Residents unhappy with comments policy
by Courtney Price
At the June 20 Board of County Commissioners meeting, Denver resident Rudy Bauer decided he was going to have his say.
“You’re only allowed to talk for three minutes. And the last time I was there, I told them that I wasn’t going to sit down until I got done talking,” Bauer said Wednesday, July 13.
When Bauer went over the three-minute limit, board Chairman Alex Patton asked a sheriff’s deputy to escort him from the room.
“As soon as I got out of the room, the deputy said I could go back in but I wasn’t allowed to talk anymore,” he said.
Bauer made his decision after being limited at multiple meetings where he spoke against Fifth Third Bank in the Burton Creek zoning public hearings.
Bauer said he’s upset because, in those public hearings, representatives from Fifth Third and Coldwell Banker got unlimited time to speak, while individuals who say they were affected by erosion from the Burton Creek property were limited to three minutes each.
Martin Oakes, another Denver resident who’s been active in the discussions, said that policy is unfair. At the June 20 meeting, Oakes asked to show a PowerPoint presentation to accompany his comments.
“I believe it’s essentially unfair not to be able to put reasonable presentations up,” Oakes said.
The boards in Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and Mooresville all also limit public comments to three minutes.
County Manager George Wood said the county has no plans to address the time limit on speakers.
“My understanding from Alex (Patton) is, he’s not looking at changing it,” Wood said. “At the last meeting, he said people are there to address the board, not the audience. If people have a PowerPoint, they can make copies and give it out at the board meeting or even send it ahead of time.”
County officials have some concern about citizens bringing portable USB drives to the board because those devices can transfer viruses to county computers.
“It’s only recently that people have wanted to do PowerPoints,” Commissioner George Arena said. “I understand the security concerns: When you take a drive and load it onto your computer, you don’t necessarily know what’s on it.”
Security isn’t the only concern, Wood said.
“What we don’t want it turning into is someone coming in to make a detailed presentation to the audience. If you’ve got a 15-slide presentation, you probably aren’t going to get through it in three minutes anyway. You can send it to us, and we don’t think people are limited by that.”
Oakes said he’s not convinced those rules are fair.
“People have been told that they can’t use Powerpoints to show their viewpoints, but the county and applicant are both allowed to show them. It’s essentially unfair and can easily be challenged in court. It’s a quasi-judicial hearing, which implies that the rules in evidence and fairness to all parties should be equal.”
“When the real estate guys went up there, they got to talk as long as they wanted to. What they told me later on was that they are the applicants for the permits, and they can talk as long as they want to. Well, I don’t think that’s fair.”
Arena said the applicant has an unlimited amount of time because they’re discussing specific details on the project and may have to field questions from the staff or planning board members. He conceded the county should be working to make the rules a little more clear for public comments.
According to Clerk to the Board Amy Atkins, the policy for public comments says:
• The public comments section is intended to allow residents to bring new issues to the board that aren’t already on the agenda.
• Citizens have three minutes to speak during the public comments section.
• A person speaking on behalf of a group can speak for five minutes.
• PowerPoint presentations are not allowed, but other means of display, such as poster boards, are allowed.
Those rules are slightly different from a quasi-judicial zoning public hearing, like the hearings in the recent Burton Creek discussions. Those public hearings are to address specific issues, and discussion should be focused on that issue.
Applicants have no time limit during zoning public hearings.
Atkins said the county does not have a written policy to show residents, but the list where residents sign up to speak does have the time-limit rules.