Anyone wishing to speak at Fayette County Board of Commissioners’ meetings will need to be prepared to be concise following the approval of time limits Feb. 14.
Individuals speaking in public comments will now be limited to five minutes maximum, though there will be no cumulative cap on public comments. For the past five years, there had been no time constraints. Prior to that, there was a three-minute limit per speaker.
“We’re not trying to limit the number of speakers, we’re just saying we’d like to receive the information a little quicker,” said Commissioner Eric Maxwell.
At the previous meeting, the commissioners asked staff to study best practices around the state. Among his rundown of local government bodies, County Administrator Steve Rapson referenced a recent AJC article that tackled the subject and showed Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett all offering five minutes or less per speaker.
“Best practices are somewhere typically between two to three minutes,” said Rapson. “We thought five minutes was a nice compromise going from unlimited.”
Maxwell suggested any commissioners will be able to offer individual speakers additional time to speak if they see fit, a decision which Commissioner Charles Rousseau, who said he understood the intent, said could open a can of worms.
“If you do it for one, it’ll be plastered all over social media,” he said. “They’ll say ‘You stopped me because you don’t like me.’”
Rousseau later clarified to Fayette Newspapers that he supported any Commissioner being able to grant an extension, and not just the Chairman.
Commissioner Edge Gibbons was unforgiving in offering extra time.
“I would hope that someone could express themselves in five minutes and get their point across,” he said. “If we had to stop someone, as Commissioner Maxwell said, at five minutes and 20 seconds because they’re in the middle of a sentence or paragraph, then unfortunately you didn’t come prepared to the meeting.”
Gibbons also advised citizens to address their issues with commissioners before meeting night, noting that each can be reached via phone or email.
“I understand that people want to speak before the Board, but people are conflating this as a right, when it’s just an expectation. It’s not a right,” he said. “This is representative democracy, not participatory. We’re not the Greeks in the agora (public forum) arguing, and we don’t need to turn this into a town hall meeting, which I’ve seen in the past.”
He said his mind is already made up before he takes his seat on the dais, and it should not affect him or his colleagues to hear from a sampling of speakers in public comments.
“While I understand people want to come and say something before the Board, it’s not going to affect my opinion, certainly,” he said. “I don’t think it should affect our opinion to have a very small minority of people in the county come before us and advocate one way or the other on an issue.”
Commissioners also approved a 20-minute time limit for each side during public hearings. Fayette had allowed unlimited time since Sept. 2018 and had a 20-minute limit prior to that. State Law requires a 10-minute limit minimum.
County Attorney Dennis Davenport noted that the process will need to be fine-tuned to inform the public.
“I think you would at least have some generalized direction to let both sides know up front you’ve got a maximum of 20 minutes,” he said. “That 20 minutes is 20 minutes total. If one person speaks for 20 minutes, that’s it, so, if you’ve got a group that you want to have comment, you better get organized as far as how you want to speak, because once that clock hits 20 minutes, it’s over with.”
Commissioner Charles Oddo assured the intent is not to limit speech.
“I think part of the issue is we’re not going to try and restrict people, but we do want to encourage them to be prepared because you want to have a logical pro or con conversation,” he said.
The changes go into effect immediately.