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EC Town Hall will be at AoA

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Citizens will have a chance to talk face to face with members of Elizabeth City City Council at Arts of the Albemarle next Monday.

Council finalized the details Monday night for a town hall meeting starting at 6:30 p.m. that will have an unusually open format.

Council agreed to suspend rules at the event restricting councilors from responding directly to public comments. The goal is to allow residents to have a dialogue with councilors, rather than simply make comments city officials might not respond to.

Council did agree to limit each citizen's conversation with council to 4 minutes, in hopes of preventing any one citizen or city councilor from monopolizing the time. Also, to ensure many residents can be heard, council set no end time for the meeting.

Council scheduled the meeting at the request of 4th Ward Councilor Johnnie Walton. During the council's Aug. 28 meeting, Walton claimed council needed to hold a town hall meeting before voters go to the polls for the city council election. Walton stressed that the town hall should allow interaction between citizens and elected officials.

Such a loosely structured meeting caused concerns for city staff, however.

City Attorney Bill Morgan said the town hall is considered a “special meeting” under state law, meaning it must have a clearly stated purpose and be held to consider no business other than that purpose.

That need for specificity conflicted with Walton's request that council be allowed to discuss any city issue citizens bring forward. City staff suggested stating the meeting's purpose as “to obtain citizen input on management of city services,” but Walton proposed adding the phrase “and other issues for clarity” to that.

Morgan warned that invited legal trouble, however. He argued the phrase “management of city services” should cover any city issue citizens want to discuss.

As a compromise, Mayor Joe Peel instead proposed stating the town hall’s purpose as “to obtain citizen input and questions” on city services. Both Morgan and Walton said they found that language acceptable.

The open-ended town hall also raises another issue: council's rules of procedure restrict councilors from responding to public comments during meetings, a rule that generally prevents councilors from interrupting or arguing with citizens. Morgan said council could waive that rule through a super-majority vote, but also cautioned that Peel, as presiding officer at the meeting, could find it challenging to moderate such a “free-for-all.”

Peel didn't express concerns about that, however. Instead, he said that city councilors themselves took up a lot of time talking at the last town hall meeting held earlier this year. That led councilors to agree to limit each person's comments or conversation with city officials to 4 minutes. They also agreed that councilors must wait until speakers ask them a question before they can comment.

Councilors voted 6-1 to hold the town hall meeting and to suspend the council's rules on responding to citizens. Councilor Ray Donnelly cast the lone no vote.

Reached for comment Tuesday, Donnelly said he didn't oppose holding a town hall, but opposed suspending council's rules restricting councilors' responses to citizens.

"My feeling is, when some councilors respond, they eat up a lot of time of the citizens," he said, calling that "inappropriate."

Donnelly also expressed concerns that the town hall could enable personal attacks, whether from citizens or councilors, and that some councilors might try to use the town hall for campaign purposes. Donnelly, notably, is not running for re-election.

Despite his reservations, Donnelly said he still plans to attend the event.

The city last held a town hall meeting in May at the Knobbs Creek Recreation Center, in which citizens commented primarily on utility issues. That meeting also had some problems. Citizens and city officials alike complained of bad audio; audio should be better now that the meeting is being held in the Maguire Theater at Arts of the Albemarle.

Additionally, the meeting was advertised as ending at 8 p.m., prompting Peel to end the meeting at that time even though some citizens hadn't gotten to speak.

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