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Citizens who want to speak at James City County Board of Supervisors meetings must now fill out a card upon which they will provide their name, address and the topic they wish to address.
The supervisors voted unanimously to put the new policy in place at Tuesday’s board meeting after a couple of citizens expressed dissatisfaction with the public comment process.
The board allows citizens to comment once on any issue during public comment periods and once during each public hearing, which focuses on a specific topic like a land rezoning or a new development.
The cards are not a new addition to the meeting process. The supervisors have for years used them to determine who gets to speak first. After all the cards were exhausted, they would then ask if anyone else wanted to speak during the public comment and hearing portions of meetings.
But that changed on the April 14 public hearing over the county’s proposed budget. The supervisors went through each card and then immediately closed the public hearing. The board closed each chance for public comment from that meeting forward after speaker cards were exhausted without addressing the matter until Tuesday.
A few citizens brought up the matter before and after the supervisors voted to change the matter after Supervisor Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown) brought it up during a portion of the meeting reserved for board members to discuss anything they wish.
“A couple of folks tonight did mention the speakers form, and I would have to concur,” Onizuk said. “It doesn’t say they have to fill out a speaker form, so we may want to clarify our policy on the speaker form.”
Supervisor Michael Hipple (Powhatan) said the use of speaker cards makes the meetings run more efficiently.
“I’m about efficiency, and I’m also about letting general public speak as much as they want,” Hipple said. “We can line them up so it does make it more efficient to me. Fill out the cards and we’ll go through you one by one.”
Supervisor Jim Kennedy (Stonehouse) said the cards are valuable because they give the county the chance to record the names and addresses of speakers. That information is contained in the minutes that are taken of each board meeting.
He also suggested revisiting an idea first presented by County Administrator Bryan Hill in January. Hill said then the board should add a caucus section to the beginning of its meetings. That would offer citizens a chance to come interact with the supervisors in an informal setting and have questions answered there.
“After the success of the budget meetings, it might give people a clearer understanding of what’s going on. We can answer their questions then and there,” Kennedy said.
The board changed its public comment system in January. Previously, citizens were allowed to speak for up to 3 minutes in each of two public comment periods. They could also speak for up to 3 minutes during each public hearing.
The new system allows citizens to speak for up to 5 minutes, but they may only speak during one public comment period. Meetings start at 6:30 p.m., and after any presentations to the board, the first public comment period begins. It ends promptly at 7 p.m. in time for public hearings to start. After any public hearings and other board business, the second public comment period begins for all of the citizens who did not get a chance to speak during the first public comment period.
The change was made to give more consistency to the start time of public hearings. In those cases, applicants seeking a rezoning or approval of a new construction project often have engineers, attorneys and other professionals who were being paid to sit and wait for the public comment period to end so that public hearings could start. The public comment period would sometimes run for an hour or more.
Chris Henderson took issue with the current system at Tuesday’s meeting, saying it makes it difficult for citizens to comment on what happens during meetings. So if a citizen’s card is called during the first public comment period and then something happens later in the meeting they wish to address, they must wait until the next meeting to comment on that issue.