TOWN CENTER – City officials want to bring more decorum to public meetings by ensuring citizens understand the process for commenting in public hearings held during council meetings and avoiding interactions with people who engage in making inaccurate statements about individuals.
Members of the city council explored issues about the balance between protecting speech and the feeling among some that erroneous statements should be addressed when they are made in a public setting. The discussion came toward the end of council’s retreat with staff in a city economic development conference room at Town Center on Friday, Feb. 16.
In particular, members of the body seemed to agree that members of the council should not engage in correcting speakers while they are making remarks within an allotted three minutes.
In January, Mayor Will Sessoms argued with a citizen during a hearing about a proposed fishing pier at the Oceanfront. The news website Southside Daily later reported that Sessoms acknowledged he should have waited until the speaker was done before addressing a comment the mayor said was not true.
Following the retreat on Friday, Sessoms said, “The vast majority of the people who come before us are very respectful.”
During the afternoon discussion, City Councilmember Barbara Henley, who represents the Princess Anne District, said members of the council could help influence the way discourse unfolds during meetings by how they treat each other.
“We’re the ones who can set the tone in the council meetings,” she said, adding that the tone should be a respectful one.
“If anyone else sees that we are not respectful of each other, then they will not be respectful,” she said.
“I think the council is very respectful of the public, but the public is not always respectful of us,” said City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at-large seat.
City Councilmember Jim Wood, who represents the Lynnhaven District, said the conduct of some people during meetings can have a negative effect upon other citizens, including people who may be attending a public meeting to speak for the first time.
“It’s very hard for some people to come and speak,” Wood said. “It’s on us if it’s an environment that makes people uncomfortable.”
City Councilmember Jessica Abbott, who represents the Kempsville District, was among those who said it made sense to avoid engaging with a speaker who had limited time to address an issue.
Sessoms noted that some public comments can include personal remarks about city staff members.
“It has an impact on good employees,” he said.
“They shouldn’t be attacked either,” Wilson said.
Abbott said waiting until after a speaker concluded remarks would allow a city councilmember who wanted to correct or address a statement a chance to do so without a back and forth, a point others made, too.
Council members discussed how to keep public hearing comments on topic, including whether speakers can be asked to avoid turning to address people in the chamber instead of addressing the council.
City Councilmember Shannon Kane, who represents the Rose Hall District, asked about how to address an individual who uses adult language.
City Attorney Mark Stiles said such an individual could be asked to sit down.
Such issues were part of a wide-ranging conversation that included City Clerk Amanda Barnes, who will look at ways to provide information about speaking to citizens before meetings and also when they arrive.
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