Note: This story has been corrected to clarify the rules for commenting at Sussex County Council.
A citizens group in Greenwood is calling for the town to restore open public comment at town meetings.
Citizens privilege, the time for open public comment, was removed from the town agenda in June and has not reappeared.
“Citizens privilege should be a part of every town council meeting, where citizens feel that they’re not only encouraged, but empowered to share their thoughts, concerns, and questions and ideas with members of this council,” said Anthony Massey, a representative of Citizens for Greenwood. He read from a prepared statement at the November Council meeting.
Massey was able to speak because the town is allowing residents to talk at meetings if they arrange to do so beforehand and specify what topic they would like to speak on.
Towns and cities in Delaware and nationwide aren’t required to have a public comment period, but if you make a habit of attending local council meetings you'll find it's a common feature.
Rules on these comment periods vary from town to town, with some imposing, for example, a time limit on speakers. As far as topic, though, speakers often address public meetings on anything they want to bring up.
At Sussex County Council meetings, for one example, people regularly offer public comment. They have a three minute time limit and are supposed to stick to topics related to Council business.
On its web page on open government, the Delaware Department of Justice says, “FOIA allows the public to observe open meetings, but it does not require a public body to allow public comment during a meeting. Each public body may establish its own rules and procedures for permitting public comment in open meetings, which must meet certain legal standards regarding fairness and non-discrimination.”
However, it goes on to say, “The DOJ encourages public bodies to allow for a public comment period at public meetings.”
In Greenwood, the issue with public comment is yet another situation with ties to the Pit Stop saga. Citizens for Greenwood member Michael Phillips, who lives on Beaver Street, said public comment was taken away after a contentious meeting about the bar’s future.
“It did get out of hand,” he said. “And that was primarily bar patrons from outside of town limits that got the meeting out of control. And I agree with them shutting that down. But for the rest of us that live here, we have been effectively cut off from any public comment.”
Town Manager Janet Todd also pointed to meetings about the bar as the reason for the change. She said a lot of people were coming from different towns who wanted to talk about issues in Greenwood. “It got so out of control we couldn’t even get through the meeting,” she said. “... The one meeting went on for almost two hours.”
Council member Donald Torbert said he hadn't thought taking away public comment was the right thing to do, as people should be able to have their say, but people weren’t sticking to the topic when speaking.
“Everybody was quick to get off the subject about what you all wanted to talk about … all of a sudden we're talking about everything else. And that's not what it was all about.”
He also raised the concern that if public comment were allowed, people could come from all over and talk about town issues even though they don’t live in town. That was a situation that did happen at the earlier meeting about the bar, although recent town meetings have not been flooded with out-of-towners in attendance (or residents, for that matter).
Citizens for Greenwood, which describes itself as a group trying to make changes in the way the town is run, is arguing that residents still need a chance to be heard at meetings.
It’s a right, Kelli Nuwer, another member of the group, said, and beyond that, “I think citizen privilege falls into the much larger issue of all of the people who feel unheard (in town).”
The group’s statement to Council echoed that. “When several citizens banded together to organize and handle things more effectively, you decided to remove their voice completely. You then continue to make remarks about people who have found other outlets to voice their concerns, such as the internet. What did you expect them to do, just remain unheard and unacknowledged in all their concerns?” Massey said.
“All these people you’re talking about, where are they?” Mayor Donald Donovan asked. “They’ve never called town hall with any complaints.”
Donovan has said before that people can always contact the town about questions they have, and Todd said Tuesday that people should come to the town office first with concerns, and then if they aren’t resolved, take them to Council.
“I want everybody to know this door’s open all the time,” she said.
To address this, she’s scheduled a town hall meeting Tuesday, Nov. 30, at 6 p.m. at the VFW to allow for residents to bring their concerns. Town staff and a representative of the police department will be there, but Town Council members will not.
Todd also noted that the decision on public comment is in the Council’s hands.
Donovan said citizens had elected the five members of Council to run the town. “Can you imagine how long this meeting would be if we sat and listened to everybody give input on what we did?”
Councilman Mike Moran made a similar point. “You’re saying the five of us shouldn’t have to make decisions. The townpeople elected the five of us to do the best job we can.”
“Citizens do have a say,” he said later. “They can call … and we’ll listen and we’ll take it under consideration and do it. We are doing the best job we can.”
The issue with that, Citizens for Greenwood members say, is that those side conversations are not public and on the record.
“Some of these discussions should be held in public and open for exchange of dialog,” Massey said. “I think it should also be noted that the public conversations are held to a higher standard, and actions are more likely to actually be followed through with.”
Nuwer also said residents should be able to weigh in at the beginning of the meeting, instead of at the end after Council has already made its decisions.
“It’s disappointing to hear that the town is doing away with something as fundamental as the opportunity for the public to speak,” Keith Steck, vice president of the board for the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, said. The coalition is a nonprofit with the stated mission of “defending the people's right to transparency and accountability in government.”
Steck said he understands that the town doesn’t want meetings getting out of hand. But he didn’t think concern about meetings going on too long was a good reason to drop public comment, and said the town may want to rethink its decision.
One point of contention between the group and the town is over the process of getting on the agenda ahead of time to speak. Group members say they’ve been trying to get on the agenda, but the town keeps changing the rules and not letting them speak, although they were finally able to get on for the November meeting after months of trying.
Todd said it isn’t the case that town officials are changing the rules, but that they aren’t allowing people to just get on the meeting agenda to talk about whatever they want. Anyone is welcome to speak, but the town has to know who the speaker will be and what the topic will be so they know if it’s an issue the town can actually do something about, she said.
In his remarks calling Council to task, Massey also took pains to strike a conciliatory tone at times. “You guys aren’t doing bad,” he said. “You’re doing a way better job than any other town that I’ve lived in so far.” But he asked the town to consider hearing from residents.
“I know you’re doing the best you can,” he said at one point. “But we’ve got to be more open about it.”