OUR VIEW: Richmond County commissioners should change the public comment policy, be more open

If a resident wants to throw in his two cents about an agenda item at Tuesday night’s Richmond County Board of Commissioners meeting, he’s out of luck.

Commissioners — quite literally — have made it a policy not to listen to public comments on issues coming before the board.

First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson Jr. says a Richmond County policy prohibiting agenda topics from being brought up during the public comments section at a county commissioners’ meeting is unconstitutional.

And we agree.

Hudson, a law professor at Vanderbilt University and ombudsman for the First Amendment Center, says that particular provision constitutes content discrimination.

“It would seem…that agenda items would be the subject of most interest to the public and those concerned,” he said. “When the government restricts speech like this, it infringes on one of the most important strands of First Amendment doctrine — the public’s right to receive information and ideas.”

Commissioners say the restriction, put in place 20 years ago, was to maintain order during meetings and prevent speakers from “grandstanding,” turning the conducting of business into a “circus” and preventing things from getting accomplished.

They add that the proper time for speaking on important issues is during a public hearing. Or, you can just call ‘em up personally prior to the meeting and hope they’ll take your opinion into consideration.

That’s all well and good, but what if there was an agenda item that didn’t require a public hearing that residents had concerns with?

Per the current policy, they would have to wait until the next meeting — after the votes were cast — to express their displeasure. There would be no opportunity to attempt to sway the opinions of the decision makers. Seems a bit too late to us.

Hypothetically, a corrupt board could keep a controversial topic on the agenda to prevent discussion from the public.

County officials have said the policy has seemed to work well — until this past March when local and state environmental groups attempted to speak out against the coming Enviva wood pellet plant.

They were first turned away because of the requirement to sign up to speak the Friday prior to the meeting, then again because of the prohibition on agenda topics. So, they held a press conference outside the county administration building to vent their frustrations, calling the policy “un-American.”

We will give commissioners this: at least their time for comment is at the beginning of a meeting, unlike the Rockingham City Council, which waits until all business has been conducted before allowing public input.

They are also an open board, rarely going into closed session, except in matters specifically allowed by law.

The county policy already sets a time limit for speakers, which is permitted. That should be enough.

We urge commissioners to take another look at the policy and make the adjustment to make meetings a little more open.