Polk hears backlash over new citizen comment policy

Published 10:00 pm Sunday, August 31, 2014

by Leah Justice
Polk County Commissioners heard from a few residents recently who said they do not agree with a new citizen comment policy approved in early August. Residents who wish to speak now have to do so at the beginning of the meeting only and have three minutes to do so, with a timer displayed on 70-inch flat screens displayed in the meeting room.
Commissioners met Aug. 18 for the first time since the majority of commissioners approved the new policy on Aug. 4.
Commissioner chair Ted Owens reviewed the meeting decorum prior to citizen comments as well as the new process that includes a timer the audience and speaker can see with a green-yellow-red color system to indicate how much time a speaker has left. During commissioner comments at the end of the meeting, Owens said it wasn’t exactly comfortable for him to do what he had to do, speaking of timing and having to cut off residents after three minutes.
Mary Mowery said she is not a landowner, but her family has been here for 35 years. She said she doesn’t usually come to meetings because she didn’t think commissioners want to hear from people like her. She said after reading about public comments in the Bulletin, she was disturbed enough to come and speak.
Mowery said she understands some commissioners voted to allow for unlimited speech but it seems to her now that those commissioners don’t like who or what’s being said they want to put on limitations.
“This is supposed to be a democratic process,” said Mowery.
She said it seems like commissioners are trying to “squash people’s opinions,” and as just one of the people who votes, she wanted to express her objection.
David Pschirer said he thinks he clearly sparked commissioners to change citizen comments when a few meetings ago he told commissioners he didn’t understand why the board voted first and then took public comments. What the board did instead, Pschirer said, it felt to him, was take an opportunity to squash debate and put comments at the front end of the meeting.
“That was not at all my intent,” Pschirer said.
He also said he doesn’t think three minutes is enough and suggested five minutes per speaker.
During commissioner comments, commissioner Tom Pack addressed Pschirer, saying the change in citizen comments was not done because of what Pschirer said in a previous meeting and in fact, it had nothing to do with Pschirer at all.
Renée McDermott urged commissioners to go back having citizen comments after every agenda item. She also asked for commissioners to re-adopt the rule the majority deleted when their terms began concerning wording items on the agenda with clear descriptions so the public and other commissioners will know what is being discussed.
Following the 2012 election, the current majority changed the public comment process by eliminating the three-minute limit on speakers and instead allowed residents to speak for as long as needed.
Previously, residents could speak after every agenda item and also had an opportunity at the end of the meeting to speak on non-agenda items. Residents then and now have to sign up in order to speak.
Some commissioners on Aug. 4 said public comments had gotten out of hand with some being purely politically motivated so the majority changed the citizen comment policy. Commissioner Ray Gasperson did not approve the new policy.
The new policy is that citizen comments are allowed at the beginning of the meeting with a three-minute limit. Residents are no longer allowed to speak after any agenda item or at the end of the meeting.

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