County’s Public Comment Policy Questioned

SNOW HILL – Citizens are welcome at Worcester County Commissioners meetings if they are willing to sit mute and observe the business of the county, but if they want to speak outside of a public hearing, citizens are out of luck.

The public was once allowed to get up in County Commissioners meetings and speak about anything they liked, but in the last five years that practice has disappeared and citizens are restricted to contacting their commissioners privately or speaking at public hearings.

At the end of the morning session, we always said: does anybody else have any other business for the council today?” recalls former County Commissioner Reggie Hancock. “We would give them a chance to voice their comments.”

Hancock, who finished his service as commissioner in 1995, was surprised to learn recently that the commissioners no longer allowed public comment at meetings.

“I don’t quite understand the logic there,” he said, adding that he always found public comments valuable. “Government should be of, for and by the people, and why would we try to prevent anyone from making comments? The commissioners are there to serve other people. They’re not the masters.”

The only public comment opportunities available to regular citizens are during scheduled public hearings, which are focused on a particular issue, and at the discretion of the County Commissioners’ president, who can allow audience members to speak on agenda items.

In at least one well-known instance last spring, that discretion extended to a local attorney representing developer ADC Builders, but not to the other stakeholders in the audience who wished to speak and never had an equal opportunity to weigh in on the subject in a public forum.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley said public comments were eliminated in 2002 when the commissioners expanded from five to seven members.

“When we did questions from the press at lunch time, we allowed people to make comments,” Shockley said of his first term in office between 1998 and 2002. “When we went to seven commissioners in ’02, that just ended. I can’t recall it happening after that.”

Commissioner Louise Gulyas recalled that few people took advantage of the public comment period when it was offered.

County Commission President Jim Purnell said that public comments are still allowed.

“At the end of the meeting, anybody can get up and ask a question or speak,” Purnell said.

However, the commissioners never announce this opportunity, nor is it included on the agenda, and the public does not seem to be aware of it.

“I’m sure if someone raised their hand we would listen to them,” said Gulyas. “It’s available. If someone has a comment they’d like to make, we’d listen to them.”

Several of the commissioners resisted the idea of a public comment period, citing time constraints, inconvenience, lack of control over the content of the comments, the inability to solve problems right then and there and their private availability.

The commissioners seemed concerned more with the practical aspects of public comment than giving citizens an opportunity for a public dialogue.

“You’re out there on a limb pretty good. Somebody’s going to bring up a problem you can’t solve,” Shockley said.

Purnell added, “You don’t want anybody to just get up and talk if you have an agenda to go by.”

There are an average 20 to 25 items in each meeting packet, Shockley said, which have to be gotten through.

“I think our meetings are to get work done. There’s a lot of work that comes before the county,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs.

Shockley added, “People can have access to the commissioners without taking time from the meeting.”

Boggs agreed, saying, “To allow just anyone to speak, we would be hard pressed to keep a schedule. It kind of inconveniences everybody.”

People have many ways of contacting the commissioners and voicing their problems, both Boggs and Shockley said. Telephones, letters and e-mail are all available to a citizen with a complaint.

“There’s opportunity to talk to us one-on-one before we start the meeting, and at lunchtime,” Shockley said.

Both commissioners also said they did not want to give a public platform to people seeking attention.

“If they just want to throw something out there to get publicity, I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” Shockley said.

No one has even asked for a public comment period, Shockley said.

“People are concerned about the federal government. People are concerned about what is going on in Annapolis. We’re kind of the last thing they look at,” Shockley said.

Purnell added, “I’ve been on there 13 years. I’ve never known it to be an issue. I don’t know it’s an issue now.”

Worcester County citizens Dick and Diane Bradford, however, have a different story to tell. When the commissioners directed their complaint to staff and state agencies, the couple was unsatisfied and unable to get on a meeting agenda. The Bradfords said they asked about public comments and were told they were not allowed at commissioners meetings.

Kathy Phillips, Assateague Coastkeeper, would welcome a public comment period, especially after being shut out of discussions where developers’ representatives were allowed to speak.

Commissioner Linda Busick said devoting time to public comments is an idea worthy of discussion.

“I really feel if they make it down to a meeting, that they should have the opportunity to voice their opinion,” said Busick. “I think it’s something we should discuss. I think there should be a dialogue between the elected officials and the public.”

Eighteen of Maryland’s counties specifically invite public comment, 15 with a public comment period during county meetings, and three with regular open forums. Five do not, Worcester, Charles, Howard, Somerset, and Talbot.

Neighboring Accomack County, in Virginia, and Sussex County, in Delaware, also provide a public comment period during county meetings.

All four Worcester County towns also feature public comments at council meetings, as does Ocean Pines, the county’s largest year-round community. The comment period is particularly popular in Ocean City and Berlin.

Shockley said he might support a public comment period once a month, with speakers perhaps restricted to two minutes and the comment period itself limited.

“It seemed like we always ran almost to the last minute on everything before, and it was always lunchtime before questions from the press,” Shockley said. “With the new group, we seem to be going a little faster.”

He acknowledged, “I think it’s something you’re probably going to end up seeing.”

Gulyas said she plans on broaching the topic at the next meeting.

“I’ll bring it up,” Gulyas said. “I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be made available to people. I will find out on Tuesday.”