Commission sets new guidelines for virtual meeting comments

Assistant County Administrator Kevin Knutson explains staff’s plan for the public to pre-register to speak at future Pinellas County Commission meetings.

LARGO — At the next hybrid in-person and virtual regular meeting of the Pinellas County Commission on Jan. 12, those who want to speak virtually will need to sign up in advance.

County commissioners met virtually for months due to COVID-19, but recently the group has returned to meeting in person at a new location, the Magnolia Room at the Extension office in Largo. However, the public can still call in or comment via the Zoom platform, which is how commissioners met virtually. Residents also are welcome to attend in person, but space is limited due to the need to social distance. Masks are required.

On Nov. 17, commissioners discussed how to better facilitate virtual public commenting, which at some meetings had taken several hours due to the number of those wanting to speak and the process that is a bit cumbersome. Some called in repeatedly and took up more than their fair share of the time. It was difficult to get people to follow the rules. Additional time was taken up trying to help people understand the technology needed to participate virtually.

On top of all that, Bryan Zumwalt, director of the Office of Technology and Innovation, has spent many hours moderating the meetings and facilitating and managing the public comments segments. County Administrator Barry Burton would like Zumwalt to return full time to his regular job as soon as possible.

Kevin Knutson, assistant county administrator, brought commissioners up to speed during a Dec. 10 work session on what staff has done to try to develop a process to improve the public comment segment but still provide an opportunity for everyone who wishes to speak to do so.

The process would remain in place as long as the county is in a local state of emergency. Things could remain the same or could change with things transition to post-pandemic meetings.

The first idea was to require pre-registration so staff would know how many people want to talk and on what subjects — general comments or specific agenda items. The plan was to put up a form on the county’s website for people to use. The cut-off time would have been noon.

However, the majority of commissioners thought noon was too soon and the cut-off time was changed to 5 p.m. the day before the meeting.

Commissioner Karen Seel said it would be important to make sure a finalized agenda was posted well before that 5 p.m. deadline. Burton also was concerned that it could cause staff overtime if many preregistered to get the list ready.

The next topic of discussion was whether to combine “citizens to be heard” with comments on specific agenda items. Residents may speak on any topic they wish to do with county government during citizens to be heard. Public hearings would remain the same with comments allowed with each item.

Kat Carpenter with the Clerk of the Court’s Office talked about what combining the comment period might mean from a customer service perspective. She said to structure the comments to require them all to occur in the beginning of the meeting might create confusion since oftentimes staff makes presentations on agenda items that might answer the public’s questions. If commissioners hear from the public at the time they are making a decision on an item, also might make a difference, she said.

If all the comments come at the beginning of the meeting and someone wants to speak on more than one item, would they get three minutes to speak total or three minutes per item?

In the end, the consensus was to allow people to have the option. They can sign up to speak at the beginning of the meeting or at the beginning for citizens to be heard and then with an agenda item if they have comments that need to be made at that time.

Persons who attend the meetings in person also are required to sign up. They are asked to fill out a card to speak during citizens to be heard and for each agenda item.

Commissioners wanted to make sure that they did nothing to take away the opportunity for the public to participate in the meeting, which most agreed had been enhanced using virtual methods.

Commissioner Charlie Justice said he didn’t “understand the problem we’re trying to solve,” noting that public participation had returned to normal in recent meetings. He agreed that there had been problems with people getting mad about one item and then signing up to speak at every item thereafter, whether it was on topic or not. But he pointed out that the public could do the same thing if at a meeting in person, albeit less likely.

Seel said using a pre-registration process was more user-friendly. She said the public would know if they are signed up they will get called on and be allowed to speak.

“It’s more respectful of their time,” she said.

Knutson said staff also would be reaching out to the public to let them know they also can reach commissioners via an online form, email, letters and phone.

Chair-elect Dave Eggers said virtual commenting had been a “great way for the public to access government.”

“It’s been good,” he said. “Anything affecting that is negative.”

Justice wanted to make sure that the process was geared toward the norm, not the rare issue that might bring in a crowd. He doesn’t want to see a framework made for the exception rather than the rule.

Eggers also wanted to make it clear that if something occurred after 5 p.m. that the public felt they needed to talk about and did not have a chance to sign up, an exception would be made.

Gerard said as next year’s chair that would be his decision to make.

In the end, while not everyone was in total agreement, the consensus was to give the new guidelines a try and tweak them as needed.

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