consider issues and make decisions. I look forward to seeing how it proposes to bridge the gap between closed government and in-meeting anarchy in a way that serves the taxpayers best.