Meadville Tribune

Local News

February 20, 2013

County Commissioners seek feedback on policy regulating public comment at meetings

MEADVILLE — Public input is being sought by Crawford County commissioners on proposed new guidelines for public participation at commissioners’ weekly work sessions and twice-monthly meetings.

Commissioners reiterated they aren’t trying to inhibit public commenting but are looking to bring order to their twice-monthly public board meetings.

The board holds public work sessions each Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. at the courthouse and formal public board meetings the first and third Thursday of each month at 9:30 a.m. The twice-monthly public board meetings are when the board takes official action on items such as paying bills, contracts and other items.

Commissioner Chairman Francis Weiderspahn Jr. said the commissioners welcome comment and have no concerns with public comment or questions at the weekly Tuesday work sessions. Commissioners have no plans to limit public comment at work sessions, he said.

“My view is the regular business meetings on Thursdays need to be run a little more efficient in time and not have quite all the interruptions,” Weiderspahn said. “The time for the questions is at the weekly work sessions — that’s where all the questions and discussion takes place. At the formal meetings, it’s just a matter of conducting the necessary business.”

For months at Thursday board meetings, both the current board of commissioners that took office in January 2012 as well as the previous board of commissioners have been besieged at times with questions from audience members on many agenda items as they come up for action at a meeting.

But, before formally approving a written public comment policy, commissioners want input from the public, Weiderspahn said. Guidelines would be posted for 30 days before they take effect, he said.

Final proposed guidelines are expected to be posted sometime in March and then would take effect in April, Weiderspahn said.

A copy of the county’s full draft public comment policy is posted at meadvilletribune.com.

Among the limitations listed in the draft policy are:

Work sessions

n Commissioners request comments be made with a recognition of time constraints on county staff as well as a courtesy to others in the audience that may wish to comment. The chairman will allocate sufficient time for public comment but reserves the right to limit comment that exceeds a reasonable time, isn’t germane to business at hand or cannot be reasonably accommodated at a work session.

n If commissioners determine there isn’t sufficient time for public comments, the comment period will be deferred to the next work session or a special meeting prior to the next regularly scheduled business meeting.

Regular meetings

n People wishing to speak to the board need to contact the board three days in advance of the meeting.

n Each person will be limited to five minutes, but the time may be waived by the chairman.

n No person may speak more than once on the same topic during the meeting.

n Public participation will be limited to 30 minutes total.

n Commissioners retain the right to refuse permission to any individual to speak at a regular meeting to address the same subject matter discussed at a previous meeting.

n Comments must be addressed to the chairman of the board.

n The chairman may interrupt or terminate a statement if it is too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, threatening, derogatory, obscene or irrelevant.

One change Weiderspahn said he wants to make to the draft policy is having two public comment sessions — one toward the beginning of the regular meeting for items on the agenda and another toward the end of the meeting.

Currently, public comment at the commissioners’ twice-monthly board meetings comes at the end of those meetings.

When the new board of county commissioners took office in January 2012, it said it would discuss putting a public participation policy in place. At their Aug. 16, 2012, meeting, commissioners voted 2-1 to have Ted Watts, the county’s attorney, refine draft guidelines governing public participation at the commissioners’ twice-monthly public meetings.

Republican commissioners Weiderspahn and Jack Lynch voted for having Watts refine guidelines while Democrat Commissioner C. Sherman Allen voted against it, citing concerns it would limit public access.

Allen said he was doesn’t want to limit public access to the commissioners and people should always feel free to approach the board.

“I do believe we should have a little more structure — especially at our regular business meetings,” Allen said following Tuesday’s work session. “This board has been very lenient on people expressing their opinions.”

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