Tuesday, 07 December 2021 22:14

Richmond County commissioners call for changes to public comment policy

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Richmond County Commissioners Andy Grooms, left, and Tavares Bostic believe that the board's public comment policy should be amended to give residents additional time to sign up and drop a provision that prohibits discussing agenda items. Richmond County Commissioners Andy Grooms, left, and Tavares Bostic believe that the board's public comment policy should be amended to give residents additional time to sign up and drop a provision that prohibits discussing agenda items. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — The Richmond County Board of Commissioners could start the new year off with a change to a potentially problematic policy.


During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners discussed amending the board’s public comment policy, which First Amendment experts have said poses “serious concerns” for free speech.

The policy dates back more than 20 years and requires those wishing to address commissioners to contact the board’s clerk the Friday prior to the meeting, which is generally held on the first Tuesday of each month, and “specify the subject matter or nature of comments to be made.”

Another part of the policy prohibits speakers from discussing items on the agenda for that meeting.

That part, according to Brooks Fuller, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition at Elon University, “poses pretty serious concerns for free speech.” 

“Generally, courts give public bodies broad authority to make sure that public comments are germane to the public body’s work,” Fuller told the RO earlier this year. “But I’ve never seen a public body expressly prohibit discussion of business that’s squarely on its agenda. What good is a public comment period if it doesn’t allow the public to discuss business that is about to come before the body?”

Commissioner Andy Grooms told the RO that he has been trying to get the topic on the agenda for months.

In an email dated Feb. 11, Grooms told Chairman Jeff Smart: “I’ve always disliked this policy because if an item isn’t presented to the public at the prior month’s meeting, then no one will know about it till the agenda is posted online the Friday before the meeting…At which point no one will be able to comment on it.”

Grooms said that he’d like to do away with that rule “altogether.”

In the email, as well as on Tuesday night, Grooms also suggested amending the rule to allow potential speakers until the day after the agenda is made public to give them time to review it.

“The way it looks to me, we’re almost discouraging citizens of this county from coming in here and speaking on agenda items, Grooms said Tuesday.

Grooms acknowledged that a few county leaders have concerns, but said he thinks “the good outweighs the bad.”

“I don’t think we’re going to have a tremendous amount of citizens coming in here and just trying to raise hell every single meeting,” Grooms said. “I don’t think either the board or the Richmond County government should be standing in the way of citizens speaking their mind — even if it is five seconds before a vote.”

Commissioner Tavares Bostic agrees.

“Everyone in the county should have an opportunity to come and state their case on, really, whatever they want to state their case about,” Bostic said. “I mean, we are elected officials, these seats are not permanent at all.

“I think that we can still conduct these meetings in the most professional way and also allow the citizens to come in and truly have a relationship with government,” Bostic continued. “I think it was Ross Perot that said that government should come from its people and not at them. And so, if we really believe that, then we should be able to open up the public forum and allow people to come in and state their peace on the communities that they live in. We can’t be in every single community, and so we have to use this particular medium, whether it's an agenda item or not.

Bostic added that it would be up to the chairman and the board to make sure the meeting stays professional.

“And in my time, we’ve always been able to do that, whether it’s been a hot-topic item or not,” Bostic concluded.

Chairman Jeff Smart said he agreed with the comments from both Grooms and Bostic.

The chamber isn’t a room for arguing, Smart said, “but it is a room for the community to connect with commissioners, and I feel strongly about that.”

Smart acknowledged that there are constitutional rules, such as a time limit, that help maintain order.

Although a decision wasn’t on the agenda, Vice Chairman Justin Dawkins made a motion to have the policy revised as discussed, which would be presented at the January meeting, giving county staff “adequate time” to make the changes and have it reviewed by the county attorney.

Just as they were taking the vote, Commissioner Rick Watkins posed a question.

“If legal counsel … or staff comes back with recommendations that would make the policy more easy to facilitate, is that a latitude that we can have?” Watkins asked. “Or are we saying that that is the only option that can come back before the board?”

Dawkins said if there is a second option, the board could take a vote.

“I just think it’s important that, because of the issues at hand are related to the First Amendment — and I’m not opposed, at all, to a policy amendment and it being more open, that’s not it — but I think it’s important that we make sure that, from a legal perspective, that this is a solid policy that we can move forward with for years to come, that it will serve the board well and serve the citizens well moving forward.

“I just want to make sure that we get it right and I think we need to get our legal counsel to have a chance to have some conversation with the (North Carolina) Association of County Commissioners, Local (Government) Commission and begin to take a look at policies that are working and effective, and make a solid recommendation coming back before we take formalized action on a final draft.”

The motion was passed unanimously.

Sitting in the audience was Pamela Simmons Young, who was denied a chance to address the commissioners because of perceived threats from 2019.

(Disclosure: Young was a contributor to the RO at the time the comments were made.)

That denial, according to Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, is “presumably unconstitutional.”

“If they felt it was criminal,” Paulson said, “they needed to bring charges, not deny somebody the right to speak.”