Cape Gazette
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Time for another look at public participation policy

By Ron MacArthur | May 18, 2011

I’ve written about the controversial Sussex County Council public participation policy several times since it was enacted nearly two years ago.

Now, the American Civil Liberties Union is getting in the act with the claim that if taken to court, the policy would not stand up. In a letter to County Administrator David Baker, the ACLU urges him to alert council so that “this unconstitutional provision can be deleted from its rules.” Specially, the ACLU addresses one section of the policy that prohibits speakers to “criticize one of more members of council or county employees or subcontractors for matters that are related to personnel decisions or that are personal in nature.”

The ACLU claims there is plenty of precedence established by court rulings backing up their claim.

Council has maintained – and points it out on several occasions – that it is not required by law to allow the citizens it represents a forum at its regular weekly meetings. Basically, the policy was adopted out of the council’s good heart to allow those who pay the bills a chance to speak on matters of interest.

Each speaker must read the policy and then sign in stating their name, address and the subject they want to address.

The policy limits speakers to 3 minutes, with a provision for another 2 minutes if granted by the council president. Speakers are not permitted to use the time to appeal a decision made by county officials or county employees. Public comment must be addressed to the council as a body and not to a specific council member. In addition, the council president may respond to a speaker to provide contact information within county staff to help the speaker alleviate his or her concern.

Is the policy followed to the letter? No.

Council members sometimes get into discussions with speakers. Sometimes council members, not just the president, ask questions of speakers.

In addition, on occasion, speakers criticize council actions or inactions. One that comes up on a regular basis is the delay in hiring a county land-use planner.

Do speakers talk for longer than 3 minutes? Yes.

Council rarely cuts anyone off, even if they go over the time allotment.

Sometimes speakers ignite council discussion on items that were not published on the agenda, which is in direct conflict with the Freedom of Information Act.

Council has had a run with its current policy, and now it needs to take another look at it; some tweaking is needed.

Democracy is tough. Elected leaders at all levels walk a fine line between secrecy and open government. Sometimes they forget what the word transparency means.

The only way to preserve the union is to allow those who keep the lights on and fight to secure the nation a chance to have a say in what is going on. No rules or policies should stand in the way of free speech.

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