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Council considers limiting public comment time

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Elizabeth City City Council last Monday debated new meeting rules that would limit speaking time for citizens and councilors alike.

The council voted 6-2 not to adopt those changes Monday, but agreed to revisit them during its retreat next month. The two “nay” votes were Councilors Jeannie Young and Billy Caudle.

The council took up the issue while considering new “Rules of Procedure” for its meetings. The council is required to set new rules whenever a new term begins. Monday was the first regular meeting of the new council that was elected in October.

The new rules would set a hard, three-minute limit for comments from each citizen and from each councilor during council “comments and inquiries” at the end of meetings. Currently, a citizen may use time donated from another, giving them no more than six minutes of comment, and councilors have no time limit on their comments and inquiries.

The rules included other changes as well. Public hearings would be held whenever they normally came up on meeting agendas, rather than always starting at 7:30 p.m. The rules also would require any item councilors add to the agenda during a meeting be “for discussion purposes only.” In one change the council accepted Monday, the rules also made all councilors members of the city's finance committee.

Several councilors objected to the time limits on comments, whether from councilors or the public.

“I don't feel we should start off as a council with restricting people's comments when they want to come up. Our job is to hear their concerns,” said Councilor Darius Horton.

Councilor Kem Spence agreed, saying he's seen some “really important issues that need more than three minutes.”

Young defended limiting public comment, however, arguing public comment is meant to make councilors aware of issues they need to follow up on.

“I think with three minutes, I think that's plenty of time to come and make us aware of what the problem is,” Young said. “It's our job then to get with those people and give them the proper time.”

Councilor Johnnie Walton, who called for councilors to further discuss each change, then asked Young if she had proposed the changes to the rules. Young said no.

To that point, City Manager Rich Olson also declined in a followup interview to say who had requested the changes

Walton also objected to limiting the council's comments, arguing that could limit councilors from bringing forth constituents' issues, and to not holding public hearings at exactly 7:30 p.m. The set time provides certainty for the businesses or citizens with a stake in the hearing, he argued.

Councilor Anita Hummer also disagreed with limiting public comment. Sometimes people needed more time to discuss controversial issues, and to raise awareness on issues they may feel the city isn't addressing, she said.

Spence then proposed adopting the Rules of Procedure without any changes, save for making the finance committee include all councilors, and further discuss the time restrictions later.

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