Most make extra effort to hear publicWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
As Haywood County commissioners grapple with a surge in this public input at their meetings, largely from the same crowd week after week, The Smoky Mountain News checked in with surrounding counties to see how they handle public comment periods.
Every county seems to have regulars, who are practically staples of every meeting, rarely passing up a turn at the mic during the public comment period that kicks off proceedings.
Theoretically, counties in the area all limit speakers to 3 minutes, with public comments not exceeding 30 minutes per meeting. What actually occurs, though, varies within each county and from meeting to meeting.
Buncombe is one of the few counties other than Haywood that air their county meetings on a government cable channel. But about eight years ago, repeat citizen speakers got so “nasty” and occupied so much time that commissioners decided to take the public comment portion off the air, while continuing to televise the rest of the meeting.
Buncombe also started a pre-meeting public comment period in addition to the 30 untelevised minutes of comment during regular proceedings.
Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene said once public comments were taken off the air, the commissioners noted a dramatic change. “We saw a drastic drop in the repetitive speakers,” said Greene. “There was an uproar by people who routinely came and spoke, but they could still speak. It just wasn’t aired.”
In January, Buncombe decided to give it another go and televise public comments once again. Since the commissioners re-aired the public comment period, the number of speakers has picked up again, Greene said.
There are other options for citizens who want to reach their commissioners’ ears, though. Greeene said many residents opt for the hassle-free method of e-mailing them their questions and opinions instead of regularly heading to meetings.
Jackson has one of the most dedicated group of regulars of any county.
“The same people come every time and they say the same thing, and that’s their constitutional right,” said Chairman Brian McMahan.
McMahan said he’s usually lenient with the time limit for speakers, depending on how many people are waiting their turn to speak. Most are gracious and conclude when their time is up.
Jackson County’s meetings are not televised, though portions are sometimes played on the local AM radio station. McMahan said he wished the county had the capability to televise their meetings.
“Most of your average citizens don’t show up,” McMahan said. “They have no clue what happens in their government.”
On those rare occasions that more citizens show up than the commissioners can accommodate, McMahan makes sure speakers strictly adhere to the 3-minute limit. When a public hearing on a proposed subdivision moratorium attracted a crowd of 1,300 people three years ago, a timekeeper held up flash cards with different colors indicating just how much time each speaker had remaining.
McMahan said other boards across the country allow citizens to call in with their comments or webcast their meetings to reach more constituents.
Meanwhile, McMahan estimated that 80 percent of public hearings in Jackson County don’t bring in any speakers at all.
“There will not be a single soul,” said McMahan. “That’s sort of sad that no one cares enough to come out and voice their opinion.”
Swain County keeps a timer visible at every meeting so citizens can know their time frame down to the very second.
Swain County Chairman Glenn Jones said he believes public comment should be allowed even if citizens sometimes use it inappropriately.
“A lot of people, they’ll just use it as a sounding board,” said Jones. “When it becomes that, it’s not being used properly. It’s for people who have a legitimate gripe.”
While Swain doesn’t air its meetings, a long-standing regular during the public comment periods videotapes county meetings as a personal endeavor.
Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale said his board maintains a fairly liberal policy, depending on the subject and how many people sign up to speak.
“We usually don’t have big crowds coming to rag on us,” said Beale. But when citizens do show up en masse, that’s when Macon County’s timer comes out. Like McMahan, Beale said he wished Macon County could broadcast their meetings.