Pinellas County commissioners agree to move public comment period

Pinellas County commissions agreed Sept. 12 to move the public comment period closer to the beginning of meetings, starting Sept. 24. From left, front row, are Vice-Chair Pat Gerard, Chair Karen Seel and Commissioner Janet Long; back row, commissioners Dave Eggers, Kathleen Peters, Charlie Justice and Ken Welch. Long was absent from the Sept. 12 meeting.

CLEARWATER — Ask and you will receive. It wasn’t exactly a biblical moment, but it was the answer Clearwater resident Norman Lupo hoped to hear when he asked Pinellas County commissioners if they would consider moving “citizens to be heard” to “somewhere near the upper half” of meeting agendas.

Commission Chair Karen Seel brought up Lupo’s request during the Sept. 12 meeting, asking if there was any interest in changing when the public comment portion of the agenda occurred.

Some years ago, no one remembers exactly when, commissioners moved “citizens to be heard” to near the end of the meeting due to large numbers of people speaking on single issues with many of the comments repeats of previous speakers. Some of the “speeches” were word-for-word. Another issue was speakers who were harassing commissioners and in some instances causing disruption.

Residents are allowed to speak three minutes during a set time, called citizens to be heard, during regular meetings, but when the decision was made to move the comment period closer to the end of the meeting, the comment period had sometimes lasted more than an hour.

Commissioner Pat Gerard said she preferred a time at the beginning of the meeting. She said it was more “encouraging” for the public to have a set time to get to speak, rather than having to wait for hours. She said she understood the issue, and that moving the time had perhaps discouraged some of the unwanted speakers.

However, “I don’t want people to have to wait half the day for three minutes,” she said, adding, “That’s just my opinion and always has been.”

Commissioner Dave Eggers agreed with Gerard. He said he thought it was the chair’s prerogative to decide when the public comment period would be.

Commissioner Ken Welch said he understood and respected Gerard and Egger’s opinions, agreeing it could seem unfair for people to have to wait. But he reminded commissioners of the past when speakers would come and take up an hour or more on single issues and the problem of people who had harassed the commission.

Welch had once been the target of a speaker who had made false accusations against him. Another frequent speaker had called commissioners “fools and morons.” Welch pointed out that when speakers had used their time to harass commissioners, it “set the tone for the entire meeting.”

So, the policy was changed. People were still allowed to speak on agenda items when that item came up, but the rest had to wait until closer to the end of the meeting.

“The last couple of years, things have been less controversial,” Welch said. “The extremes are an issue. They can take over a meeting.”

However, Welch said he was comfortable with letting the chair decide. He also said before they had moved public comment to the end of the meeting, they have tried to implement a code of conduct, but it didn’t work.

Commissioner Charlie Justice also said he thought it was the chair who decided when public comment would be heard. He agreed it could be a trade-off and perhaps an issue on a rare occasion. Still, he agreed with Gerard, people shouldn’t have to sit for hours to talk to the commission.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters said when she was mayor of South Pasadena, public comment came at the beginning of the meeting. She said people should know they would be allowed to speak at a time certain since some took off work to attend the meetings.

Seel suggested moving citizens to be heard to come after the presentations and public hearings for meetings that begin at 9:30 a.m. and right after the presentations for meeting that begin at 2 p.m. She said she didn’t want to delay public hearings since some people hire someone to represent them.

Gerard suggested when controversial issues were on the agenda and many speakers were expected the commission limit each speaker to one minute instead of three. When she was Largo’s mayor that’s what the city did, she said.

The consensus seemed to be to wait and see if the problem came up.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a lot of public comments,” Justice said.

Moving the public comment period isn’t unprecedented. In July 2009, commissioners agreed to change the policy, which at that time had prevented the public from speaking on agenda items as they came up. Instead, all citizens’ comments had come at the end of the meeting.

However, then Commission Chair Calvin Harris expressed reluctance to make the change, saying, “I don’t like how some call us names and then leave.” It was his opinion, and others agreed, that citizens should stay and learn about what the commission did.

In 2009, commissioners also had discussed restricting public comment to county business only. Per the discussion at the July 21 meeting, restricting the subject had been tried in the past, but it didn’t work. The consensus was to allow the public to speak on anything they wanted for their three minutes.

Lupo thanked Seel for helping to facilitate the change to allow the public to speak sooner and thanked the other commissioners who supported it.

“I advocated this positive change, which I am hopeful will transfer to more citizens to come forward to the Pinellas BCC (Board of County Commissioners) meetings and share their thoughts, concerns or suggestions with our commissioners,” Lupo said in an email after commissioners agreed to the change. “This positive change is what good government looks like.”

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.