To the surprise of the Courier news staff, we found out this week that the Liberty County Board of Commissioners does not allow public comment during regular commission meetings.
Even though the state of Georgia does not require its county commissions to allow public comment at its meetings, we think this is a bad policy. Not giving residents two to five minutes to publicly voice their concerns once or twice a month restricts their right to free speech, and can cause citizens to resent their governing body.
Most people just want to be heard when they are upset over a situation, like the folks on the east end of the county who are understandably irate about the reduced adequacy in their fire and emergency services.
Social media can be a way to vent, but it doesn’t necessarily offer a permanent solution to a problem and can worsen the situation by spreading misinformation.
Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown informed the Courier via email that, “Members of the public are encouraged to discuss concerns with their individual commissioner and chairman in order to help determine the most appropriate way to handle the concern. Discussion of a scheduled business item on the agenda is limited to those parties who have a direct business relationship with the matter. The most common of these is related to zoning issues which includes a public hearing to affected parties of the rezoning or land use matter at hand.”
“Entities requesting to be on the agenda should contact the BOC office to make the request and should state the reason for address to the board,” Brown added. “There are specific agenda close-out dates for each meeting. The chairman is then forwarded a draft of the proposed agenda and gives the final approval.”
The county administrator said the deadline for requesting presentation time on an agenda is at noon the week prior to the scheduled meeting. The phone number for the Board of Commissioners administration office is 912-876-2164.
We agree that citizens should be encouraged to contact the commission chairman or the commissioner that oversees their district. Our elected officials have likely answered calls from their constituents at all hours of the day and night.
The public can also contact county staff and administration when they have questions. These staff members are dedicated to public service and strive to assist their neighbors as best they can.
We also must point out that the Liberty County Board of Commissioners and other county government entities have usually provided the Courier information when requested, and have been open to meeting with our staff over the years.
For the most part, our elected and appointed officials have appeared to behave in a transparent manner.
They advertise public hearings in our newspaper, the county’s legal organ, when conducting the process to set millage rates.
“Yet even then, a local government can require citizens to sign up to be on the agenda and impose a time limit for each speaker,” advises First Amendment legal expert and attorney David Hudson.
The Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) offers a model ordinance on meetings organization and public access on its website, accg.org. Perhaps the commission can review the ordinance and adopt it.
It recommends, “The final agenda item of the meeting shall be reserved for comments from the public. Individuals may be allotted five minutes to make their comments and those comments shall be limited to their chosen topic. All members of the public wishing to address the board of commissioners shall submit their names and the topic of their comments to the county manager/administrator/clerk at least one week before the agenda work session.”
The model ordinance also sets out rules for decorum, which members of the public should follow just as do county commissioners.
If residents don’t comply, the ordinance states they can be removed from the meeting at the direction of the chair:
SECTION 7. DECORUM The chair shall enforce the rules of decorum. The purpose of meetings of the board of commissioners is to conduct the county’s business. Meetings shall be conducted in an orderly and respectful fashion. They are not a forum to belittle, ridicule, or embarrass county commissioners, other county officials, county employees, or others in attendance at the meeting.
(a) GENERAL CONDUCT OF THE PUBLIC IN MEETINGS. (1) All cell phones and other communications devices shall be turned off or switched to silent mode; provided, however, that a cell phone or device may be used to make a video or audio recording of the meeting. (2) All meeting attendees must be silent during the meeting while business is conducted. (3) Anyone who wants to speak must first be recognized by the chair. (4) All comments must be directed to the chair and not to individual commissioners, staff, or others. (5) All meeting attendees must conduct themselves in a respectful manner. (6) Personal attacks and derogatory or inappropriate remarks are not permitted. (7) There shall be no use of profanity during the meeting.
If residents are willing to follow these rules, respect their elected officials and behave like reasonable adults so that the commission can conduct the public’s business in a proper manner, then the county should give the taxpayer their two to five minutes for comment.