Public hearings held at City Hall on various matters tend to be orderly affairs, but that hasn’t stopped the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners from tweaking the process.
A board action Thursday afternoon will serve to limit comments during hearings — not by the public, but the commissioners themselves.
They adopted a list of procedures for public hearings, mainly stating that board members should be seen and not heard during those sessions — with only citizens doing the talking.
“When I came on the board (in 2008), I was told that a public hearing was a time for the commissioners to listen,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said at Thursday’s meeting when he seemed to summarize the intent behind the action. The board’s Steve Yokeley and Scott Graham had offered similar comments when the matter was first discussed during a meeting on April 4.
“I think a public hearing is a time for citizens to speak” and the board “to be prepared to listen,” Cawley added. “And it’s wavered on occasion.”
One recent example of that occurred with a Feb. 21 public hearing on a proposed change in municipal election procedure which later was rejected. While several citizens did weigh in on the issue, two board members did as well — to criticize the proposal — which to Cawley was a violation of traditional protocol.
Under that tradition, board members hear what’s said by citizens during public hearings, remain silent at that point and absorb the comments for consideration until a future meeting when final action typically occurs. Then at that point, the commissioners openly discuss the issue.
“I think when we have a public hearing, what I hope, for us,” Cawley said of board members, “is that we have not yet made up our mind — and we listen.”
He added: “And if a person has made up their mind, they don’t give their hand away.” Listening to what citizens say might even lead a commissioner to alter his or her thinking on a matter, Cawley said.
The policy adopted Thursday also specifies that if questions are directed to board members by speakers during a public hearing, these will be submitted to the city manager and answered later at the time action is taken.
Other rules listed mirror what is now being done, including having an appropriate staff member, such as planning department personnel, initially provide background on the subject of a public hearing.
After that, the mayor is directed to open the hearing for comments by citizens, who go to a podium and state their names and addresses for the record before speaking.
The policy approved Thursday afternoon does not affect public forums conducted near the start of commissioners meetings, which are held twice a month. During those forums, citizens may speak on any municipal government topic.
In another item Thursday, the commissioners reappointed two members to the Mount Airy Parks and Recreation Commission.
The present terms of Shep Brannock and Lisa Clark expire on May 31. Their new three-year terms end in May 2016.
Members of the parks and recreation group oversee the city’s public recreation facilities and programs.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.