Questions Remain On County’s Lack Of Public Comments

SNOW HILL – Public comments may soon come to a County Commissioner meeting, but citizens should not expect to see a change in the public comment policy at next week’s commissioner meeting.

One commissioner said this week there might be changes in the near future.

 “I can see the commissioners taking time before lunch at 11:45, and basically opening the floor up and letting everyone have their two minutes, have their say,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.

Shockley did reiterate his concern that the schedule of the commissioner meetings be maintained, although there is no formal schedule. Typically, commissioners meetings last as long as they need to in order to get the day’s work accomplished. At times, only a morning session is necessary, while at other times the meeting can stretch late into the afternoon.

There is no word on when, or if, public comments will become an official part of the commissioner meetings. The commission likely would have to vote on any change, and it is uncertain whether a majority of the commissioners would support formal public comments.

“I think it would probably be a good idea to have a formal policy,” Commissioner Linda Busick said. “I think we need to take a look at it anyway.”

Changes to the public comment policy seemed to be afoot at the Nov. 6 meeting. The few modifications seen that day appeared to indicate that the commissioners had discussed public comments that week, but, in fact, the county’s top elected officials did not debate their public comment policy.

“We didn’t discuss it in closed session,” Shockley said.

No official change in public comment policy was therefore made.

One week after an article in The Dispatch on the topic, the need for a formal policy was demonstrated at a commissioner meeting when Commission President Jim Purnell allowed a discussion on slot machine gambling to become an impromptu public hearing, despite one commissioner’s protests.

Commissioner Judy Boggs expressed her concern twice during that discussion over allowing speakers from the audience to testify. Public hearings, she said, must legally be advertised weeks in advance so every one interested can get a chance to speak.

“I believe Commissioner Boggs was absolutely right,” Busick said this week.

An established public comment period at the end of the morning session would have allowed audience members a limited forum to speak their minds without the need for a possibly illegal public hearing.

“If it’s not on the agenda and a citizen comes down to the meeting, I feel the commissioners should take the time to listen to what they have to say,” said Busick. “I don’t see any problem with letting the citizenry express their opinion.”

Shockley added, “Certain things I think would be valuable to the commissioners to hear, and there are certain things that won’t be. I’m not trying to stop people having their say before the county commissioners. As long as people are polite I have no problem with it. We’re there to work with the people who live in this county.”