STAUNTON – Amid the discussion of public affairs during Thursday night’s city council meeting, Mayor Andrea Oakes took a violent pause and announced that she had something to say.
The future of public commentary in city council meetings is fragile and may change since the discussion on the amendment to Memorandum No. 4 was put on the table. The memorandum deals with the rules for public hearings and public affairs.
Since the discussion began weeks ago, there have been numerous suggestions to adjust the public commentary sessions in the council, including the suggestion by Vice Mayor Mark Robertson to set a limit of five citizens in person and five by electronic communication or a fixed time limit of 30 minutes in total. Robertson also suggested a period of time for council members to respond to the public after the comment period.
Council records show that Oakes has expressed her approval of at least some parts of Robertson’s proposals, but at the most recent meeting on Thursday, she supported an idea that defied all restrictions – Oakes wanted to open the public comment section entirely.
“I plan to stay true to my platform when I said I’ll listen to the citizens because we work for you,” said Oakes. “At the last meeting it was mentioned that it would be so if we had to be here by two in the morning.”
Oakes said she wanted to allow remote participation in public affairs, keep speaking time of five minutes, and keep not only public affairs at the end of the city council, but also a second section, “Public Affairs” at the beginning the ordinary city council meeting.
Ultimately, the council decided that one session of public affairs per session would be sufficient and that it would continue to be held at the end, as has been the practice in the past.
Dull asked why Oakes’ suggested deadline was only five minutes, and asked why not eight or more minutes. However, it was decided to allow five minutes of speaking time for each individual.
The Council has decided here not to have any restrictions on the right to speak.
Oakes’ plea on two public issues failed, but she said a large part of her decision to propose such a broad span of public comment was that she had considered how the council could and wanted to make itself more accessible to the public first to support people’s right to change.
Councilor Terry Holmes pointed out that even with a public comment session, providing remote participation will allow more citizens to participate in city council meetings.
After a 7-0 vote from the council to approve the five-minute deadline and allow remote attendance, and to have a single “Public Affairs” section at the end of each session, residents came forward to share their thoughts on the Decision to express.
Many said they were surprised by the council’s decision but happy that it did. Resident Nitch Narduzzi thanked the council, but also pointed out that the problem was created by the council earlier this year and could have been resolved much more quickly considering the restrictions on public comments via electronic communications began in early April.
A new resident in town also called to thank the community. He said he had listened and had never attended a city council meeting but felt compelled to try and share his excitement for the decision.
Shortly before the second vote to approve the two matters from the public sections, Councilor Brenda Mead came out to thank the Staunton residents who had protested the restrictions on public comment, a group called “Silenced Staunton”.
Participants wore “SILENCED” signs on their shirts to council meetings, covered their masks with tape, and protested the council’s decision, including Senator Tim Kaine, who visited Staunton earlier this year.
The turmoil in the community over the elimination of electronic participation in Matters From the Public went so far that a watchdog transparency coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia, the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy & Protection (ICAP.) Were reached ) and the DisAbility Law Center of Virginia (dLCV), who sent a joint letter to the Mayor expressing concerns about the First Amendment Rights and the Disability Act.
Mead urged members who pressured the council to reintroduce electronic communications in public commentary and commended them for their efforts.
Changes to how Matters from the Public works will take effect immediately. At the end of the council meetings, the residents can now speak in person or remotely. There will be no limit to the number of people who can speak and citizens will still have five minutes.
For more information, see ci.staunton.va.us/agendas-minutes.
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– Alison Cutler (she / she) is the government watchdog reporter for The News Leader. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona and graduated from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Contact Alison at a[email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ alisonjc2.