Polk commissioners change rules on citizen comments at meetings

Published 10:00 pm Monday, August 11, 2014

By Claire Sachse
The Polk County Board of Commissioners voted at its regular meeting on Aug. 4 to change the rules and format of citizen comments at public meetings.
Commissioners voted to change the order of the agenda so that citizen comments will occur toward the beginning of the meeting instead of at the end of each agenda item. Commissioners also changed the format of public comments, limiting each speaker to three minutes. The current board majority changed citizen comments after first being sworn into office in December 2012 to allow residents to speak under no time restraints. Previous boards limited speakers to three minutes per topic.
Commission meeting agendas will now follow the following format: call to order, invocation, pledge of allegiance, approval of agenda, citizen comments, approval of minutes and then any other business before the board.
Commissioner chair Ted Owens, commissioner Tom Pack and vice-chair Michael Gage voted for the changes. Commissioner Ray Gasperson opposed the changes. Commissioner Keith Holbert was absent from the Aug. 4 meeting.
“When I was elected in 2004 as a county commissioner,” said Owens, who placed the citizen comment item on the Aug. 4 agenda, “I presented the idea of having citizen’s comments after each agenda item to commissioner Tom Pack. He supported the idea, and in the Dec. 6, 2004 meeting, the board of commissioners adopted this as part of the meeting procedures and rules. Commissioner Pack was board chairman that first year and it worked very well. Over the last three administrations, however, it (citizen comment period) has deteriorated to personal agendas and political agendas.”
Pack described the prior commissioner’s meeting as a “zoo” with citizens making comments out of order, slamming their fists on the podium and the gavel banging repeatedly.
“We’re not getting a lot of constructive ideas,” said Pack, “and discussions are becoming political footballs.”
Gage reported that he listened to the audio recording of the last commissioners’ meeting. He said, “They’re wild and crazy. There’s not a lot of constructive criticism.”
Owens described the last meeting as a “total fiasco” and said it was time for the commission to get the meetings back in order. He said that as chairman he did have the authority to ask the sheriff to remove people from the room, but he felt that would have been drastic. He reported that Polk County is one of a few counties that allow citizen comments after each agenda item.
“We’re here to conduct the county’s and the people’s business. We’re not here to get some personal or political point across,” Owens added. He said that he would consider keeping the comment period after every agenda item if citizens would strictly limit their comments to the agenda item at hand.
Referring to former commissioner Renée McDermott, Pack said, “That’s where we’re coming to with this. It’s because we have people like her that can’t stay on the agenda item (during citizen comments).”
Commissioner Ray Gasperson voted against changing the procedure, saying he doesn’t see a compelling reason to change the current rules.
“I don’t fully see a good and compelling reason to change what we have,” Gasperson said. “When I was chair (of the board of commissioners) I really made an effort to follow the rules of decorum during citizen comments, and if someone got into personal attack mode I would do my best to say ‘hold on, we need to talk policy and issues.’”
“Our county is different from a lot of counties,” continued Gasperson, referring to those that have three-minute limits on public comment per speaker, “because they’re lucky if they get just a handful of citizens (to) show up. But look what we have, even at this hour. We have active participation from this group of citizens.”
Five citizens spoke against the change during citizen comments and referenced the need for better conduct, respect toward the board and fellow citizens and transparency.
Dennis Hill spoke about citizen conduct and how lack of respect is an issue.
“The chair of the board of commissioners is responsible to create an environment where conduct is respectful … so you have a means of managing the temperament and conduct of the people in an appropriate manner,” he said.
McDermott said that the ‘cure’ does not fit the ‘disease.’
“Limiting citizen comments and having them all at the beginning of the meeting doesn’t address decorum,” McDermott said. “The cure,” she continued, “is for the chairman to keep the meeting in order … and for the audience and the board of commissioners to respect one another.”
Nancy Pemberton said, “I always assumed the reason comments followed the agenda items was because the commissioners cared what the people of the county thought.”
Debbie Arceneaux said the meeting agendas did not contain enough description for citizens to be informed on the topics to be discussed, and that she found it difficult to find agenda information online.

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