Are Arlington County Board rules for community comment at its meeting violating the constitutional rights of the public?
That was part of the message of one speaker at the Oct. 14 County Board meeting, criticizing the board’s policy of hearing only one speaker per topic during its “public comment” free-for-all that starts off the monthly meetings.
“You are venturing very, very close to serious violations, violating people’s political speech,” local resident Juliet Hiznay said.
Hiznay, a sometimes vocal local activist, had attempted to sign up in advance to speak on the issue of deaths at the Arlington County Detention Facility only to be told she would not be allowed to because another speaker on that topic had signed up first.
Hiznay urged board members to “consider the First Amendment rights of all the people who come before you.”
“We do not always have the same message, even if we’re talking on the same subject,” she said.
As it turned out, the speaker who had signed up earlier bailed, and Hiznay moved into that slot. She said she planned to speak at the meeting anyway. “I would have figured out a way around [the rules],” she said.
The one-speaker-per-topic rule for public comment has long been in place at Saturday-morning County Board meetings, although how strictly it has been enforced has tended to vary by who is serving as board chair.
Things often run somewhat cyclically whenever a new board chair takes over at the start of a year: The new chair provides some leeway on the rule, only to find speakers showing up en masse and trying to dodge the restriction, which is followed by a clamping down, which then loosens as the months roll on.
Since the return of in-person County Board meetings in the spring, speakers have been allowed to make comments either while in the board room or remotely through a computer link. That practice, a nod to the COVID era, is likely to continue indefinitely.
The one-speaker-per-topic rule only applies to the public-comment portion of the meeting. An unlimited number of speakers can sign up to speak on individual hearing items.
County Board members set their public-comment rules at the start of each year. A separate option would be to allow multiple speakers on individual topics, but limit the total speaking time to, say, 30 minutes. (There also would be the “nuclear option” – eliminating the public-comment period entirely – but that seems an unlikely response.)
While board members responded to Hiznay’s comments about the jail issue, they did not say much about her concerns about the violation of constitutional rights.