Commentary

Commissioners Argue How to Discuss When to Allow Public Comment

By Leslee Kulba

The Buncombe County Commissioners entertained that recurring discussion about when members of the public should be allowed to speak at their meetings. Chair Brownie Newman wanted to move public comment back to the beginning of the meetings and was considering giving people thee minutes to talk about everything on the agenda instead of giving them three minutes with every single public hearing.

The advantages and disadvantages were rehashed. Public comment had been moved to the end of the meetings because the commissioners were getting complaints that people couldn’t get off work early enough. But by moving it to the end of meetings that could run long, they were cutting off people who had to catch the last bus home.

Then, there was the chicken and the egg. If the public spoke before the commissioners discussed a topic, they couldn’t provide any feedback on the commissioners’ comments; but if they only spoke at the end of the meeting, any votes would have already been taken, rendering their insights moot.
With public comment at the end of meetings, paid county staff, and guests who travel to make scheduled presentations, can leave around 6pm and spend their evenings productively. As it is, politically-active members of the public are the ones biding time.

Commissioner Robert Pressley said anybody with anything important to say could surely wait through an entire meeting, regardless of how late it ran. He said people could learn about how government operates by sitting through the meetings. Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, however, argued members of the public wishing to speak now must arrange for things like time off work or childcare around a moving target.

Newman had brought the issue up at one of the commissioners’ recent pre-meetings, and he said he had the requisite approval of three commissioners; but some on the board alleged he had acted unilaterally in adding the agenda item. Worse, the item was added the Friday after the agenda had been posted for public review. And even worse, the document hyperlinked to the agenda was the county’s existing rules and not the proposed changes.

Commissioner Joe Belcher said the way the board was handling the matter, in not so many words, disrespected the public’s right to weigh in and damaged the credibility of the board. Belcher said he didn’t mind the commissioners talking publicly about the proposals, but, because required deadlines and approvals were missed, a vote should not be taken until members of the public could be properly noticed and take the time to consider what was at-hand.

Newman countered he had hashed out the pros and cons with County Manager Avril Pinder. Sometimes staff reports aren’t ready in time, sometimes last-minute news breaks, and sometimes significant inconveniences are incurred when discussions are postponed two more weeks for details when there was already a placeholder on the agenda.
Newman said he tried to avoid this by sending all commissioners an email about the change; but others argued the public also had to be informed. Commissioner Mike Fryar said a lot of his constituents read the agenda on Wednesday or Thursday and consider themselves to have done their homework. He got a call from one who chanced by the agenda again on Friday.

The conversation devolved into assertions of what was precedent and what was policy. When the floor was opened for general public comment, Don Yelton read from the existing policy, refuting some of the claims commissioners had made. “Read the rules,” said Yelton, before adding in self-accolade, “Folks, please, get it together. You just proved why we have to take public comment.” Yelton was concerned the proposal would, for example, allow the county chair to add a request for funding to the consent agenda at the last minute and the commissioners to approve it while engaged members of the public remained clueless.

Fryar had accused Newman of being political; he said the only people showing up for public comment were Yelton, Jerry Rice, and groups wanting money. Commissioner Al Whitesides countered he’d been coming to meetings since the 1970s and not to request money.

Jerry Rice, however, agreed with Fryar. He said the discussion wasn’t really about listening to the public, but, “ain’t nothin’ but a political football.” Like district elections, which make sense to the party that can get the most candidates elected thereby, Rice said, “Y’uns want it when you want it, and you don’t want it when you don’t want it.”

Whereas Whitesides said he wanted to hear what the people had to say before he voted, Rice said the people needed to hear the commissioners’ discussion before they spoke. He added the public should also be privy to the discussions the commissioners have “in the back room.” Presumably that stopped now that the county is under new management, but Rice disagrees.

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