By DOTTY NIST
New, shorter, time limits for citizens addressing the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) have been approved for the stated purpose of encouraging speakers to “get to the point” and helping the officials “follow a format” for their meetings. The new five-minute time limit for citizen agenda item presentations and comments, a reduction from the previous 10 minutes, was one of a number of changes to meeting and agenda submission procedures that was approved by commissioners on May 26.
County Administrator Ronnie Bell presented recommendations for changes to the procedures, explaining that the BCC had previously directed staff to review them. He began with a recommended agenda format that was slightly different from the one in current use. It provided for a roll call of commissioners in attendance immediately following the call to order. At this time, he explained, it would be determined whether a quorum of members was in place, and an explanation would be provided for the absence of any commissioner, illness being one example given.
Next on the meeting schedule would be an invocation and the pledge to the American flag. Following the pledge, Bell noted, the meeting agenda itself would be addressed. He explained that at this time the deletion or addition of items to the agenda would be determined and the agenda for the meeting would be officially approved by the commissioners. Bell said this would provide notice at the outset of the meeting of any items that would not be heard as previously planned, so that people interested in them would not have to stay only to find out that discussion the item or items had been cancelled or postponed.
Mike Burke, county legal counsel, commented that the informational county commission meeting agenda that is provided to the public on the Thursday prior to each BCC meeting is a courtesy that is not a legal requirement. In reality, the meeting agenda is not disclosed “until this board sits down and votes on it,” he noted. Bell’s recommended agenda schedule continued with approval of the consent agenda and spots on the agenda for recommendations, proposals and informational items by the county administration, the tourist development council, and the county attorney.
Non-land use public hearings were proposed to come next, followed by county commissioner comments and public comments not previously provided. The proposed procedures provided for citizen comments in connection with public hearings to be limited to three minutes in length.
Citizen comments in connection with other agenda items and topics were proposed to be limited to five minutes, unless there had been prior approval of a longer comment period. The recommendations then included the statement, “No debate.” As is the current procedure, land use items were proposed to come last on the agenda, with special items being addressed first, followed by legislative items and quasi-judicial items.
Bell provided a proposed form for citizens to request a place on the BCC agenda and a similar form for use by county departments. He suggested that the forms be placed on the county Web site. Proposed agenda items are required to be submitted in final form a minimum of one week before a meeting. County Commission Chair Sara Comander asked for the elimination of the “no debate” provision, to be replaced with a statement that any extension of time for comments would be subject to approval by the commission chairman.
The meeting procedure proposal provided for a wording change from current language on citizen agenda items. Formerly the language read, “Any citizen SHALL BE ENTITLED [our emphasis] to be placed on the official agenda of a Regular Meeting of the Commission and be heard concerning any matter within the scope of the Commission’s jurisdiction.” The new proposed language read, “Any citizen MAY [our emphasis] be placed on the Agenda of a Regular Meeting of the Commission and be heard concerning any matter within the scope of the Commission’s jurisdiction.”
District 3 Commissioner Larry Jones was concerned that the change might put commissioners in the position to “arbitrarily decide” whose proposed citizen agenda item would be heard or not heard. Jones observed that everyone has the right to be heard if there is a legitimate reason.
Burke responded that, as long as a citizen’s proposal or request is within the jurisdiction of the BCC, and as long as “civility and decorum” are observed, there is always room on the agenda for citizens to be heard. “Absolutely;” Burke added, “they’re encouraged to be here,” Larry Jones and Comander both emphasized that this should be clarified as part of the procedures. Bell’s proposal had called for “add-on” items to be dealt with at the outset of the meeting in conjunction with agenda approval. He had, accordingly, proposed eliminating language stating that commissioners, county administration and the county attorney would have the authority to add-on agenda items (later than the official agenda submission deadline, and in some cases, on the meeting day) “when it is essential, necessary, and in the county’s best interest to do so.”
In response to citizen comment, District 1 Commissioner Scott Brannon requested that the previous language proposed for deletion remain in place, and that the South Walton Tourist Development Council director also be authorized to make add-ons under the specified conditions. Bob Hudson of the Walton County Taxpayers Association (WCTA) credited Commissioner Larry Jones for being “smart” because of his reaction to the previously mentioned “shall/may” substitution.
Hudson was of the opinion that someone reading the proposed language might “see it as an attempt to control public comment.” Hudson said the WCTA also had particular concerns about expenditures being voted on at meetings without prior notice. “I’m about open government,” he said. Hudson called for parcel ID number to be provided to the public in advance in instances where the BCC will be voting on the purchase of property, so that citizens are able to do research on the parcels. Hudson also objected to the reduction of the time allowed for public comment.
“It does give us a way to follow a format,” Comander responded. She added that five minutes is actually longer than it sounds, and that the limit would prevent one person from monopolizing the commissioners’ attention at the expense of other citizens.
“The five minutes is to encourage people to get to the point,”Burke agreed.
“As a former county commissioner said, we want the public input,” Larry Jones remarked, “if it’s five minutes or 25 minutes, we’re going to hear what needs to be said.”
Brannon moved for adoption of the proposed revisions, along with the changes suggested by the commissioners during the course of the discussion. His motion was approved unanimously. On the same topic, the commissioners also discussed maintaining a sign-up list for citizens interested in speaking on a given agenda item, so that their names would be available for the record and they could be called to the lectern by name to address the commissioners. Burke clarified that, if such as list were used, citizens who had not signed the list would be provided with the same opportunity to speak. Dotty Nist can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.