Civic

County commissioners challenged to support democracy through shutdown

Asheville's Public Comments Rules

Asheville – Before COVID-19, local governments used parliamentarian rules for public comment, usually restricting those who wanted to talk to time and subject matter limits within “public comment periods.” It was more civilized than a free-for-all, but more superficial than a lively back-and-forth. For years, the Buncombe County Commissioners, along with other government bodies, have struggled with how to make this fair.

Debates behind changing Buncombe’s rules in recent years considered when comments should be taken. If taken at the beginning of meetings, people who work 9 to 5 jobs wouldn’t be able to make it. Moving comment to the end of the meetings would exclude those with children or jobs who couldn’t stay should the meeting extend toward the witching hour. Accommodating middle-class workers silenced the voices of shift workers, but doing nothing gave professional activists and those with the luxury of taking time off work as they pleased a louder voice.

Taking comment at the end of meetings would allow the county to release members of staff, who were mostly salaried anyway, at a decent hour; it could also likely waste more man-hours by making civilians sit through marathon meetings. Holding post-meeting comment, something Commissioner Anthony Penland deemed good for feedback, would, from the perspective of Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Joe Belcher, shut off input that could help the commissioners make better decisions.

Former Asheville City Councilman Dr. Carl Mumpower used to complain about members of the public feeling the need to grandstand on television when they could pick up the phone or email their representatives anytime. While some do use the time for personal publicity; others, who believe they have a legitimate whistle to blow, fear the same power structure that committed the act they’re flagging would also delete and scrub an incriminating, or even unfavorable, email.

Now, public bodies are faced with how best to handle public comment in the era of social distancing. Asheville City Council has gone to an all-Zoom format, which allows live public comment, including that from protesters congregating around the now mostly empty city hall.

Departments of Equity and Inclusion would not find that suitable for rural areas, where old-timers don’t have internet and can’t even pull up the agendas to find out if they want to Zoom-in. In addition, county staff cited as an obstacle county rules requiring a quorum of commissioners to be seated at the dais, but they did not explain why this precluded four from Zooming on different devices while seated in the chambers.

Commissioner Robert Pressley had argued the then-current process of commissioners reading previously submitted emails wasn’t working. He found watching people, their body language and moods, helpful in communication. 

During a public briefing, Buncombe County Clerk Lamar Joyner presented the commissioners with a list of options, which included letting people speak at a kiosk in another room with a Zoom camera, letting them circulate through the chamber within social-distancing guidelines, recording Zoom comment for later broadcast, doing the same with voicemail, continuing to read emails, moving to 100% remote meetings, or using some combination of the options.

The commissioners then weighed in, and at the following, regular meeting, Buncombe Chair Brownie Newman announced the board was going to follow staff’s recommendations. Persons wishing to participate in general public comment could telephone in live via Zoom. Zoom was selected over teleconferencing because Zoom conferences are managed by a producer who can, for instance, mute callers when their three-minute allotment is up.

Comments will start at 5:15 pm, as opposed to “whenever the meeting ends,” and last exactly one hour. Callers will be broadcast on a first-come, first-served basis, which favors the swift and connected. At least with the commissioners reading comments, “stuffing” the speaker queue was preventable through Joyner’s sorting and consolidation efforts.

More Meetings about Meetings

The commissioners made a decision about delegating the power of appointing successors to certain boards and commissions. As a matter of course, any attempt by any group to give itself greater powers deserves a healthy dose of suspicion. In previous deliberations, the commissioners raised concerns about checks and balances to protect against, for example, stacking a board or rotating members of a clique in and out of service. The problem, however, was there are now almost 50 boards, with so many applicants, the commissioners are spending too much time on appointments.

The commissioners unanimously agreed, with the understanding that the policy would be subject to review, that boards that served solely in an advisory capacity would be able to conduct interviews for successors and make recommendations to the commissioners who, in turn, could reject their request or even conduct a second round of interviews. The commissioners would still interview candidates for governmental or quasi-judiciary boards.

The commissioners made a couple of changes to the staff’s recommendations. At Newman’s recommendation, new appointments to advisory boards that oversee recurring county disbursements of six or seven digits will also be made through commissioner interviews. Affected boards are the Strategic Partnership Grants Committee, the Asheville Regional Housing Consortium, the Affordable Housing Subcommittee, and the Early Childhood Education and Development Committee. Any board may, at any time, recommend appointees, but at Penland’s request, submissions will have to be in writing with reasons for supporting a particular candidate.