06/23/14 — Commissioners eyeing new limits on comments

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Commissioners eyeing new limits on comments

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 23, 2014 1:46 PM

Wayne County commissioners last year increased the length of time someone can speak during the public comment portion of their meetings.

Last week, they considered cutting the length of time back to three minutes.

Commissioners had stretched the time to four minutes but several members of the board said last week they believe three minutes is sufficient.

Commissioner John Bell said most people should be able to say what is on their minds in three minutes.

But Commissioner Joe Daughtery said the commissioners are considering the change simply because of one person -- Tom Drew, who speaks at almost every meeting.

"I think we are looking to make a change in policy only because of one individual that appears to be abusing the system," Daughtery said. "It appears as if other boards have handled this in a different way other than reducing the time for everybody as the result of one individual.

"Prior to voting on this, I would really like to ask the county manager and the county attorney to see if there are other options than limiting everyone's time."

Commissioner Chairman Wayne Aycock had made a motion to reduce the time limit to three minutes but said he would withdraw the motion if other commissioners had a problem with it. He then asked County Manager George Wood and County Attorney Borden Parker to investigate the legality of limiting speakers' time.

"Mr. Parker, Mr. Wood, if you would look into it because it is my understanding that maybe the way some other groups have handled it, it really might not be lawful," Aycock said. "We want to make sure we are going by the general statutes in any actions that we do take."

Commissioner Ed Cromartie said he didn't want to remove the opportunity for citizens to feel free to attend the meetings to voice their opinion.

"Almost without exception there is an oftentimes a glimmer of information in folks' comments whether or not is thoroughly explained," he said.

Commissioner Bill Pate said he wanted to ensure that the issue was not confused with public hearing comments.

The two are separate issues, Wood emphasized.

Wood said he would have staff members check with neighboring counties to see how they handle any similar issues.

"Let me ask the attorney, would we be getting into a free speech area if we for example, and I don't mind calling Mr. Drew's name," Bell said. "He comes up weeks in a row and talks about the same thing with his little signs and has the same comments.

"You can't limit that, can you?"

"In my opinion, you cannot," Parker said. "You are going to have to treat everybody the same way."

Bell asked Parker if the board could restrict people from coming up and "quizzing" commissioners.

"You don't have to answer the questions," Parker said. "The chairman can say that or you can just sit there without saying anything.

"It is not the time for them to come and ask you questions. It is the time for them to come and tell you what is on their mind."