Uncivil liberties?

For some, the word “retreat” might conjure up an image of a cabin tucked away in some remote wooded glen, the trills of songbirds offering a respite from the hubbub of the outside world.

But for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, this month’s edition of their annual retreat translated into a pair of structured meetings in a county-owned building on College Street, just a short walk from their regular meeting place in the county courthouse. And instead of nature sounds, their getaway was punctuated by the thuds and hammering of renovation work being done on the building’s roof.

Despite those limitations, however, the board managed to cover a lot of ground on Friday, Jan. 5 and Saturday, Jan. 6, as members charted the direction they want to take this year.

It was the first opportunity for new board Chair Nathan Ramsey and the four veteran commissioners to sit down and talk business outside the formal confines of a regularly scheduled board meeting. During nine hours of meetings, which attracted only a handful of onlookers at any given time, board members agreed (or agreed to disagree) on a number of issues.

Land-use planning and a possible 1-cent sales-tax increase were among the topics dominating the retreat (see sidebar). But some of the liveliest comment was reserved for a discussion of public participation in the board’s regular meetings.

In the months leading up to last fall’s election, political rhetoric was regularly heard during the public-comment portion of the commissioners’ meetings. It reached a fever pitch when opposition candidate Gerald Dean took to using his time at the lectern to air snippets of vague rumors he’d heard about two commissioners and a county staffer.

At the retreat, board members considered revamping the rules governing the public-comment period — and Ramsey found his viewpoint at odds with those of the rest of the board.

County Attorney Joe Connolly recommended that the board continue to allow public comment at the meetings (although, according to his reading of the law, commissioners aren’t required to do so).

Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes told the commissioners that she had researched how other cities and counties handle public comment — including those, like Buncombe, that televise their meetings.

“We’re not in Mayberry anymore,” Hughes observed. “Just saying, ‘Be good to each other’ is not going to work.”

Some local governments don’t allow speakers to address topics at the end of the meeting if they’ve already offered comment on them earlier in the meeting, Hughes told the board. (The board takes public comment on specific agenda items as they are addressed.)Others require speakers to write down their names and addresses, so it’s easier for government officials to get back in touch with them. And many localities do not require either staff members or commissioners to respond on the spot to questions from the audience.

Ramsey said that requiring people to register in order to address the board rewards people with preset agendas and penalizes those who have spontaneous comments.

“I think we’re punishing that individual,” insisted Ramsey.

“I can’t remember that happening,” rejoined Vice Chair David Gantt, adding that he’d like to have more advance notice about what people want to know, so commissioners can have an answer ready for them.

Gantt also noted that about 95 percent of the comments heard at board meetings come from the same four or five people, adding, “And it’s political commentary — and that’s wrong.” But Ramsey countered that political commentary is the essence of First Amendment-protected speech. Commissioners’ meetings are the proper forum for such comments, he maintained, as long as the speakers follow the rules of decorum.

“Political comment as far as issues, fine,” responded Gantt. “Political comment as far as elections, no.”

But Ramsey expressed concern about people who attend a meeting but aren’t familiar with the board’s procedures.

“I think, for the average person, this is a new experience for them,” Ramsey said. “If they want to talk about politics, that’s up to them.”

“I disagree with you there,” said Commissioner Patsy Keever, adding that people need to know what constitutes acceptable behavior.

Connolly, pointing to what he called the “uncivil nature” of some comments and the personal attacks sometimes directed at board members, suggested that the board stop televising the public-comment portion of their meetings.

“I see potential legal exposure,” Connolly advised.

In his opinion, the county could get into legal hot water if it broadcast defamatory comments. Since the local media don’t publish or broadcast these personal attacks, the county itself ends up disseminating the questionable comments, Connolly noted.

But Ramsey countered with a hypothetical example of someone accusing him of wanting to pave every square inch of Buncombe County. Although that comment would be untrue, he would consider it reasonable, because it directly relates to land-use issues. On the other hand, someone accusing him of being racist or sexist would clearly be out of line, said Ramsey.

Keever interjected that, although she likes public comment because it’s interesting, people should address the board and not individual board members. That in itself would alleviate a lot of problems, she suggested.

“I think we need to make sure they address us as a board,” agreed Commissioner Bill Stanley.

And Connolly, while noting that board members have to be thick-skinned and be prepared to take criticism, added, “It’s a fine line between what is uncivil and what is personal attacks, and the line’s been stepped on a lot.”

“I think this thick-skin thing’s gone a little too far,” said Keever.

Connolly also reported that a reasonable number of cities and counties require speakers to sign up a day or two in advance so that board members can get up to speed on the topic, an idea that Gantt applauded.

But Hughes noted that some people who aren’t “plugged in” to the system might be thwarted by that requirement.

Connolly then suggested that speakers could be required to sign up no more than 15 minutes after a meeting starts.

Stanley said he doesn’t think the board needs to hear from the same people at every meeting, suggesting that those folks could talk once a month — or once a quarter.

“Give it a rest one meeting?” asked Gantt.

Ramsey joked that a speaker could then get his cousin or brother to voice the same view.

“At least there’d be variety,” Keever said dryly, adding that she agrees with the idea of not televising speakers’ comments. And in a nod to Ramsey, she complimented him for having restrained speakers at the board’s December meetings.

Connolly also noted that the board could legally decide to bar a speaker who’s been “too outlandish” from speaking at meetings, or from attending the meetings altogether.

The discussion ended with Connolly agreeing to bring the board a proposal — which undoubtedly will generate its own share of public comment.

Here’s where their heads are

The Buncombe County commissioners launched their Jan. 5-6 retreat by brainstorming about the top issues they want to address this year, which county staffers recorded on flip charts at the head of the meeting room. Each board member (armed with 10 blue sticky dots) then ranked the issues by placing dots beside their preferred topics. Here are the issues they came up with and the number of votes each received:

• land use/growth management — six votes;

• business/industrial park, maintain low tax rate (elderly/poor relief), aging community/issues — five votes each;

• improve communications to ensure the community knows what the commissioners are doing — four votes;

• computers in schools, child care, water-and-sewer delivery/access — three votes each;

• more efficient/coordinated human-services delivery, ridge top protection, middle-school alternative programs, litter, farmland preservation — two votes each;

• lessen the gap between “haves” and “have nots,” affordable housing, supplemental school tax, vocational training (support those not going to a four-year college), master plan for county facilities, one-stop permitting/more timely environmental-health inspections — one vote each;

• Civic Center (discussion with the city), computer and Internet access for all residents/cable service, “e-government,” exploration of regional issues, flow control/waste stream, recycling — no votes.

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