Public commentary – a privilege or a right?

An item on the county commission meeting agenda entitled “develop a policy on public commentary,” caught the eye of some residents concerned that the commentary option, a voluntary option provided at each commission meeting, might be curtailed. Three people urged the commissioners to continue to allow public access at the meetings.

After each one. Commissioner Mike McClung was compelled to repeatedly state, “We’re not trying to infringe on anyone’s rights.”

He said the commission was developing guidelines for public commentary which in it’s preliminary form included 1) signing up on the comment sheet before the meeting, 2) when at the mic give their name and county area of residence, 3) address the commission as a whole, 4) speak civilly and refrain from lambasting anyone, and 5) not bring up any topic which the commissioners must discuss in executive session. Each item seemed clear to the commissioners but apparently not so clear to others.

Speaking as a private citizen and not as a reporter, Christian Giggenbach, protested that that meant no one could mention a controversial topic, such as the public pool issue since the commission has frequently been in executive session with their attorney to discuss that very subject.

McClung again stated that that was not so.

Lloyd Burns opined that the agenda items which one could comment upon seem to be already predetermined by the commission, making it hard for an average citizen to introduce any sway or to influence the commissioners once the item was on the agenda.

Commissioner Woody Hanna said during his prior term as a commissioner, the public was encouraged to make use of the public commentary period at commission meetings, so long as they were civil and not too lengthy. But he added that since the courthouse now has TV reportage of the commission meetings that goes out to the whole county, the commission has found, without knowing what an individual may say – about their neighbors or anyone, that it is unfair to those not present who cannot defend themselves.

The commissioners opted to give the subject more reflection time and moved to table the vote on public comment policy. After the meeting Commissioner Hanna spoke to previous instances in which the public had heard only one side of a inflammatory topic which later upon hearing the other side yielded a very different story than that which ran in the papers and on TV He said he wished to curtail that mode of behavior. There are other ways individuals can make their complaints heard and have actions taken. He said the County Sheriff’s office was the right department to address complaints and get results.

In other business:

• The Greenbrier Farmers Market director Pam West presented a request to once again use the county’s green space alongside Arbuckle Street as their market place for the 2014 season. In her presentation she stated the market will begin their 2014 spring season on Saturday, Apr. 19 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on the following Wednesday, Apr. 23 from 3 to 7 p.m. Vendors numbers are increasing for last year, she said, and efforts are in the works to provide better customer access to and information about the farmers and their produce via a website and FaceBook. Additionally, a gazebo will soon be completed enhancing the market day experience.

• Prosecuting Attorney Patrick Via provided a follow-up of the two pending legal cases in which the commission is embroiled, referring to Commission v. New River CTF and New River CTC and GCC (Interpleader) Raleigh County Case, stating that unless the commission wished to discuss names of potential replacement attorneys to represent the commission, he saw no reason to go into executive session with the commissioners. Via went on to say the commission has, according to Judge Kirkpatrick, a 20-day continuance in which to retain a substitute council in his stead. Via said his decision to withdraw from the case was “professionally required of [him] and had nothing to do with the strength of the case but was a circumstance necessary on [his] part.” The commissioners stated they had no attorneys in mind at present.

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