Is it an effort to merely streamline the process, or a plot to curtail independent voices from reaching the public at Arlington County Board meetings? You make the call.
Before leaving on their summer hiatus, County Board members made a small but not necessarily insignificant change to the rules governing the public-comment period that kicks off Saturday board meetings.
Previously, an individual could show up at the 8:30 a.m. meeting (either in person or “virtually”) and submit a speaker form prior to the last public-comment speaker wrapping up comments, usually something that occurs about 9 a.m. or slightly later.
Under the new rules, sign-ups must occur before 8:15 a.m. to make the cut.
“This is completely in keeping with the spirit of our public-comment rules,” County Board Chairman Katie Cristol said during the board’s July meeting, when the switcheroo was approved on a 5-0 vote.
Cristol indicated that the change would assist the two staff members designated to process speaker requests both for the public-comment period and for public hearings later in the meeting. But her words seemed to suggest that closing the registration period before speakers started would cut down on those who were inspired (or irritated) by one speaker and wanted to add their own comments.
The change will “ensure that we can get to the regular business of our Saturday meeting on time,” she said.
Traditionally, the public-comment period has been only for items that are not on the agenda on that day and, depending on how the rules are enforced, not in the pipeline for consideration at a future meeting.
It’s that enforcement that often can lead to brouhahas, such as when Cristol at the June meeting seemed to go to draconian lengths to prohibit speakers from touching on a variety of facets of the county government’s proposed, and contentious, Missing Middle zoning changes.
By July, that firm grip on the gavel had relaxed slightly, as Cristol allowed several public-comment speakers to talk on the subject, so long as they were hitting different facets of it.
As often as not, speakers use public-comment periods to address the broader public (either in the room or watching at home) as much as County Board members. Over the years, a number of regulars – the names John Antonelli, Jim Hurysz, Robert Molleur and Robert Atkins might ring a bell to some – gained a degree of community notoriety for their orations before the elected officials.
(For several years, Antonelli’s devilish year-end grading of the performance of county leaders was a not-to-be-missed event, but he has since largely retired from the civic-engagement arena.)
County Board members traditionally establish their meeting rules at the board’s January organizational gathering. Mid-year changes are rare but not unheard of, and board member Matt de Ferranti said this one was a “common-sense” course correction.
The rules change will take effect with the September County Board meeting. That’s the same month that the School Board, which decided to ban public comment from its meetings during the summer, resumes taking community feedback.