County’s Public Comment Stance Unknown

SNOW HILL – No elected official reported the outcome of the County Commissioners’ private discussion of its public comment policy at Tuesday’s meeting, but one thing is clear: open comments from the public are still not permitted. 

The commissioners reportedly made some kind of decision on public comments, but there was no announcement of any change in the commissioners’ stance on public comment, or how they arrived at what appears to be a new resolution to be more careful about allowing people to voice their opinions on agenda items outside of a public hearing, and making sure to allow both sides to speak.

A few references to a discussion that must have taken place in Tuesday morning’s executive session dropped into the day’s conversation during the Nov. 6 commission meeting, and municipal elected officials and some citizens were permitted to speak on slot machine gambling.

Despite commission President Jim Purnell’s assertion made last week that public comment has always been permitted, still no one was allowed to speak to the entire board on an open topic. Nor were citizens invited by the commission to speak their minds at the end of either the morning or afternoon session.

The commissioners, in fact, snubbed a reporter’s attempt to ask the entire body a question at the end of the meeting, which had not yet been adjourned.           

From the comments made by the commissioners throughout the meeting on Tuesday, Worcester County’s elected officials did not appear to have zeroed in on the focus of an article published in the Nov. 2 issue – the lack of a public comment period at commissioner meetings, instead choosing to focus on the article’s criticism of the way the commission president chooses who is allowed to speak on agenda items.

Purnell seemed content to reassert his position Tuesday, although not to the meeting at large, that the chance to make public comments when requested by a citizen has always existed, only to follow that statement with the comment that the commissioners cannot allow just anyone to stand up and speak.

Purnell then blamed the meeting schedule, which must be kept, he said.

Although other commissioners in last week’s article, notably Commissioners Virgil Shockley and Judy Boggs also cited keeping to a schedule, there is little in the way of an official schedule.

The county does not provide an item-by-item agenda to the public or the several local newspapers that cover the meetings. Instead, the agenda is largely blank. The only items included are boilerplate occurrences like the call to order and the Pledge of Allegiance; public hearings; legislative sessions; or appointments for major presentations.

Most of the 25 to 30 items to be considered by the commissioners remain a mystery to the public and media until just before the meeting starts when packets of relevant materials are distributed to reporters and representatives of interested organizations.

Nor are the topics to be discussed made available to the public in advance, although the agenda is finalized the Friday before the Tuesday meeting. There does not appear to be an official schedule.

Groups with a focused interest get different treatment than the lone citizen. That’s was the case this week with the slots discussion.

“When you care enough to come down here en masse and sit there and politely put your hand up, we’re bound to listen to you,” County Commissioner Louise Gulyas said Tuesday.

The stance appears to leave the lone citizen without public recourse, but the reality is that at the moment the real policy is unknown.