What is the role of public input in local government? That question — with its broad constitutional overtones — became the most debated (and debatable) topic in the Oct. 6 session of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
Apparently in response to the heated exchanges at the board’s previous meeting, on Sept. 15 — when several citizens quarreled not only with commissioners, but also with one another — Board Chairman Tom Sobol asked County Attorney Joe Connolly to review the whole issue of public comment. A portion of the Board’s semimonthly meetings is set aside so that members of the public may speak on just about any subject they wish to address. That license, it seems, requires some clarification every now and then.
“This board is not required to allow a general public-comment session at the end of [its] regular business,” Connolly informed the half-empty chamber. “However, this board has allowed public comment, and predecessor boards have allowed public comment here in Buncombe County for many years, and in my opinion, I believe it’s important this board continue to allow public comment. It gives the public an opportunity to bring issues and areas of concern to the attention not only [of] the Board of Commissioners, but [of] the staff of Buncombe County.
“It’s also fair game, under public comment, for the public to criticize the policies of this board,” he continued. “However, it is not fair game to have personal attacks on individuals.”
Connolly went on to outline the role of public comment, as defined in the board’s own rules of procedure: that the board not restrict comments, disparaging or otherwise, about other organizations; that the public is made aware of the five-minute time limit, and that the limit be strictly enforced. Turning to Sobol, he said, ” … This is the hard part for you, because basically you’re a nice guy, and it’s hard to stop somebody. But my recommendation is that you let people know we have a five-minute time limit, and you call it to their attention. … If those are the rules that we’re going to have … I think you need to enforce that.”
Connolly also asserted that audience members should not be allowed to interrupt the speaker. “This happens from time to time, and it’s not always an ugly comment. It may be just an inquiry, or somebody wanting to add their approval of what’s being said.” Further, he emphasized that each person who speaks should be required to speak from the podium. “We’re on television now,” noted Connolly. “That may be good, that may be bad, but we’re on television. A lot of times, when people make comments from the audience, they’re good comments, but it’s not being picked up on television.”
Connolly’s final recommendation was not to allow personal attacks on individuals. “Yes, this board needs to be prepared to receive criticism from the public, but this is not the place, not the forum for individuals … to make personal attacks on other individuals.” And though Connolly never made it completely clear what is and isn’t “personal,” the board seemed satisfied with his characterization.
Vice Chair Patsy Keever mentioned that an unfortunate political tone can sometimes creep into certain individuals’ public comments, “as if somebody were running for office.” She asked if Connolly could address that issue.
At this, Commissioner Bill Stanley laughed devilishly. “Everything is political,” he said.
“I mean, I know it’s political,” replied Keever, “but this isn’t the place to run for office.”
Connolly acknowledged Keever’s point, saying, “My heart tells me it’s not the place to run for office, but my head says that if you’re going to allow public comment, you have to have a wide latitude as to what type comment and criticism people will be allowed to make. The key, to me, is that this is absolutely not the place to make personal attacks on other individuals. … I believe that that is not appropriate, and it’s not something that was envisioned under the concept of public comment.”
Sobol, whose own barbed comment to WNC Air Pollution Control Agency board member Arlis Queen — asking Queen if he ever had anything positive to say about the Board of Commissioners — was perhaps the most personal charge delivered on Sept. 15, said, “We’ve tried to establish a wide parameter under our public comment. We’ll continue to try to establish that.”
Rachel Queen — the wife of Arlis Queen, and a member of Taxpayers for Accountable Government — agreed with most of what Connolly had outlined. “I’d like to thank you for the opportunity we have, as citizens, to participate in our government through public comment,” she told the board. “Certainly, I agree that this is not the place to attack individuals. I do believe what public comment is about is for citizens … to participate in democracy in action, asking questions about government [and] issues that impact our lives — questions dealing with the budget, decisions made by this board, and so forth.” And though Queen argued that remarks about organizations pertinent to the matter under discussion should be allowed, she also expressed concern about the public disparagement of other, tangential, groups.
When Queen posited several situations in which an organization could be maligned in public comment, Sobol agreed. “We’re not going to allow anybody to come up here and chastise another organization,” he said, ” … without some kind of grounds for it to be based on.”
Connolly returned to the podium and concluded that, ” … for this board, it would be all too easy to restrict a large number of areas [from discussion under] public comment. Personally, it would be easier on all the county staff, … and the members of this board, if we didn’t have individuals making comments about organizations from time to time. There’s no question, there’s no room for personal attacks in public comment, but if you’re going to allow public comment, it’s very difficult to draw a line in the sand as to what you can talk about and what you can’t.”
The board was also dismayed to hear that the planned renovations at McCormick Field would cost nearly twice as much as had been estimated. When Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton updated the commissioners, he said that bids were opened on Oct. 1, and only four companies had submitted proposals. The low bidder was the Taylor & Murphy Construction Company, with a bid of $451,921; other bids ranged as high as $645,000. The $250,000 initial estimate was only a rough figure, Creighton explained. “We had an estimate, but we didn’t really have any plans. This is what the project really bid at.”
He went on to caution the board that, ” … we don’t want to get into a situation where we try to nickel-and-dime this project. I don’t want to get into a situation, years down the road, coming back before the board saying, ‘We should have kept this in,’ or ‘We should not have taken that out.’ I feel confident that we have a good design, that we can’t divert from that design much without hurting the integrity of the field, down the road.”
When asked to explain the wide discrepancy between the estimate and the final bids, Creighton said that the company that made that estimate hadn’t actually bid on the project, due to time constraints and other limitations; out of six interested parties, he said, only four submitted bids. Creighton concluded by reminding everyone that although field design is good, ” … we don’t have a major-league-field design at this point. It’s not a Cadillac; we could spend a lot more money.”
Longtime board critic Peter Dawes, citing Bi-Lo Stadium in Greenville, S.C., wondered if the county could sell McCormick Field’s name to a corporate sponsor and “take [this field] off the taxpayers’ backs.”
“It’s a good idea,” allowed Commissioner David Young, and his fellow board members agreed.
Stanley moved that the county accept Taylor & Murphy’s bid. Keever seconded, and the motion passed unanimously.
Cell-tower blues revisited
Commissioner David Gantt, who was asked at the Sept. 15 meeting to take a closer look at MetroSite Management’s proposal that they help Buncombe County locate and lease various county-owned cell-tower sites to private carriers, moved that the county enter into a contract with the Arkansas-based firm.
“The end of the story is, there’s no cost to the county,” he said. “They will negotiate and talk with prospective cell-tower builders and try to get co-location. Cell towers are coming, there’s no question in my mind. Its a win/win for us.”
Stanley seconded, and the motion passed unanimously.
During the public-comment period, however, concerned citizen Don Yelton told the board that he had recently spoken to a member of the Federal Communications Commission about section 704 of the 1996 Communications Act. This section, he said, “reserves the authority of state and local governments over decisions regarding the placement, construction and modification of personal wireless service facilities. … ” Further research, said Yelton, revealed that most local governmental bodies do have limited legislative power over cell-tower placement and circumstance, depending on “state statutory authority.”
“I’ve given you the FCC rules,” he told the board, adding, ” … and I would like to have an answer from this board and Mr. Connolly [about] what is keeping you from making a decision [regulating the cell-tower situation]. I want to see the statutory limitations that tie your hands, so you cannot adopt an ordinance that says all cell towers must be camouflaged or environmentally friendly.”
A shaggy-dog story
Also during the public-comment period, Robert Burris related a sad tale, but was unable to finish — cut short by the strict five-minute limit. In the time he did have, he told a story about his son’s dog, Sally, who had been “unlawfully taken” to the Buncombe County Animal Shelter and imprisoned there for the past 11 days. Burris explained that his son had asked him to care for the dog while the younger man dealt with Hodgkin’s disease. “She’s my guard dog and my hearing aid,” Burris noted.
He said he had left Sally in a parked car while he went to a doctor’s appointment, making sure that the windows were slightly rolled down and that the dog had enough water. Burris returned, however, to find that the dog had “bumped” another man outside the car, biting the man on the back — without breaking the skin, according to Burris. The dog was impounded — even though Burris said his veterinarian had confirmed that there was no possibility of a rabies infection.
At this point, Burris’s time was up, and Sobol asked him to wait until after the board meeting to resolve the issue. At that point, he said, he and County Manager Wanda Greene would see what they could do.
Earlier this month, Bill Stanley was selected by the president of the National Association of County Commissioners to serve as co-chair of a new national Rural Action Caucus, along with David Schmidt of Lynn County, Ore.
Mr. Huon Lee was reappointed to the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council, after completing one term.