Listening part of the job, but officials can limit how public comments

Have an opinion about the way your elected officials are conducting local business? How and when you’re able to give them a piece of your mind can depend on where you live and what body represents you.

A mish-mash of public comment rules for government bodies across metro Atlanta means residents will find little consistency across jurisdictions when they try to address their elected leaders, according to a survey by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of local rules in 60 cities and counties in the metro area.

Some jurisdictions let people speak whenever they want, for as long as they want, while others strictly maintain time limits and topics that can be brought forward.

For years, current and former elected officials received unlimited time when speaking publicly before the Atlanta City Council. Regular people were limited to two minutes. In early December, the rules were changed, but they still heavily favor current and former elected leaders who presumably have other avenues to get their voices heard.

Former officials now receive six minutes to speak before the council, while current leaders get 10 minutes. Average people are still limited to two minutes.

“They’re telling us regular people and their opinions aren’t as important as public officials or former public officials,” said William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdogs. “Just blanketly giving more time to people because they served in office is a slap in the face to the citizens of Atlanta.”

Vincent Fort, the former state senator who has been an outspoken critic of the council, including during public comment periods, called the restrictions counterproductive.

“Public comment of any variety is part of the job, and they ought to consider it as such,” he said. “These are not people who respect the First Amendment.”

In an era when most local governments stream their meetings on the internet and social media gives average citizens the ability to have their own megaphone, many still view going directly before decision-makers to sound off as a fundamental right of self government.

In a city council chambers, one can be sure that the people in charge of policy hear any concerns.

Dexter Chambers, an Atlanta spokesman, said public comment lasted for nine hours at one November City Council meeting as people lined up to share their thoughts on the controversial deal to finance development of the Gulch.

There’s no state law controlling how local governments conduct their public comment periods, or even whether they have them at all. Indeed, some local jurisdictions don’t have official policies, or have recently enacted them for the first time.

Perry said he’d like to see a state law requiring public bodies to have a comment period.

In Buford, the chairman the local commission has invited public comment at the end of meetings for more than 20 years, city manager Bryan Kerlin said, but there’s no official, published policy about letting people speak.

Before Avondale Estates established a comment policy in July, it was “just a free-for-all,” city clerk Gina Hill said, with people speaking multiple times on the same item if they wanted to make sure their opinion registered.

“I think a lot of it depends on your mayor, or whoever runs the meeting,” Hill said. “They basically call the shots, and I think that’s how it should be.”

A number of local governments don’t limit the amount of time for public comment, but they have other peculiarities.

In Roswell, residents can respond to any item on the regular agenda. But if they have thoughts on something that isn’t explicitly on the agenda, they can’t address it until the fifth Monday of the month, when the city has what it calls an “open forum” meeting, for people to speak on anything that interests them.

That was the issue for a resident who was removed in August at a regular City Council meeting. He and many others were upset with Roswell’s plans to approve a massive tennis center, but when he tried to outline his position it ran afoul of the rules because the tennis center wasn’t on the agenda.

“I would very much appreciate it if you would learn how to behave yourselves in these chambers,” Mayor Lori Henry told the gathered crowd, who clapped for the man as he was escorted away from the podium.

In many jurisdictions, the council or commission allows three minutes per resident, but in Riverdale that time can be reduced when there are lot of people who want to talk. With only 15 minutes allotted for public comment in the city, a large crowd could severely limit the time for residents to speak.

In Cobb County, if you’re a political candidate or a county employee, you can’t speak at all.

And while plenty of jurisdictions don’t require advance sign-ups to speak, people in Sandy Springs, Fairburn, East Point and elsewhere must sign up to speak before the meeting starts, or they won’t be permitted to address their local elected officials.

David Hudson, an attorney for the Georgia Press Association, said local governments are allowed to set time limits, require advance sign-ups or enforce standards limiting disruptive or vulgar comments. But he cautioned that to not allow comment at all would be a mistake.

“While there is no requirement to allow public comment, it would seem politically unwise for a governing body not to allow it and thus be subject to criticism that it is closed minded to the views of the citizenry,” he said.

Hudson added that allowing public comment “is just a matter of representative government and whether the elected members choose to be known as closed to citizen comments and questions.”

Perry said people often have to take time off from work, find a babysitter or make other sacrifices to go to a government meeting. When they take the time, he said, they should be rewarded by being heard.

“We definitely want to encourage people to participate in their government,” he said. “Rules like Atlanta’s and others’ discourage participation. When you’re limiting people’s ability to speak, you’re telling them they’re not important.”

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