Public comment remains stifled

Friday, July 1, 2011

County commissioners voted down just one of the resolutions presented for their approval Monday night, and in so doing retained their ability to prevent a citizen from speaking at a commission meeting.

Presented by Commissioner Don Ledford, the resolution sought to amend the rule regarding people, those who are not members of the commission, who would want to speak to the countywide panel at a commission meeting.

The existing rule states that a non-member, introduced by a commissioner, may speak at a commission meeting, providing that the motion to introduce the non-member "shall pass upon a majority vote of the commissioners present."

Thus, commissioners, if a majority agrees to it, can effectively prevent citizens from speaking at their monthly meeting.

At their February meeting commissioners twice voted 12-7 to prevent citizens from speaking in opposition to the appointment of Sam Smith to the school board. This generated considerable public outcry, and the "political firestorm" was rekindled by County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett's Memorial Day speech in which he pointed out that one of those who was not allowed to speak was a Vietnam veteran, as well as a respected local citizen.

After that February meeting, the rules committee discussed this rule, and recommended an amendment stating that the motion to introduce a non-member would NOT be voted on.

The amendment did not change other requirements: that the name be submitted in advance, and the motion to allow the non-member to speak shall not be debatable, and time shall be limited to five minutes.

"I would amend it to one person to speak on each subject," Commissioner Richard Hill Jr. said.

"I think that could be directed by the chairman," said Commission Chairman Tom Sumners.

"I don't think we need 10 or 15 talking on the same subject," Hill persisted.

"It's a safety issue," added Commissioner John Christmas, a Lewisburg Police officer.

"I have no problem with anyone speaking, but the commission needs to have control," Commissioner Nathan Johnson said.

"Order will be maintained by the chair, or by law enforcement," Sumners said.

Liggett shifted the group's attention to another part of the amendment, which added to the rule about filing resolutions the statement that no e-mailed resolutions or amendments would be accepted.

"There's some key issues here," Liggett said. "I want to go on record as stating that I will not accept e-mail of an official document."

In a telephone conversation Wednesday, Liggett stood by what he said.

"I'm not going to do it, regardless of what they passed," he exclaimed. "It's just not safe," he said, citing the case of one person who had their identity stolen after using e-mail to notify the mayor's office of a resignation.

"Original signatures on original documents" is what the mayor will continue to require.

Voting in favor of the resolution were eight commissioners: Anna Childress, Mickey King, Kevin Vanhooser, Reynelle Smith, Seth Warf, Richard Hill, Ledford, and Sumners.

Voting against were the other nine (Barry Spivey was absent) - Rocky Bowden, E.W. Hill, Jeff Taylor, Sheldon Davis, Phil Willis, Dean Delk, Christmas, Johnson, and Mike Waggoner - and so the resolution failed.