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Council won't change public comment rules

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Elizabeth City City Council agreed last week not to set new limits on public comment during its meetings, though several councilors called for taking a hard line against “personal attacks” against city officials.

Council debated its regulations for public comment last month while considering changes to its rules of procedure. Councilors disagreed on restricting public comment, as well as other rule changes, saying they would try to resolve those matters during their retreat in Kitty Hawk on Thursday and Friday.

Currently, each citizen attending meetings may have three minutes to address councilors, plus three more minutes if another speaker donates them time.

First Ward City Councilor Jeannie Young advocated for eliminating donated time, explaining she felt public comment during meetings is simply meant to make councilors aware of citizens' concerns. Councilors should follow up after meetings to give people enough time to address their concerns, she said, arguing neither three nor six minutes is long enough to do that.

When council revisited the issue on Thursday, however, Young agreed with fellow First Ward Councilor Billy Caudle that council should leave the time limits alone. Young reiterated she felt councilors' obligation is follow up with speakers — and said she had done just that after people criticized eliminating donated time.

“We had already set the precedence of the six minutes,” she said. “It's kind of hard, once we've already given it to them and they're so used to that.”

While not calling for the public comment rules to be changed, Third Ward Councilor Rickey King suggested there are pros and cons to giving people extra time.

“Some people can get up there and actually articulate what they want ... within that six minutes, but then you get some people get up there and just babble for six minutes; that's annoying,” King said.

Caudle said council should encourage people to “structure” and clearly share their concerns.

Young and Caudle also encouraged council not to tolerate personal attacks or curse words directed against city officials. Speakers are free to criticize councilors or staff without getting “ugly,” they said.

They noted, for example, how Jesse Harmon, a citizen, had told City Manager Rich Olson during a meeting last month that he is going to hell. As the person in charge of the meeting, Mayor Bettie Parker told Harmon his remark was inappropriate. Parker said Thursday she would continue to moderate such comments.

Councilor Darius Horton noted, however, that accepting harsh criticism comes with being an elected official. Horton also continued to oppose limiting public comment, noting it looked bad for a newly elected council to make that change.

Caudle agreed the councilors were “targets,” but reiterated he felt staff shouldn't be attacked.

King said council at one time used to read participation guidelines before public comment periods at meetings, and that speakers generally followed them.

Councilor Johnnie Walton agreed public comment rules should not change, but criticized the secrecy around proposing the change. Walton asked last month to know who proposed the rule change, but no councilor took credit for it.

Walton claimed that former First Ward Councilor Jean Baker proposed that same rule change, as well as one limiting time for council comments on non-agenda items, back in 2016.

Councilors also agreed on Thursday that council comment times should not be limited either. A majority of councilors present did agree on two other changes, however.

Under one rule change, public hearings will now be held right after the public comment period during meetings. Public hearings currently always start at 7:30 p.m., which provides certainty to the people affected by the hearing, but can interrupt debate on other topics.

A majority of councilors also agreed that, when councilors add items to a meeting's agenda during that meeting, those items should be discussed but not acted upon. Parker supported that change, noting it won’t force other councilors or possibly her — as council’s tie-breaker — to act on items without enough information or consideration.

Council took no action during last week's retreat, so any changes councilors agreed to last week will need to be voted on in another meeting.

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