Salisbury City Council again debates public comment rules
By Josh Bergeron
SALISBURY — Two weeks ago, the City Council dropped proposed changes to public comment periods during its meetings, but that wasn’t the end of the debate.
Councilman Kenny Hardin said a resolution considered Tuesday to clarify rules for public comments amounted to “minimizing the contributions of citizens.” Hardin was the lone “no” vote when the council approved the measure by a 3-1 count.
“I agree that we need to put orderliness around it, but I don’t think we should restrict or minimize access, the opportunity, or the implementation of what we’re doing,” Hardin said. “I think we’re moving further and further and further away.”
Tuesday’s resolution states that speakers must sign in before the council’s public comment period begins and requires the same for people who plan to yield time to others. Speakers would not be required to state their name or address before taking the podium.
Hardin said he opposes any changes to public comment rules.
But Councilman David Post said Hardin supported changing the rules to get to the current policy, which says that public comments come at 6 p.m. or at the end of council meetings, whichever is earlier.
Post also raised questions about language in the resolution. He offered a motion to tweak it to allow people to sign up for public comment until the period starts, regardless of the time.
At a few points during the meeting, Mayor Karen Alexander said council members collectively had decided two meetings ago on the wording of Tuesday’s resolution. Alexander said she is not individually responsible for the resolution.
“It wasn’t the mayor,” Alexander said. “This was discussed by every council member, if you remember, two meetings ago, and we said that we actually weren’t changing anything. … Nothing has changed. I haven’t changed anything, just to clarify.”
After the council voted 3-1 to approve the resolution with Post’s change, Alexander asked Hardin to expand on his opposition.
“Can you clarify what you’re opposing, because we haven’t changed anything?” Alexander asked. “It’s back to what we had before, right? … I think we’re confused, Kenny.”
“I don’t see the point of altering public comments at all,” Hardin responded. “We’ve taken a vote. I suggest we move on.”
After the meeting, Hardin reiterated his arguments.
“I think we are very inconsistent on what we do as a council,” Hardin said. “We don’t follow our own protocol. So, to me, I don’t see any reason for any change. I think we need to strengthen what we are doing.”
Hardin said the council lets some people speak from the audience and some people have extra time.
“Until we can get right what we’re doing, why are we implementing any revisions?” he said.
He said the responsibility for ensuring decorum during meetings falls on the mayor.
He said he doesn’t agree with requiring people to sign up on a piece of paper to make a public comment or to yield time to others.
“I don’t think people should just be able to arbitrarily give three minutes, give three minutes and give three minutes,” Hardin said. “I think there does need to be some constraints, but I think we’re trying to control what’s going on. We’re not trying to strengthen the voice.”
The new rules went into effect immediately.
In other business from Tuesday’s meeting:
• The council gave City Manager Lane Bailey the authority to move the director of Downtown Salisbury Inc. to a staff position.
Bailey said there’s a growing trend in municipal government to have such a position under “the umbrella of city government.” The move would bring the director under the city’s health care plan and retirement system.
Bailey said the switch will increase the pool of applicants for the position.
Councilman Brian Miller, who sits on Downtown Salisbury’s board, said the board made the decision to move the director to a staff position.
Bailey said there would be no changes to the nonprofit group’s board.
Paula Bohland, who became director in 2014, left the position on Jan. 31.
• The council received an update on a job fair schedule April 19 at West End Plaza. It will start at 10:30 a.m. and end at 1:30 p.m.
• Councilman Hardin asked Bailey to provide a detailed description of items and projects funded with a gang prevention grant received several years ago.
Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.