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County Council, March 9

Tighter rules for Public Comments
No profanity and threats
Warwick Jones

There was only one item of interest on yesterday’s agendas. It was discussion by the Administration Policy/ Rules Committee on restraining abusive and insulting language by members of the public when addressing Council.

Before the Committee, and all the other members of Council who were present, was a draft of a proposed statement to be placed on the sign-up sheet where members of the public register to speak. We understand that the statement was drafted by Chairman Rawl and approved by County Attorney Dawson. The statement is shown below.

By signing this sheet you hereby acknowledge that this is a limited public forum and you are required to conduct yourself in a manner that expresses civility. All comments will be limited to two (2) minutes. The use of profanity will not be tolerated nor will any personal attacks against anyone in attendance. If you violate this Public Code of Conduct Acknowledgment, you waive the right to address Council and you will be asked to be seated or leave the meeting.

In a way, we were surprised by the item. We understand that the request for such a statement was made by Council member Johnson who was reacting to the comments made by the public about the then Chair of Council, Council member Summey. Councilmember Summey made some very indiscreet remarks about other Council members, colored folk, I-526 and other things, all of which was recorded. Many citizens were appalled and some had comments and judgments which were also appalling. But this was all months ago. If there were indignation on the part of Council, its incubation took a long time.

The discussion over the proposed statement was very thoughtful. All Council members agreed with the tenor of the statement but perhaps it went too far. Council member Darby questioned the term “personal attacks”. How would this be defined and did it go too far? After all, the action of a Council member may warrant a “personal attack”. Council was broadly in agreement and the term was to be removed and replaced with “profane and/ or threatening language”.

There also seemed to be a consensus that it was difficult to precisely define what was offensive, and indeed, what was outside the law. Politicians are not a protected class and there is a lot of latitude for the public in their description. So Council members agreed that it would be left to the Chair of meetings to ultimately draw the line between acceptable and offensive speech.

There was also some discussion about the time limit for comments made during public participation. Council member Schweers noted that 3 minutes used to be the limit but recently it had been dropped to 2 minutes. He preferred 3 minutes. Council member Pryor did not agree. He said that some meetings had drawn many members of the public who spoke only of a single issue. This had prolonged meetings and other members who planned to speak on other issues simply gave up and went home. Council member Pryor was in favor of limiting the time for public comments.

The proposed statement with the amendment will now go to the Finance Committee for approval

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