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TMCNet:  Public comment issue topic at Hickory's special Monday meeting

[January 08, 2013]

Public comment issue topic at Hickory's special Monday meeting

HICKORY, Jan 09, 2013 (Hickory Daily Record - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The framework for hearing public comment at Hickory City Council meetings needs fine-tuning. A committee of two council members and the mayor will meet Monday at City Hall to discuss the procedure and craft a recommendation for the full council meeting the following night.


Mayor Rudy Wright and council members Jill Patton and Sally Fox will convene at 9:30 a.m. in the City Council's regular meeting room. The meeting is open to the public.

The committee was formed to iron out confusion about when and how public opinion will be entertained at council meetings.

In response to public inquiries, the City Council decided in October to allow residents to speak on agenda items before votes were taken. Public comments of a general nature and not necessarily related to agenda items have been solicited toward the end of regular meetings for several years.

With the decision to allow comment before items requiring votes -- for example, the consent agenda and second readings on proposals necessary to finalize council actions -- the routine is for council to vote at each meeting on the time set aside for the public to address the meeting.

Some regular attendees of council meetings were under the impression that citizen comment would automatically be placed on the agenda. The routine of having council vote every meeting on public comments connected to the agenda was questioned by Hickory resident Cliff Moone at the Dec. 18 meeting.

Since such votes are not a function of the published City Council agenda, they should be viewed as being out of order. "You can verify for yourselves from the approved minutes of that Oct. 2 meeting, there was nothing in that motion to suggest or otherwise imply that this motion was to apply to that meeting only or that a new motion would be required at each subsequent meeting of the council," Moone said.

He said that he does not question the council's "good intentions," but that means whether citizens can speak to items on the agenda before the council votes is "determined solely by whether the mayor or another council member decides or remembers to make such a motion," according to the minutes of Dec. 18. He said the method is not consistent with the motion passed unanimously on Oct. 2.

Council member Brad Lail proposed a subcommittee to examine the issue and reach a recommendation on how to approach a fair place on the agenda where the public can comment. In the mayor's absence, Mayor Pro tem Hank Guess conducted the meeting. The proposal passed unanimously. A vote confirming the roles of Wright, Fox and Patton was also unanimous.

Guess suggested appropriate staff members attend the committee meeting. Hickory City Attorney John Crone said he, Deputy City Attorney Arnita Dula, and City Manager Mick Berry should be the ones to sit down with Wright, Patton and Fox.

The Monday meeting was set up at the Jan. 2 council meeting. Wright insisted the committee discussion be accessible to the public, a move endorsed by the rest of the council.

In the interim, Berry will check with the UNC School of Government and the League of Municipalities to see how other cities address citizen comment.

A glance at the agenda setups for Newton, Conover and Lenoir show those three cities do not routinely place public comments prior to consent agenda votes. The public is always invited to speak at public hearings. That's written in state statutes. But regarding agendas, comments from the public follow consent agenda votes for the three municipalities. Public input comes last at Conover City Council meetings. The order of business is reflected in the agendas for the three cities over the past 12 months.

All three, like Hickory, accepts public opinions and requests via mail, e-mail or website feedback, and written comments delivered to the various city halls at any time. Hickory and Newton are alike in that general comments not tied to the agenda require signing up to speak before a meeting.

On Jan. 2, the question was raised if making citizen comments a routine agenda item would run contrary to provisions in the city charter. Crone said he and Dula would be able to address the question at the Monday committee meeting.

Asked if citizen comments will be accepted at the Monday committee meeting, Wright replied, "Absolutely. We want our citizens to comment. I'm in favor of public comment. Even when I don't like what they're saying, I appreciate hearing it. Yes, citizens can speak at the committee meeting." Here's what the charter says Sec. 3.21. -- Meetings; rules; records.

(a) The council shall hold two regular meetings each month at some stated day and regular hour to be fixed by ordinance from time to time. It may hold such adjourned and called or special meetings as may be necessary or desirable. The mayor or any three members may call a meeting upon written notice of not less than 48 hours to all members, signed by the members calling the meeting, and issued through the city clerk's office.

(b) The council shall adopt rules not inconsistent with law concerning the conduct of meetings, including a rule that only those matters included upon the agenda may be considered at any council meeting, and that no matter may be placed upon the agenda for a meeting which has not been presented to the city clerk or the city manager by 5:00 p.m. on the Wednesday preceding the meeting. The rule concerning the agenda shall provide, however, that the council may consider a matter not included on the agenda by a vote of a majority of the council or, if necessary to meet a public emergency affecting life, health or property -- such consideration to be had only after adoption of a motion stating that an emergency exists and describing the emergency in clear and specific terms. No council rule concerning the conduct of meetings may be adopted, amended or repealed upon less than 30 days' notice presented at a regular meeting of the council, such notice to be recorded in the minutes of that meeting. (9-4-84; Amend. No. 3, 8-18-98) Sec. 3.61. -- Exercise of city powers; general powers of city council.

(a) The city council shall direct the exercise of all of the powers of the city, except as otherwise provided by this charter.

(b) In addition to other powers conferred upon it by law, the council may adopt and provide for the execution of such ordinances, rules, and regulations, not inconsistent with this charter, as may be necessary or appropriate to protect health, life or property, or to preserve or promote the comfort, convenience, security, good order, better government, or general welfare of the city and its inhabitants.

___ (c)2013 the Hickory Daily Record (Hickory, N.C.) Visit the Hickory Daily Record (Hickory, N.C.) at www.hickoryrecord.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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