Voice of the People

Dr. Bob Wilson shares concerns about the fate of a local historic house with Milledgeville City Council attendees at a recent meeting.

The people's right to speak their minds to government can be considered a good thing: 

"Democracy is cumbersome, slow and inefficient, but in due time, the voice of the people will be heard and their latent wisdom will prevail." — Thomas Carlyle

Or a bad thing:

"The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and, however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true to fact. The people are turbulent and changing, they seldom judge or determine right." — Alexander Hamilton

But in America, it is the right thing. 

And the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that right. 

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." — First Amendment

People attend school board, city council and county commission meetings to share what they think with elected officials.

Local governments set aside a time to hear from the public. But, polices and procedures for public commenting vary widely. 

In the SunLight Project coverage area — Valdosta, Dalton, Thomasville, Milledgeville, Tifton and Moultrie, Ga., and Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Fla., along with the surrounding counties — government officials give the public a chance to comment at meetings, even if the time is limited, even if it is relegated to end of the meeting, even if the speech is restricted and even if public isn’t interested in speaking out. 

Many officials in the coverage area expressed their disappointment that more residents failed to attend meetings. Unless there is a hot-button issue up for discussion, usually involving taxes, then most government meetings are full of empty seats.

When residents do attend, policy for public speaking is typically left up to the chairperson’s prerogative. Some chairpersons allow residents to speak as often as they would like on any matter the board discusses. Others strictly adhere to the allotted time and place of public comments, fully utilizing the designated time to limit every individual.

Georgia law does not require public comment. However, the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia recommends that county commissions have public comment policies. Florida law requires all governing bodies give members of the public a reasonable opportunity to be heard. The requirement does not prohibit a board from maintaining order or proper decorum. The opportunity to be heard is subject to rules or policies adopted by the board or commission.

Some boards keep strict time limits, cutting people off mid-sentence when their time runs out. Other boards are more informal. The chairperson will let anyone speak on a topic so long as they remain on topic and cordial.

If the speaker’s question or comments can’t be answered at the meeting then the board will direct them to meet with staff.

The policies seem to depend on how willing officials are to working with the speaker.

Across the coverage area, cities seem to be the most informal and school boards are the most strict.

In cases where crowds attend a meeting to debate a particular subject, time limits are more likely to be used, even by the most informal boards. The limit keeps meetings from lasting all night. Crowds are often told to pick a spokesperson to represent them.

Requirements and Time Limits 

For some residents, time limits are inhibiting.

Lowndes Board of Education and the Lowndes County Commission keep public commenting down to five minutes per individual. Valdosta City Council and the Lowndes County Board of Education allow only three minutes per individual.

Norman Bennett said he sat on the Lowndes County Commission for 20 years, and he never called time on someone during Citizens to be Heard.

Bennett spoke at a May County Commission meeting to request the paving of Hall Webb Road in Hahira, but the five-minute timer ran out on him. Bennett said a time limit can be necessary to keep proceedings going but speaking while a timer counts down can lead to an uncomfortable atmosphere.

Though Bennett said he was able to meet with commissioners later to further discuss his issue, he doesn't see a problem with making an exception with time occasionally.

According to Lowndes County Clerk Paige Dukes, a resident who needs work done by the county commission would likely get the most out of their time by meeting with a county commissioner, chairman or other county staff during regular business hours rather than attending a county commission meeting and speaking. Dukes said Citizens to be Heard is a forum that best suits residents wanting to inform the commission and public about upcoming events and such, and the media typically being present at meetings is a benefit for those residents.

The complete opposite of Lowndes County is the Suwannee County, Fla., Board of County Commissioner meetings.

The meetings have no sign-in sheet, but there is a form for people to fill out with their name, address and topic. The form is not required to speak. Residents can speak for three minutes on each agenda item. This time limit is not enforced and rarely used. Whether or not the three-minute time limit is enforced is up to the board chairman. Ricky Gamble, chairman, said he only uses the time limit if there is a crowd of people.

Instead of having the public comments at the beginning or the end of the meeting, Suwannee County has time reserved after each agenda item to hear from the public.

Commissioners opted to let everyone speak on every item before the final vote. At the end of the meeting, there is a public concern or comment section for residents to address additional concerns. Residents have the opportunity to inform the board of other matters.

“We talked about doing it at the beginning of the meeting,” Gamble said. “But to have 20 items on an agenda and have everyone come speak on individual items and not let them have any say during the meeting just seemed too impersonal.”

Gamble said elected officials have an obligation to answer the people's questions. He said the people are his boss.

“When the boss has some questions for you, you answer,” Gamble said.

Live Oak City Council is informal when it comes to public comments. There is a sign-in sheet and a form for residents to complete, if they wish. Ron Williams, city manager, said the city clerk provides people with the option, but there is no requirement.

The public comments section is put at the end of the agenda, but public comment is granted on any item.

“It is really up to the chairman to decide,” Williams said.

How long people are allowed to talk during a Dalton City Council meeting depends on how many people want to talk and the nature of the topic. Council wants to give everyone a chance to speak, Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock said.

But it also wants to make sure people who do speak have a chance to make their points or ask their questions. If there aren't a lot of people and the conversation is staying on point, it will continue.

Public comments generally result in a conversation, not only between the speakers and the council, but among council members and between the council and city department heads, who attend the meetings and may be asked for information.

“It's important that if we can answer a question there, that we do it,” Mock said. “And if there's a problem or concern, we want to ask questions to make sure we really understand the issue. The people speaking to us are residents of the city. We work for them.”

If the issue can't be resolved at the meeting, a city staff member will typically get the speaker's contact information for follow-up. Speakers can contact the mayor's office and ask to be put on the agenda for a council meeting.

For the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners meetings, speakers are limited to five minutes and are asked to state their names. Otherwise, public comments can be pretty freewheeling, and while they rarely last two hours, they can last awhile and some speakers get a second chance to speak after everyone else has had a turn.

“If someone takes the time to come out and speak, I feel that if we can answer their questions or concerns, we should,” Chairman Lynn Laughter said. “And if we can't answer their questions, we want to get enough information from them to make sure we really understand the problem, so we can get with our administrator or department heads and see what we can do to help them.”

The Colquitt County School Board provides a sign-in sheet for people wishing to make a public comment. Board policy calls for the chairman to call on audience members in the order they have signed in. Speakers are allotted five minutes.

Items concerning school personnel, board members and others that Georgia law allows to be discussed in closed session may be taken to that venue, and the board may require a written request in advance.

The board, which sets policy, said it also respects the chain of command in dealing with some issues.

A parent who has an issue with a teacher would be asked to first take up the matter with the teacher, then the principal and superintendent before bringing it before the board.

The policy also allows the board to call for the removal of audience members who launch personal attacks in meetings or are otherwise unruly. The board typically does not respond to comments but there is no rule or policy stating board members cannot comment.

For the Tift County Board of Education to hear from residents and also conduct its business in an orderly and efficient manner, it schedules five minutes per meeting for brief public comments.

To make formal presentations before the board, residents are encouraged to make arrangements with the superintendent in advance. Potential speakers are asked to provide the superintendent with a written statement, their name, address and subject of their remarks. The board typically does not respond to comments, but there is no rule or policy stating they cannot.

Comments are limited to three minutes at Thomas County Commission meetings. There is no sign-in sheet for people wanting to make public comments at meetings. Residents addressing the board is a common occurrence at some meetings, particularly if a controversial subject is before the panel.

Ken Hickey, Thomas County Commission chairman, said rules are necessary to give everyone wanting to speak an equal amount of time. He said people have a right to speak but repetition consumes time.

"We ask people not to be repetitive and to stay within three minutes," Hickey said. "They have a right to be there and a right to be heard."

There is no sign-in sheet for people wanting to make public comments at the Thomas County Board of Education. Unless an extension is granted, a speaker is limited to two minutes. It is rare for a member of the public to speak at a school board meeting. It is more common for individuals to speak at tax hearings conducted by the board.

Thomasville residents who want to make public comments at the Thomasville City Board of Education meetings are requested to submit a written or electronic request to the superintendent's office no later than 10 a.m. on the Thursday prior to the Tuesday board meeting.

Speakers have three minutes to talk. Public comments are also allowed in public committee meetings and in regularly scheduled board meetings.

There is no sign-in sheet for the Thomasville City Council but residents are required to state their name and address for the record.

There is no set time limit as to how long a resident has to address the council. At meetings in which there are a large number of residents who desire to be heard, the mayor can limit the time of residents speaking to afford enough time to hear all of the residents present who desire to address the council.

Public commenting is a regular part of council meetings, and elected officials typically respond to comments to acknowledge residents and their concerns. Residents are typically permitted to address the council at all meetings, not only regular meetings and workshop meetings.

Speaking Restrictions 

The public comments policies of the Dalton Board of Education and the Whitfield County Board of Education aren't quite as freewheeling as other city and county meetings in the coverage area.

Board policy states matters concerning an individual school should be discussed first with the school principal. If the matter cannot be resolved at the school level, it should be brought to the superintendent. If a matter cannot be resolved with the superintendent, a person can ask to be placed on the board agenda.

If placed on the meeting agenda, any group must be represented by one individual as a spokesperson for the group as a whole. Presentations or comments should be limited to no more than 10 minutes unless other arrangements have been made with the superintendent to the contrary, the policy states.

Extemporaneous comments or presentations are limited to no more than three minutes; the board may extend the time limits. It instructs commenters to address the board as a body and not to a particular board member.

The board says items excluded from the Open Meetings Act will not be discussed including the pending purchase of real estate, matters involving attorney client privilege, matters involving individual students and matters involving personnel or employees. The policy says personal complaints regarding school system personnel will be received in executive session only and must be in writing. 

The board does not allow abusive language, threats, jeers or slanderous comments. Disruptive persons will be asked to leave the meeting room.

The board says it will consider all information presented in public meetings and will provide a written response within 10 working days, if requested by the speaker. This does not preclude the board from responding during the public meeting.

Judy Gilreath, superintendent, said in practice, the policy isn't quite so complicated.

“People show up and speak,” she said. “We've never denied anyone a chance to speak.”

Tift County Board of Education restricts comments to topics concerning the board's conduct of the schools. Comments at special meetings can only deal with the call of the meeting.

The board will not hear personal complaints against any person connected with the school system. Other channels allow the public opportunities to lodge personal complaints.

People who speak are limited to a maximum of five minutes. Groups must designate a spokesperson. Each speaker will state his or her name, address and the subject.

If representing a group, the speaker will state the group's name. The public comments portion of regular or special meeting is limited to 30 minutes. The board chairman is responsible for calling on all speakers who are required to properly identify themselves.

There are no restrictions on comment content at Thomas County Commission meetings.

The Thomas County Board of Education will not hear personal complaints about school personnel nor against any person connected with the school system.

Issues involving specific students are difficult to address in a public meeting without violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, school officials said. The board will not address issues pertaining to a particular student in open session.

Disciplinary appeals are heard in closed session, and parents may address the board in closed session if they are appealing a disciplinary decision of a tribunal or the superintendent's ruling on a tribunal appeal.

There are generally no restrictions on public comments at Thomasville City Council meetings.

After approval of the prior meeting's minutes, time is allotted for residents to address the council about items that are not on the agenda. The period is noted as Citizens to be Heard on the agenda. Comments and concerns from residents concerning agenda items are required to be addressed to the council when the item is taken up during the meeting.

The Valdosta and Lowndes County boards of education have a limit on the amount of residents allowed to speak on issues.

Valdosta Board of Education allows two individuals to speak on each side of an issue and Lowndes County Board of Education allows three to speak for each side, according to the public participation policies of each entity.

Personnel grievances, personal attacks and obscenity are not allowed at Lowndes County Commission meetings, Valdosta City Council meetings, Valdosta Board of Education meetings or at Lowndes County Board of Education meetings.

William "Todd" Cason, Valdosta superintendent of schools, said personnel matters are not discussed to prevent confidential information about an employee from being discussed in public.

“We encourage citizens who have concerns with school employees to meet with the superintendent to file a grievance,” Cason said.

Public comments for the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioner meetings are not restricted in any way. Anyone can address the commissioners on any topic they wish. The commissioners may not be able to comment on every topic, depending on legal restrictions, however. The same is true of the Live Oak City Council.

Place on Meeting Agendas

In Moultrie, the council gives its ear to residents who want to vent in that public venue after its agenda items are completed. There is no official policy in the city's code but it is a regular part of the meetings.

"My policy is, if somebody wants to say something, they should get up and say it," said Mayor Bill McIntosh, who is in his 34th year in the position. "My thinking is, if somebody is interested enough to come to the meeting, we should listen to them."

Meetings generally are not well-attended by the public, and several meetings can pass without someone taking the opportunity unless there is a hot-button issue under consideration. Nevertheless, several people a month usually do ask to be heard, McIntosh said.

For instance, after a recent change in garbage collection from in-ground containers to roll-out cans, one customer on a street corner was somehow neglected. The customer brought it to the council's attention and it was solved quickly.

"They had a real issue," McIntosh said. "We looked at it and took care of it. We try to give an answer to everybody that comes up there."

Other frequent topics brought before the council include holes in the roadway, a situation with a junky, vacant property in the neighborhood and the frequent questions about utility rates.

Thomasville City Council meetings have time allotted for residents to address the council about items not on the agenda. It affords residents a block of time separate from agenda-related items.

The procedure seeks to ensure adequate time for residents to address the council concerning agenda and non-agenda issues and matters, city leaders said. 

The time allotted for residents to be heard by the council concerning non-agenda items is at the beginning of the agenda, immediately after approval of the minutes of the prior meeting and before any old business or new business is taken up by the council.

Placing this time period at the beginning of the agenda allows the council to first focus on and address non-agenda items, then move to old business and new business.

A Thomasville resident who frequently attends Thomasville City Council meetings and addresses council members said her efforts have not always succeeded.

"I think it has not gotten us anywhere. We haven't gotten any answers," said Pam Wright, a Thomasville realtor, who has approached council members several times about proposed West Jackson Street projects.

Of public officials she said, "They listen. They may not want to hear it, but they hear it."

David Hufstetler, a Thomasville businessman, said elected officials will see and hear from him "when something defies common sense."

In reference to the West Jackson issue, Hufstetler said some information about proposed projects is not made available to the public — or to the City Council.

Hufstetler has attended two Thomasville Planning and Zoning Commission meetings in the past two months. He said it is made clear at the beginning of the meeting the public would not be able to express complaints.

"There's something of an intimidating atmosphere," Hufstetler said, adding that the chairman "effectively cut off the most significant portions of the meeting."

He thinks elected officials listen, although they might not agree and urged citizens to show up at government meetings even if they do not speak.

"They know why you’re there," Hufstetler said.

The Milledgeville City Council has no set policy for public comments. There is no sign-in sheet, no time limit, no topic restriction, no set place on the agenda and elected officials respond to public comments.

Milledgeville City Clerk Bo Danuser said one of the purposes of the work sessions is to hear public comments. Council doesn’t generally hear comments at regular council meetings, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

“We just don’t have a formal open-end invitation to speak. Sometimes there will be no (official response), but each one is on an individual basis,” Danuser said. “If somebody has a complaint or something, (council) will definitely take it into consideration. We do public comments when somebody wants to address council, and we’ll schedule them to come speak to a work session.”

Dr. Bob Wilson III, local historic preservationist and frequent City Council attendee, said the public comment period largely depends on how many people attend. The council then asks for a straightforward comment without rambling and no personal attacks, Wilson said.

“I’ve had more than adequate time to state my case,” he said. “They’re very good about keeping it on point, and also not simply asking people to chime in but asking them their name and address and having them come up to the podium and say what they need to say.”

The Baldwin County Commission meetings have a little more structure to them. There is a sign-in sheet with a three-minute time limit. The agenda is placed at the end of the meeting with no restriction and officials do respond to comments.

Baldwin Board of Education has a sign-in sheet with a three-minute time limit and no more than 10 people can speak for longer than 30 minutes. There are no topic restrictions. The comments are placed at the end of the meeting, and officials respond to one question per resident per meeting. Baldwin Board of Education requires a five-day advance sign-up rule for posing questions at regular meetings.

Dalton City Council holds its public comments at the start of the meetings. During every regular meeting, shortly after the Pledge of Allegiance, Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock opens the floor for public comments, invites speakers to step up to one of the microphones in front of the council and asks them to say their names. And that's about all the structure there is to the council's public comments, but during the section anyone can get up to speak.

And while the Dalton City Council holds its public comments at the start of each meeting, the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners holds public comments at the end, after all of the agenda items have heard.

“It has been done that way since I've been on the commission,” said Chairman Lynn Laughter. “I don't know why, but I prefer it that way. We have business we have to take care of, an agenda to get through. If we did it at the beginning, and we had two hours of public discussion, that would keep us from getting through the agenda.”

Individuals can call and ask to be placed on the agenda but Laughter also opens the floor to anyone at the meeting who wants to speak.

The Dalton Board of Education stands out because it has two public comment periods at its regular meetings.

The first comes after student and faculty recognition and before the board takes up any action items. It is for people who want to comment on issues the board will be voting on that night. The second happens at the end of the meeting, after all votes have been taken, and is for general comments and questions.

“The logic is that as the board prepares to take action on an item, the public gets to comment, so it is fresh on the board's mind as they consider their vote,” said Jim Hawkins, who recently stepped down as superintendent after eight and a half years. “And then after the meeting, we return to public comments and people can talk about any subject they want.”

Rick Fromm, chairman of the Dalton Board of Education, said previously, when all public comments were at the start of the meeting, many of the questions were actually going to be dealt with later during information presentations. Moving general questions and comments to the end saves time by reducing questions on topics that are dealt with in the agenda.

Hawkins said the school system will also schedule special informational meetings on issues when it sees there is a strong public interest in which staff and board members will answer questions about the issues.

For the Whitfield County Board of Education meetings, public comments take place at the start of the meeting, generally just after recognition of student and staff achievement. Speakers also have to sign a sheet and leave their contact information.

“If someone wants to talk, they don't want to wait through our entire meeting,” said Judy Gilreath, superintendent.

For the Tift County Board of Commissioners, there is no formal procedure for public comments. The chairperson typically asks if there are any public comments at the beginning of the meeting.

The public comments portion of the Tift County Board of Education meeting is always at the beginning for convenience, city leaders said. 

At Thomas County Commission meetings, the resident comment portion of meetings is in the middle of the agenda, before new business. Residents can speak at all public meetings. Whether commissioners respond to comments depends on the content.

Public participation is placed at the beginning of the Thomas County Board of Education agenda, immediately after the devotion. Public comments are heard at the beginning of the meeting so board members may consider input on agenda topics.

Comments at the Thomasville City Board of Education meetings are listed at the beginning of the agenda to allow participants to leave before the regular business begins if they so choose.

Mayor John Gayle explained why public commenting is at the end of Valdosta City Council meetings.

“We cannot act on anything unless it’s on the agenda, and those Citizens to be Heard things have to be researched,” Gayle said. "If it’s something that we need to put on the agenda, then it has to come to the next meeting, and so that’s the main reason (for public commenting being at the end of the meeting).”

Gayle said city business and personnel who have already done research and are placed on the agenda deserve first priority.

He said council members will meet with the residents directly after the meeting if needed, similar to the Lowndes County Commission.

Gayle said the three-minute time limit during Citizens to be Heard was shortened from a five-minute time limit last year under his discretion, which is the reverse situation to that of the Lowndes County Commission time limit change.

“We’re not even required to have public comments at our council meetings but we do it,” Gayle said. “Most of the time three minutes is sufficient. I had gotten to notice that after about two minutes things began to wind down, and there was no need for us to have a five-minute time limit because the same things were said over and over again.”

Gayle said Valdosta City Council views Citizens to be Heard as important.

“There are occasions where Citizens to be Heard brings things to our attention that we weren’t aware of,” Gayle said.

For both county and city council meetings, there is no maximum amount of residents allowed to speak.

Regardless of the number of speakers, during Valdosta City Council public hearings, such as ones involving zoning changes, residents on both sides of an issue are given 15 minutes, Gayle said.

The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Thomas Lynn, Kimberly Cannon, Patti Dozier, Charles Oliver, Will Woolever, Alan Mauldin and Eve Guevara, along with team leader John Stephen.

To contact the team, email sunlightproject@gaflnews.com.

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