An Echo Press Editorial: Follow the rules for public comment period at Alexandria City Council
By the Echo Press Editorial Board
A public comment period is returning to Alexandria City Council meetings.
That part of the meeting was discontinued more than two years ago when it descended into shouting matches and allegations, much of it involving a council member who was up for election.
Citizens shouldn’t blow this chance to offer suggestions, ask questions and give feedback to council members.
It’s not a time to hurl accusations or to be disrespectful or cause disruptions or go on angry tirades.
The council has put a lot of thought into the public comment period’s rules of decorum. They established 25 bullet points about the rules of decorum for the public comment period. The newspaper highlighted some of the biggest points in a front-page story in the Wednesday, Jan. 25 issue.
It all boils down to being respectful. Speakers will be given three minutes to address the council on topics related to city government, city operations and other city functions. To speak during the public comment period, speakers must sign up before the meeting is called to order and provide a name, address and a brief summary of the subject matter they wish to address.
Some of the guidelines may seem obvious but it makes sense to bring them to light so everyone knows the rules. Those who speak, for example, must not engage in any conduct that disrupts the meeting or threatens the safety or security of public. This includes threatening, loud or boisterous conduct, extraneous conversations or actions that interfere with other attendees to see or hear the proceedings. Obscene, defamatory and threatening language is strictly prohibited.
The council’s rules of decorum include consequences. Speakers and other members of the public who do not follow these rules will be warned and if the conduct continues, a presiding officer may ask the individual to leave. If the individual still doesn’t follow the rules, a police officer may remove the speaker away from proceedings.
The city’s rules of decorum also state that council members will not engage in dialogue with speakers during the public comment period. It’s not a time for problem-solving or reacting to comments that are made but rather for receiving public input, the rules state.
City council meetings aren’t the only level of government that has halted or change how public comment periods are conducted. There have been Alexandria School Board meetings when public comments resulted in shouting matches, inflammatory accusations, angry interruptions and other “sand box” behavior. At one meeting, a group of parents repeatedly interrupted a parent who was trying to address the board about racism. They berated the speaker’s comments, intimidating her to the point that she later requested a police escort to her vehicle — all because her views didn’t square with their opinions.
People shouldn’t feel under attack for expressing their thoughts at a public meeting.
It’s important to realize that public boards are not forced to allow public comments at meetings. The state’s open meeting law gives the public the right to attend public meetings of public bodies in order to watch and listen to the proceedings but it does not guarantee the right to speak at an open meeting. If a public body chooses to allow public comments, the body can set the rules for commenters.
If you’re at a meeting and someone says something during a public comment period that you completely disagree with, be an adult. Don’t sigh or roll your eyes, or make a snide comment, or boo or hiss or otherwise interrupt the proceedings. Keep your emotions in check. Wait until it’s your turn to speak and do so in a respectful manner, always.